Manchester, Chartism & Free Trade


Victorian Manchester

Free Trade, Chartism and the Anti-Corn Law League in 19th Century Manchester

The 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.

Free Trade Hall, Manchester Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League John Bright and the Anti Corn Law League Peterloo Massacre, Manchester
Left to Right: The Free Trade Hall, now Edwardian Hotel;Richard Cobden & John Bright; a contemporary illustration of the Peterloo Massacre .

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, (including Archibald 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Peel, under severe pressure from the League and its growing band of ever more powerful supporters, repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, thereby splitting the Tory party, and effectively ending his own political career in the process.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 Manchester movement.

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.
The Reform 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.

The Peterloo Massacre

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.

Red plaque to the Peterloo Massacre
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.
Magistrates, 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.
The armed 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.
After news 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.

"...a few broken and hewed flag-staves, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping...
whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls and shoes,
and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn and bloody..."

Samuel 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.
Debates on 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.
The Peterloo 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 England.
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.
Chartists 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.
A Chartist 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.
The Chartist 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.

Sources: See Bibliography - Books about Manchester

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This page last updated 15 Nov 11.