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Stockport and and the Peterloo massacre  1819 – 2019


The tensions that occurred throughout the 18th and 19th remain issues in Stockport today. Stockport is an area of wealth with pockets and areas of poverty – a town where rich and poor co-exist. Today in Stockport while the homeless sleep on the “beach” under Merseyway, a mile away “four-by-fours” disembark pupils at the town’s private grammar school.

Stockport is renowned throughout the entire district as one of the duskiest, smokiest holes, and looks indeed, especially when viewed from the viaduct, excessively repellent. But far more repulsive are the cottages and cellar dwellings of the working class, which stretch in long rows through all parts of the town from the valley bottom to the crest of the hill. I do not remember to have seen so many cellars used as dwellings in any other town of this district. ” Frederick Engels, 1845

At the time of Peterloo, Stockport was established as a manufacturing town with as many factories as Manchester. Throughout the 18th century the process of industrialisation had gathered pace as capitalism sought to profit from the fabric trade. As towns expanded and workers relied on wages the ebb and flow of trade led to periods of extreme poverty. The 18th century saw a rise in protests so to control the situation in 1714 the Riot Act was enacted. A series of revolts and riots erupted particularly during 1760s. 1780 saw the Gordon Riots and at the turn of the 19th century rioting broke out in Stockport because of food shortages.

In the run up to Peterloo, Stockport’s main products were silk, cotton and hats, with a reliance on out-workers (handloom weavers contracted to the mills,  producing semi-finished work on looms in their own homes). Technological changes resulted in handloom weavers losing livelihoods disappear, leading to the Luddite movement.

In 1812 Luddites attacked factories and the property of the wealthy which had worse consequences than the Reform movement with 17 Luddites executed in York.

Early 19 century life expectancy for a worker in England was 17 years whereas for a professional it was 38 years. The abject poverty of workers in Stockport drove them to “visit” the homes of the wealthy, something happening all around the northwest!

In Stockport workers were driven to armed robbery and strikes continued to be a tool in the armoury of the working classes. Industrial unrest became part of the lives of workers which started to evolve into political demands which were present in the Gordon Riots but in Stockport and in the 1790s locals started to call for the right to vote, developing in to the Reform movement. Prior to 1832 only property-owning men people could vote. Reform Act of 1832 saw Stockport’s first MPs.

Stockport’s working class began to find its feet, thus its property owning classes created a Volunteer Force in 1794, to break up strikes and demonstrations which was disbanded in 1808 and replaced by a militia, and a Yeomanry was formed in 1810. As an amateur cavalry with each member supplying their own horse thus members would have been at least lower middle class, from 1818 regular troops were stationed in the town.

At the same time, John Lloyd a lawyer was the clerk to Stockport magistrates and a diligent servant of the ruling class, hiring spies to report on activities of the working class and also a member of the Stockport Yeomanry and militia. In 1816 Lloyd secretly organised a force of special constables armed with pistols, shot and powder to confront striking hand loom weavers.

Stockport saw food riots between 1795 to 1812. In 1799 there was a riot in Stockport due to escalating corn prices that affected the price of bread. In this instance the target was the local merchant Bradford Norbury – a corn factory. By 1812 food welfare policies had to be set up in the town but this didn’t stop a riot, which resulted in four workers being transported to Australia.

The growing ferment in Stockport was reflected in the other northwest towns, but Stockport had its own characteristics. The closeness of the two antagonistic classes, the working class and the bourgeoisie, created a crucible for the conflict to be played out.

Workers’ wages were cuts in 1816 and 1817 although trade rose in 1818, which was to see a major conflagration once again. Wage cuts had created a strike but the factory owners had started to bring in scab labour. On the 15th July 1818 striking workers outside the Garside factory fought a pitched battle against the police and the Stockport Yeomanry. The following day, reinforced by the Manchester Yeomanry, the fight continued resulting in the death of a worker.

Alongside the industrial unrest there was the added ingredient of the Reform movement. As early as October 1818 there was the creation of the Union for the Promotion of Human Happiness. This bizarrely named group was influenced by the ideas of Thomas Paine, but its main aim was to give the vote to working men. Meeting weekly at the Windmill Rooms (until recently was the site occupied of Hollingdrakes.) The following year the Stockport Female Society was formed.

The reform movement was largely middle class however, they realised that the only force that could move the ruling class was the working class. Workers joined the Reform movement and channelled workers’ anger at poor wages, bad living conditions and the lack of job security.

