New Peterloo Evidence…Maybe

On the 16th August 1819 thousands of working class people gathered in the centre of Manchester to demand amongst other things the right to vote. The response of the local authorities was the order that the crowd be dispersed, the speakers arrested including Henry ‘the orator’ Hunt, and ‘order’ restored. The carnage, brutality and murder that ensued when the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and 15th Hussars attempted this task became known as the Peterloo Massacre. The event is one of the significant moments of British history, dramatically changing the relationship between rulers and ruled. Peterloo’s historical importance has been recognised with the publication of thirty or more books since the centenary in 1919.

Given the weight of interest brought to bear on Peterloo one might think that there was no new evidence on the massacre to be found. However, while I was searching for biographical information on one of the Yeomen present at Peterloo, a small note dropped out of the Working Class Movement Library’s copy of  the Trial of Henry Hunt. Originally the book had belonged to William Hulton, the magistrate who on the 16th August ordered that the crowd be dispersed and ‘the orator’ Hunt arrested. Hulton gave several hours of testimony at the trial (at which Hunt was sentenced to two years in Illchester Gaol), and to discover the magistrate’s very own copy of the proceedings was remarkable.

However, within the Hulton volume of the Trial of Henry Hunt is something more exciting entirely. During Hunt’s trial Hulton took handwritten notes; writing in pencil he minuted the words of other witnesses before his own testimony, and these are bound within the volume. The handwriting is difficult to read and will take a bit of time to decipher, but having emailed a historian specialising in Peterloo it appears that the source of evidence is unknown. The sheets are a tangible link with the man who was responsible for the horrors inflicted that day. I’ve written before about the ghostly nature of signatures, and this is much the same.

A page of William Hulton's notes taken during Hunt's trial.

A page of William Hulton’s notes taken during Hunt’s trial.

The Hulton cache at the WCML is more than this book. Also in the collection is a map that once belonged to Hulton. It shows the area surrounding St Peter’s Fields and includes description of the yeomen and cavalry’s movement on the day. The magistrate’s signature and the name of his estate, Hulton Hall, are on the back.

St Peter's Field Map

The Hulton items (and there may be more) came via the antiquarian book seller Robert Walmsley, who in 1969 wrote a revisionist history of Peterloo which largely exonerated Hulton of blame. It probably passed into the Library’s possession because Walmsley did much of the research for his book at the WCML when it was still located at the house of its founders Ruth and Eddie Frow, in Old Trafford. Quite what the radical communist Frows thought of a book that was an apologia for Hulton, the man who would later describe Peterloo as his ‘proudest day’, is easily imagined; but by all accounts they were too polite to say.  E.P. Thompson certainly did. In an anonymous article in the Times Literary Supplement the historian savaged (noted for savageings, was E.P.) the book. Thompson’s best line in the review is undoubtedly ‘exemplifying Mr. Walmsley’s pursuit of imaginary molehills and his ignorance of tangible mountains’.

Whether the Hulton material will provide any significant new information, or radically shape our existing understanding about Peterloo, is unlikely. However its survival is quite amazing. And what’s more, anyone interested can come to the Working Class Movement Library and attempt to read for themselves the handwriting of the man responsible for so much carnage, and the harrowing accounts of people being killed and imprisoned, simply for demanding the right to vote.

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