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Peterloo: Samuel Bamford's Petition

17 April 2019

This month, Dr Katie Carpenter looks at petitions and the Peterloo Massacre.

2019 marks the 200-year anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. On 16 August 1819, a crowd of c. 60,000 men, women and children gathered on St Peter's Field, Manchester, to petition for parliamentary reform. Under the instructions of the local magistrates, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry charged into the crowd. 18 people lost their lives in the ensuing violence and panic, and hundreds more were injured. The tragedy was subsequently named the ‘Peterloo' massacre, a parody of the 1815 victory at the Battle of Waterloo.

Over a hundred petitions were presented to both Houses, offering their account of the day's events, detailing their injuries and requesting an official inquiry into the conduct of the police, the military and the civil authorities. At least 100 of these petitions were presented to the House of Commons. However, the original Commons petitions are now lost, having perished in the 1834 fire at Parliament. Since it was presented to the Lords, Samuel Bamford's original petition is one of few that has survived (HL/PO/JO/10/8/496). This petition was presented to the Lords on the 29th November 1819. Hansard records that an almost identical petition was presented to the Commons the next day.

Bamford was a working-class radical reformer who had led a group of people from Middleton to St Peter's Field on 16 August 1819. Although there is no evidence he participated in any violence, he was arrested ten days later for High Treason, found guilty of inciting a riot and sentenced to prison for one year. In his petition, Bamford asks for his version of events to be heard at the Bar of the House.

Bamford describes that it was the belief of himself and his neighbours that the meeting was entirely legal; that they were ‘amply protected by the laws in exercising all those rights of a Freeman which the constitution has conferred upon him'. He noted that it was not his, nor his neighbour's intention, to do anything other than peacefully campaign for parliamentary reform and less taxation. Indeed, he noted that the harmless intentions of the participants were clear by their ‘indubitable pledge of their sincerity and sense of security, by taking in their company their wives and female relatives'.

The flags held by participants at the meeting were suggested to have been unconstitutional and threatening. On the same day Bamford's petition was presented to the Commons, Arthur Onslow, MP for Guildford, had argued the meeting was illegal, stating that ‘The demand for "annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and, vote by ballot," inscribed on one of the flags, was utterly unconstitutional.' He claimed another had said ‘Liberty or Death'.

However, according to Bamford, these flags were ‘to enable the said parties to move with due decorum'. The presence of flags at peaceful processions were ‘in accordance with the manners and customs of the people of England from time immemorial'. The band of music that accompanied the processions was intended ‘to confer cheerfulness and hilarity on the people'.

Bamford also depicts the yeomanry's charge into the crowd. He described the crowd as ‘suddenly assaulted by a charge of the Manchester yeomanry cavalry who sabred, rode down, and trampled upon every individual who could not escape them, by which, as your petitioner believes, several hundred unoffending persons were severely wounded and some killed on the spot'. As the crowd sought to escape, ‘from this continued, persevering, and unrelenting outrage they were driven one upon another so as in some cases to press each other to death, break the limbs of others and occasion many to be trampled upon'.

Bamford was likely the first person to petition parliament asking for an inquiry into Peterloo. According to his autobiography, the attention that was excited in the London press by his two petitions led to other's doing the same. The Committee of the Manchester Relief Fund, which was set up to provide the relief for the injured and the families of the dead, arranged for other injured parties to petition. In 1819, at least 15 petitions were presented to the House of Commons from persons present at the massacre and a further 71 in May 1821.

Alas, the petitions presented to Parliament had little effect on the government's immediate actions after Peterloo. In the months directly after, Lord Liverpool's government instigated a repressive crackdown on mass meetings, based on an intense paranoia that Britain was facing the threat of a revolution similar to that of France. There was never a parliamentary inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre, but petitions asking for one continued until at least 1832.

Dr Katie Carpenter is a research fellow in the Parliamentary Archives. The exhibition 'Parliament & Peterloo' opens 4 July 2019 in Westminster Hall. A free Massive Online Open Course, 'Peterloo to the Pankhursts:  Radicalism and Reform in the Nineteenth Century', produced by the Citizens Project in partnership with the Parliamentary Archives, launches on 12 August 2019.

Find out more about the Parliamentary Archives' upcoming 'Parliament & Peterloo' exhibition here: https://www.parliament.uk/visiting/visiting-parliament-news/peterloo2019-exhibition/

Find out more about the 'Citizens: 800 years in the making' Twitter account, which explores the history of liberty, protest, rebellion and reform here: https://twitter.com/Citizens800