Trade, Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League in 19th Century Manchester
Anti-Corn Law League
Due to fierce competition
from cheap imported foreign corn in the early 19th century, wealthy
and influential gentlemen farmers had lobbied the ruling parliamentary
party, the Tories, to prohibit their import by the imposition of Corn
Laws in 1815. With this monopoly in place, British corn rose to prohibitive
prices, making it impossible for the poor to buy bread.
The Corn Laws
were seen by ordinary people as a symbol of the dominant ruling aristocracy's
feudal power over them, and of the suppliers' unashamed self interest,
at the cost of their staple food. Protests by Lancashire millworkers
at the imposition of such severe measures soon grew.
to Right: The Free Trade Hall, now Edwardian Hotel; Richard
Cobden & John Bright; a contemporary illustration of the Peterloo
In September 1838,
mill owners and local politicians joined protesters in the formation
of an Anti-Corn Law League, at the York Hotel in King Street, Manchester,
with George Wilson as its chairman. Support grew so fast that a temporary
wooden hall was built in St Peters Street to hold protest meetings -
it became known as the Free Trade Hall. Later a stone building replaced
this original wooden one. Two major figures emerged as leaders of the
Anti-Corn Law movement, Richard
Cobden, a Bolton calico manufacturer, and
John Bright, a Rochdale
mill-owner and a Quaker.
Cobden and Bright, both persuasive orators with powerful local backing,
Prentice, radical editor of the Manchester Times newspaper), succeeded
in getting elected to parliament, (Cobden - MP for Stockport in 1841)
where they constantly lobbied and harassed the Prime Minister, Sir Robert
Peel (born in Bury).
Peel, under severe pressure from the League and its growing band of
ever more powerful supporters, repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, thereby
splitting the Tory party, and effectively ending his own political career
in the process. Manchester would, henceforth be associated with the
principle of Free Trade. The Free Trade Hall, the third and now a fine
permanent stone building, was built later as a monument to honour the
Reform Movement - Radicals & Chartists
By the early 19th
century, despite its massive growth, Manchester had no real political
representation - most parliamentary places were held by local gentry
in surrounding suburbs, who had little or no political interest. Many
of these 'constituencies' comprised no more than a half dozen houses.
The vast majority of Manchester people had no voice, and were not represented
in parliament. Many educated businessmen of the region thought it high
time that the political system should be reformed so as to be more representative
of the contemporary demography - most constituencies and boundaries
had been drawn over 400 years earlier, and bore little resemblance to
actual population distribution at the time.
Movement had begun as early as 1790, when the Manchester Constitutional
Society had been formed, under the leadership of Thomas Walker. This
"radical" movement was deeply suspected and opposed by local churchmen
and magistrates, largely conservative in their attitudes, and in privileged
positions, who were generally satisfied with the way things were.
A public reform
meeting was called, to be held on Monday 16th August 1819 in St Peters
Fields (now St Peters Street), as there was no building thought big
enough to hold the anticipated crowd. Henry
Hunt, a national reform leader, and noted orator who had spoken
elsewhere that year, was to address the crowd. Estimates put the crowd
at variously 30,000 and 150,000 people - in any case, we can be certain
that there were more people present than Manchester had ever seen in
one place before. Disturbed such large crowds, magistrates called in
local militia to stand ready.
Plaque on the former
Free Trade Hall marking the site of the Peterloo Massacre. Photo copyright
© 2010 Gloria Moss
Some 1500 troops
assembled, comprising the 15th Hussars (professional soldiers) and soldiers
of the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomen Cavalry (a largely volunteer force),
commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Guy L'Estrange. Magistrates, fearing
insurrection and riots, ordered Hunt and other leaders to be arrested
before they could speak, though the meeting had been thus-far peaceful
and orderly. Inadvertently a mounted solder brushed and knocked down
a mother, killing the child she was carrying, and panic ensued.
and the troop commander, misread what appeared to be a riotous outbreak,
and ordered Yeomanry, who were standing ready just off Portland Street,
to go in to break up the affray.
cavalry, sabres drawn, charged the crowd, cutting people down indiscriminately.
Men, women and children were hacked down or trampled by horses or people
in flight. After ten minutes of havoc and slaughter, the field was deserted
except for the broken hustings platform, bodies of the dead, wounded
and dying. A soldier of the Yeomanry company, who had fought at Waterloo
in 1815, likened the carnage to that battlefield, and the term "Peterloo"
took hold, and survives as an historic event even today.
of the massacre spread across Britain, local authorities clamped down
on all public meetings, in breech of all laws to the contrary, and took
severe measures to ensure public order. It had been arguably the most
important day in Manchester's political history. Rumours spread that
the attack had been planned and may possibly have been ordered, well
in advance of the event, by the government in London.
few broken and hewed flag-staves, and a torn and gashed banner or two
whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls
and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn and bloody..."
Bamford, Peterloo eyewitness.
Fears of the recent
French Revolution permeated British political awareness to such an extent,
that the authorities were paranoiac in case ordinary people followed
the French example - local authorities had been ordered to stamp out
any risk at source and summarily. Another viewpoint blames bystanders
throwing stones provocatively at the troops.
the causes of the Massacre continue. Meanwhile, Hunt and the other Peterloo
leaders had been incarcerated in Lancaster Castle prison. Thousands
of supporters lined the streets when, after being released on bail,
Hunt made the return trip to Manchester. Hunt had always insisted on
peaceful and legal means to achieve political change, despite being
urged to armed protest by many of his supporters.
Massacre successfully stifled Manchester's bid for reform for a decade.
Stinging from the attack for many years to come, political meetings
henceforth moved into the surrounding towns of Oldham, Stockport and
Blackburn, where the predominance of millworkers saw many eager to join
the movement, and though somewhat muted for a time, the movement gradually
grew - most popular amongst the unenfranchised working people of Northern
It was not to be
until the 1830s and '40s that parliamentary reform could be fully resurrected
in Manchester. The Chartist Movement, begun in London, but taken up
eagerly and pioneered in Manchester, was also a growing force.
wanted universal suffrage for all men, secret ballots and annual elections.
Political reform was in the air and the people of Manchester and the
numerous spinning and weaving towns surrounding it, were at the vanguard
of the movement.
meeting was held at Kersal Moor in September 1838, despite the Peterloo
Massacre, and a second at the same site in May 1839. Another was held
at the Griffin Inn in Great Ancoats Street in July 1840, and 6 other
meetings in Lancashire in 1841.
Movement dominated British politics in the 1840s, and Manchester had
been the flashpoint for the chain reaction which it caused, and for
the eventual political reforms which were brought about through the
constant efforts of its supporters.
Bibliography - Books about Manchester