Nick Mansfield on the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre

2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, when pro-democracy campaigners were violently dispersed by soldiers, with 18 dead and many hundreds injured. The name ‘Peterloo’ was adopted by critics of the attack, as a deliberate and ironic comparison with Wellington’s glorious victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This key event in British history has been commemorated with a huge programme of public history events in Manchester and the surrounding towns, from where the mainly working-class protestors started their march. A spectacular event took place in what was St Peter’s Fields on the anniversary date – 16th August – around Jeremy Dellar’s new Peterloo monument.

Peterloo event

Nick Mansfield speaking at the People’s History Museum

My new book, Soldiers as Citizens – Popular Politics and the Nineteenth Century British Military, was launched at the last event in the Peterloo programme held at the People’s History Museum on 28th September. Soldiers as Citizens covers the remarkable and surprising story of ‘military radicals’, soldiers or ex-soldiers who, despite the opposition of military authorities, were supporters of nineteenth century British radicalism.

Through the work of many modern historians we now know quite a lot about the key players in Peterloo; the radical leaders, the crowd, the magistrates, the constables and even the part time mounted yeomanry who inflicted most of the casualties . But the thoughts and values of the regular rank and file soldiers on duty that day – the 15th Hussars, the 31st and 88th Foot and the Royal Horse Artillery – are very difficult to uncover. Yet they were working class, one of Britain’s biggest occupational groups, and their varied employment and resulting class conflict are detailed in my earlier companion volume in LUP’s Studies in Labour History series, Soldiers as Workers – Class, conflict and the nineteenth century (2016). For several decades I’ve been attempting to uncover these stories using memoirs, newspapers, letters and regimental archives and the subsequent careers and actions of discharged soldiers as part of reform movements through the nineteenth century. Together these two volumes form a unique labour history of these understudied workers.

Peterloo event

Nick Mansfield speaking at the anniversary event.

Soldiers as Citizens looks at mainstream politics and the British army and how early nineteenth radicals viewed the military. It outlines the role of soldiers and ex-soldiers in protest movements, subversion and even attempted insurrection, and provides biographies of several hundred of these military radicals, including some officers. It also uncovers those military radicals who escaped government persecution after Peterloo by pursuing their old trade in the service of liberation movements in Latin America, and later in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy.

The book also talks about those soldiers who were loyal to monarch, nation and regiment and especially those who through service in the Empire supported the growing popular imperialism of the later nineteenth century. It explores how soldiers interacted with the arrival of mass democracy with successive Parliamentary reform acts and how, from the 1880s, some rank and file soldiers embraced socialism.

Peterloo event 3

Pop up book stall at the People’s History Museum, featuring Soldiers as Citizens.

To conclude with a taster of the book, I’ll return to Peterloo and outline the involvement of military radicals. Many of the major British radical leaders in 1819 were ex-servicemen; Major John Cartwright, late of the Nottinghamshire Militia, kept the radical flame alive during wartime persecution and was the ‘grand old man’ of the movement. William Cobbett, brilliant popular journalist and later an MP, had been a Regimental Sergeant Major in the 54th Foot.  Admiral Thomas Cochrane was a superb naval commander turned radical MP, who then went on to lead fleets for liberation movements in South America and Greece. Henry Hunt the great orator due to speak at Peterloo, before the cavalry moved in, had been a part time yeomanry volunteer in Wiltshire.

Key Manchester radicals who had also seen military service include memoirist Samuel Bamford – ex paid local militiaman, George Swift a young shoemaker, and William Benbow, another shoemaker turned publisher, who had been in the Peninsular War. The crowd marched to St Peter’s Field instructed by dozens of former soldiers who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars. These drill masters included Thomas Haigh of Oldham, formerly of the elite 95th Rifles, and James Brierly of Middleton, ex-artilleryman, who served in both the epic battles of Leipzig and Waterloo. Later Brierly became a Chartist, and fathered Ben who became a celebrated dialect poet. The most remarkable drill master was Miles Ashworth, flannel weaver turned Royal Marine, who in his last voyage before demobilisation, had been part of the escort taking Napoleon to exile on St Helena in 1815. A life-long radical and co-operator, Ashworth was one of the original Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, the founders of modern co-operation and a smallholder in a Chartist Land Company settlement in Oxfordshire 1848.

As we know, largely from the evidence of government spies, thousands of the Peterloo crowd were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars and bore a deep grudge against their treatment by an ungrateful government. One ex-serviceman William Fitton was reported by a spy at a meeting before the event declaiming:

You are called the Mob, the scum of the People, the swinish Multitude &c. &c. This was not the case when you were called upon to fight … you were then called British Heroes – brave Lads – the finest Fellows in the World. The Courier Newspaper then told you that these fine lads had gained something more for us, that if we could conquer this Buonaparte, everything would be right, that we should then have Peace & Plenty. Is it the case? No, our Families are starving.

One of these dissatisfied marchers was cotton spinner John Lees, of Oldham who aged eighteen had served at Waterloo as a driver in the artillery. He was mortally wounded, at Peterloo possibly struck down by one of the 15th Hussars, who had been his comrades in arms in 1815. Lees took three weeks to die and was recorded as saying ‘he was never in such danger at Waterloo, as he was at the meeting, for at Waterloo it was man to man but in Manchester it was downright murder’.

Peterloo event 4

Choir Gladly Solemn Sound performing at the event.

Military radicals were also part of the protests after Peterloo. Radical MP General Ronald Ferguson, voted against the government’s repressive measures. Colonel George Williams, a Liverpool Justice of the Peace visited Peterloo prisoners, bringing radical newspapers into gaol. Even in remote rural Devon, John Jenkins, another discharged Royal Marine, toured villages giving narrative shows with a print of Peterloo and a magnifying glass, until his arrest and imprisonment for vagrancy and sedition.

The launch was very successful with nearly a hundred participants and a musical entertainment from the choir Gladly Solemn Sound, who sang radical songs of the period including several composed by Samuel Bamford. The organisers are very grateful to supporters LUP, UCLan and the People’s History Museum.

For more information on Soldiers as Citizens, please visit our website.

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