On the 16th of August 1819, over 60,000 Mancunians took to St. Peter’s Field to ask for political reform; the peaceful demonstration that ended in the bloodied conflict we now know as the ‘Peterloo Massacre.’ The radical speaker, a Mr Henry Hunt, was arrested for his involvement in the event and sentenced to 30 months imprisonment. It was here, in fine detail, he presented this new life in a diary.
Henry Hunt, a famous orator and politician, was a champion of the working classes who supported parliamentary reform. He and the Peterloo organisers particularly opposed dreaded ‘Corn Laws’ (laws placing harsh taxes on imported food and grain). The Manchester Free Trade Hall was built on St Peter’s Fields to commemorate the laws being repealed, the site where the Massacre took place.
Blog 3: August 1820 journal entries
Hunt talks of a lavish prison lifestyle, enjoying mutton and wine regularly. He has many visitors, and complains of being denied female visitors to his room. This forms the main body this part of his prison journal.
An entry on the 5th of August references a specific Address to the Queen. The events involving Queen Caroline of Brunswick and King George IV were described as a turning point in the reporting of royal affairs: a fractious marriage reported in extraordinary detail to people of all social classes. Hunt and Caroline were well acquainted, both being popular voices calling for reform.
In 1795, George married his cousin Caroline, a plainly disastrous marriage. George had little choice but to wed Caroline in fear his father would refuse him help with his rising debt problem. Both parties grew resentful of the marriage, separating after the birth of their first child (a year after they wed).
The now-King had begun collecting evidence of the Queen’s alleged adulterous acts in the years thereafter. Tensions reached boiling point in 1820, where he tried to pass his Pains and Penalties Bill. The bill’s only objective was to deprive Caroline of her royal title, with it’s discussion being played out as a trial in the Lords and Commons; the government being able to call witnesses to prove or disprove Caroline’s adultery. The bill was passed in the House of Lords but was withdrew days later after large public support in favour of Caroline. She died a year later, with Hunt attending to her in the latter stages of her life.
A speech such as this, from respected politician and lawyer Lord Erskine, being published in the news displays the extent of public exposure to the case. He evidently rejoiced in the rejection of this law.
Hunt mentions talking to Stephen Lushington, a lawyer and politician who spoke in defence of the Queen, being the backbone of the defence case. Hunt was undoubtedly a key player in the political landscape at the time, with Lushington being one of many high-profile people Hunt was visited by during his time in prison (Lushington visited on more than one occasion). Hunt reported in his diary how Lushington said “ministers were carrying … a high hand against the Queen and that they were determined to divorce her right or wrong.” Public pressure ensured she maintained a royal.
While in prison, Hunt wrote various political letters expressing his radical opposition to the current government. He wrote to the ‘Radical Reformers of Manchester,’ again referencing Caroline. He compares her bravery in fighting the constitution to that of Napoleon in the extract below (dated 24th August 1821). Here, he also talks about time spent serving “Her Majesty,” completing many “unpaid services” on her behalf.
The Queen was a fashionable voice of reform at the time, just as Hunt intended to be. He was outraged when informed he would not be invited to her funeral, considering his friendship with Caroline.
A finishing point of interest is a strong-worded attack on those responsible for the Peterloo massacre. It reads:
———Wednesday 16th August 1820———
I eat no meat on this day…
I sincerely pray that I may live to witness the condign punishment of every Scoundrel that was instrumental to or accessory… in the infamous, cruel, cowardly , unprovoked and premeditated assassinations, cuttings and murders of… men, women and children at Manchester on this day twelve months.
The original diary extract.
Hunt spoke with fury in reference to the incident that cost 18 people their lives, and him over two years behind bars for demanding reform to the political system. At the time, the Greater Manchester area had two MPs representing a population of 1 million (of which only male land owners could vote), while the Old Sarum borough in Wiltshire comically had 2 MPs for one voter. This and the Corn Laws were the driving forces behind the meeting of Peterloo.
Further blogs on this website expand on other points of interest contained in Hunt’s prison diary. He went on to serve as a Member of Parliament for Preston, maintaining his title as a ‘champion of the working classes.’
Archives+ volunteers will be writing more Peterloo Massacre blogs over the next month, covering the final section of the journal and additional related topics.
This journal has been transcribed by Tricia Neal for Archives+.
To view the original journal and full transcription for this section please see below.
Explore the brand new Peterloo website telling the story through 3D interactive images and timelines. Visit peterloo1819.co.uk to learn more.
The Unruly Queen: The life of Queen Caroline by Fraser Flora
“Rejection of the Bill of Pains and Penalties” newspaper extract used as image in this blog. This article on “The British Newspaper Archives,” an online archive of millions of newspaper pages. Unlimited access is available on Manchester Library computers (upon making an account).