Two hundred years ago this week, the Manchester Radicals, better known as the Blanketeers met at St Peter’s Fields with the intention of marching to London to petition the Prince Regent.
Each man had a blanket with hm to protect against the weather, hence their name.Their meeting was dispersed by the military and over two hundred people were arrested.About Manchester tells the story of the events that would ultimately lead to Peterloo two years later.
The spirit of a new radicalism had come to the growing town of Manchester in the 1790’s inspired by the writings of Thomas Paine and the French Revolution.
Where once political discussion had been confined to London coffee houses, now it was being taken up by the labouring classes.
The first Manchester Constitutional Societys was set up by Thomas Walker and they would hold a dinner to celebrate the second anniversary of the French Revolution.
Walker would write to Paine congratulating him on the publication of the second part of his rights of man and The Manchester Herald begins publication fro Market Place in March 1792 vowing to concentrate on serious issues.
The French wars put a dampener on radicalism, Walker’s House house was attacked by a patriotic mob and the offices of the Herald suffer the same fate. The mob returned four times, attempting to gain entry to Walker’s House, now the site of Parsonage Gardens , he was forced to fire musket shots to disperse them with the militia unwilling to defend his property.
Two years later Walker is charged with treason, but acquitted after the government’s chief witness turns up drunk. But with events across the channel more pressing the crackdown continues. Death sentences for illegal vows and draconian measures for publishing seditious content are amongst the government’s measures to crackdown on any form of dissent against the current political system.
But Manchester was continuing to grow in the face of the industrial revolution, and was having to deal with a system of national government that had not changed for hundreds of years, based on the old system of land and country seats.
Landowners influenced voting and could more or less decide who would be the MP. The industrial towns of the North had no representation and most people’s connection with the political system was tentative at most.
With Napoleon’s defeated and the New European order imposed, demilitarisation in Britain led to a slump and the new radical movement began to appear. The North for the first time became a centre for the new movement with working people.
The new centres for political discussion were setting up across Manchester and South Lancashire, inspired in part by the writings of William Cobbett, would also influence using a loophole in the press regulations addressing journeymen telling them of the taxes that are collected for the military, its servants and pensions-whilst the only true remedy he felt was reform of parliament.his writings were read throughout South Lancashire.
The Napoleonic wars had ended and a brief boom in the textile industry had been replaced by periods of economic depression where weavers who could have expected to earn fifteen shillings a week in 1803, saw their wages cut to five or less.
Whilst wages were being cut, prices were rising partly as a result of the Corn Laws, imposing a tariff on foreign grain in an effort to protect English grain producers.
In March 1817 John Johnson, John Bagguley and Samuel Drummond, three radicals in the town, decided to organise a protest march as a method of drawing attention to the problems of unemployed spinners and weavers in Lancashire.
They planed to take a petition to the Prince Regent and hoped to hold meetings and to gain the support of other textile workers on the March. It was believed that by the time they reached London there would be over 100,000 marchers willing to tell the royal family about the distress being caused by the growth of the factory system.
They rallied in St Peter’s Fields on the 10th March, where magistrates read the Riot Act and arrested Bagguley and Drummond.Neveretheless the March continued but it would soon end in disaster
Those that marched had made little or no arrangements beyond taking a blanket to sleep on, from which they were christened, the Blanketeers. Instead they would rely on the hospitality of the road, a fraternal community, almost a throwback to the Middle Ages.
They got no further than Macclesfield, the majority no further than the Mersey at Stockport, where some were turned back, as the government took fright others were either allowed to pass or waded across the river only to be arrested and herded into a yard in the marketplace.
Scuffles saw the death of an innocent bystander who was sabred across the head by a mounted soldier and died in agony after several days.
Over two hundred were arrested at Stockport but with the jails full, the authorities didn’t know what to do with them and simply sent them home.
The anger though would simply ferment in the North and eventually it would culminate in the events that would become known as Peterloo on an August day two year later.