Henry Hunt, a wealthy farmer from the South West and well known spokesman for the Reformers arrived in Stockport in January 1819 to stay with Joseph Johnson, a Stockport brush-maker. Hunt addressed a crowd in Stockport on the 17th January and in front of 10,000 workers accused the government of “murder for hanging workers, referring to earlier the executions of luddites. At this meeting the “Cap of Liberty” was again displayed.

In February 1819 he held another meeting when at least 2,000 attended but an attempt to break it up was made by Stockports’ Yeomanry and special constables directed by Lloyd. On 19th April 1818 another mass meeting was attacked by Special Constables who were stoned by the crowd, resulting in the jailing of three workers.

Things came to a head at a Reform meeting, once again at Sandy Brow, but this time with 20,000 in attendance. The Cap of Liberty, which represents the French Revolution, was on show. Again the Yeomanry and Special Constables attacked the crowd but in reaction a weaver shot a special constable. Afterwards Lloyd ensured that the weaver was hung.

Both Manchester and Stockport had a meeting place where vast crowds of workers gathered, Sandy Brow in Stockport and Peters Field in Manchester. The towns were almost twins, they had a similar number of factories, as did Bolton to the north.

However, in Manchester there was also a development, which supersedes what was happening in Stockport, there was the growth of working class leaders. Just like the bourgeoisie had John Lloyd in Stockport, in Manchester the workers had John Bagguley. He proclaimed that he was a “Reformer, Republican and Leveller”.

Here was a man who appeared on the scene as a fresh faced 17 year old. The one thing that set him apart from the vast bulk of other weavers was that he could read. Most workers were illiterate – there were not even Sunday schools, but Bagguley’s parents could both read and therefore so could John.

Very soon he was speaking to vast crowds throughout the Manchester area. Later Bagguley moved to Stockport and opened a school teaching workers to read in the evenings.

Bagguley organised a march to parliament to present the MPs with a petition for one man one vote and annual parliaments. This march became known as the “Blanketeers March”. All people had to do was turn up with a blanket and they tried to marched 10 abreast all the way to London. Each marcher carried a copy of a signed petition. The march was arranged to start from St Peters Fields on Monday 10th March 1817. By 11.00 a.m. there was a crowd of 60,000, money was collected and the marchers set off.

Local magistrates unsuccessfully attempted to disrupt the start of the march. To stop the marchers at Stockport, John Lloyd organised Stockport Yeomanry waiting at the bridge. The march was disrupted and 163 marchers were arrested. In the melee the Yeomanry sabred to death one of the marchers and many others were injured by swords and trampling by horses. Some managed to get through but another 180 were arrested at Macclesfield. Others reached Derbyshire but were arrested on conspiracy charges. Eventually one man, Arthur Cauldwell, made it to London and handed over the petition. The Blanketeers March resulted in several hundred workers being jailed.

There was unprecedented repression against the working class during this time. Habeas Corpus was suspended, and the Combination Acts were used to suppress the trade unions and stop meetings.

The state used a network of spies and agent provocateurs, and eventually jailed all working class leaders in the run up to the planned reform meeting that was due to be held at St Peters Field on 9 August 1819. The main speaker was to be Henry Hunt.

There would only be the middle-class radicals on the platform. The meeting was eventually delayed by a week and finally took place on Monday 16th August 1819.

The imprisonment of the workers’ leaders such as Bagguley gave Henry Hunt an opportunity to become the leader of the movement. Some accused Hunt of being an opportunist, however he became a lightening rod for the movement, for which he served two years in jail in the aftermath of Peterloo.

Peterloo, a class rising

As time ticked towards the events on St Peters Field on 16th August, similar meetings took place around the country with 60,000 workers attending a meeting in Birmingham and 150,000 attending one in London.

What needs to be said is that the government was worried about the unrest especially in the north.

1,500 marchers went to Peterloo from Stockport. Crowds of workers converged on St Peter’s Field from all the surrounding towns. As the masses arrived at St Peter’s Field a crowd of 160,000 had amassed. The authorities had 1,000 soldiers and 500 policemen. As the meeting started the magistrates ordered the police to arrest all the speakers and the constables made their way to the platform. At the same time the magistrates ordered the yeomanry to charge the crowd killing a two-year-old in the arms of its mother.

The regular cavalry also charged around and joined bloody mayhem. Workers were attacked by their local squirearchy.

Workers under attack attempted to defend themselves throwing bricks and stones at the rampaging troops and using iron railings as makeshift weapons. The crowd of 160,000 were surrounded from all sides and the only escape route was through houses surrounding St Peter’s Field.

500 were injured and 11 killed, with reports of some injured dying after doctors refused treatment on hearing where the injuries were sustained, underlining the class nature of the events of Peterloo.

In Stockport we have to ask has anything changed?

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