Risky Regencies

More on Peterloo

Today, August 16, is the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre of 1816 that Diane mentioned on her Monday post, when a peaceful meeting of people seeking reform of the Parliamentary system were attacked by the military, leaving eleven dead and over five hundred wounded.

Organized by the Manchester Patriotic Union Society, a large crowd of millworkers from all over Lancashire gathered in St. Peters Field, Manchester that day–anywhere between 30,000 and 153,00, depending on which source you believe–to hear Henry “Orator” Hunt and others speak. It was apparently a glorious summer day and there was a holiday atmosphere, with people wearing their Sunday best.

Local magistrates, however, were convinced the meeting would become a riot, and had arranged for troop to stand by. They sent in the local militia, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, who attacked the cart that formed the speakers’ platform. The 15th Hussars were then sent in to “rescue” the Yeomanry and although at first people tried to stand their ground by linking hands, they were cut down and forced to flee–many were hurt by being trampled in the panic. The speakers and newspaper reporters were arrested and imprisoned.

The woman in the white dress on the platform is thought to be Mary Hildes, a passionate radical who formed the Manchester Female Reform Group, and was one of the main speakers at Peterloo. She was also an early proponent of birth control and when she attempted to distribute books on the subject she was accused in the local press of selling pornography. The women radicals didn’t campaign, though, for female suffrage, but supported the male radical cause. They weren’t taken seriously by the press (of course), and not even by other women. As The Times reported that day:

A group of women of Manchester, attracted by the crowd, came to the corner of the street where we had taken our post. They viewed the Oldham Female Reformers for some time with a look in which compassion and disgust was equally blended, and at last burst out into an indignant exclamation–“Go home to your families, and leave sike-like as these to your husbands and sons, who better understand them.”

Many were outraged by the massacre, including local mill owners who witnessed it. James Wroe of the Manchester Observer was probably the first to call the massacre “Peterloo,” in ironic reference to Waterloo. The government supported the action of the troops, and by the end of the year had passed the infamous Six Acts that suppressed freedom of speech and of the press and made radical gatherings illegal. There wasn’t a public enquiry into Peterloo until 1820. It wasn’t until 1832 that the Reform Bill corrected some of the worst injustices of the electoral system and in 1918 all men, and women over 30, were given the vote.

So what was the situation before 1832? About one in ten men could vote, because the right to vote was tied in to income and property and the areas represented ignored population shifts. Over sixty “Rotten Boroughs,” scarcely populated areas, or “Pocket Boroughs,” shoo-ins for local landowners were represented, but the huge industrial towns like Manchester were barely represented at all. Also voting was not done by ballot, so the few who could vote could easily be coerced or bribed. Middlemarch by George Eliot is set in this period.

We don’t often read or write about the “other side” of the Regency since so many books deal with the fluffier, lighter side of the ton, a sort of Regencyland we’ve created. Would you like to see more history or do you prefer to keep the fantasy intact?

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15 years ago

Oh, I love the history. . . I wouldn’t mind both, the fluffy and the not so fluffy. 🙂 I never even heard of Peterloo before so today was very interesting for me 🙂


Tracy Grant
15 years ago

I’ve always been fascinated by the darker side of the Regency. Even my mom’s and my first Anthea Malcolm Regency, “The Widow’s Gambit” (which had a lot of London season, shopping, Almack’s, and drives in the park) included a couple of scenes at the home of a lady radical who host lectures and wrote letter to newspapers. We used her again in our second book, “The Courting of Philippa” in which the hero takes the heroine to a lecture on birth control (not for the reasons one might be pardoned for imagining :-). In “Secrets of a Lady” I was consciously trying to explore the darker side of the era, both in the places Charles and Mélanie go and the politics they debate. I love what Pam Rosenthal did with agents provocateur and social unrest in “The Slightest Provocation”.

Elena Greene
15 years ago

I enjoy both the lighter and darker aspects of the Regency and will read about either. I do think the author has to figure out the right mix for each story.

Pam Rosenthal
15 years ago

Thanks, Tracy, for the mention of “The Slightest Provocation” — which was (folks should know) partly inspired by earlier stuff by Tracy.

Great to be remembering Peterloo here. I did a bunch of research on it once, because I wanted to use it in a book (and perhaps will sometime). What’s so heartbreaking is the sense you get from parts of the radical movement that surely if they’re peaceful and orderly no one would attack them (they practiced drilling in neat contingents).

And then there’s Shelley’s poem, “The Masque of Anarchy,” written after Peterloo. This famous verse always gives me chills:

I met Murder on the way–
He had a mask like Castlereagh–
Very smooth he look’d yet grim;
Seven bloodhounds followed him

You can get the whole thing here.

15 years ago

While Regencies do tend to focus on the gentry and aristocracy, and the more glamorous side of life, I’ve read quite a few that also deal with more serious issues. Women’s rights (or lack thereof) play a role in a number of books that I can recall; and I can remember some that talk about the Luddites, the Corn Laws, the darker side of the Napoleonic Wars (such as wounded soldiers returned home and essentially abandoned), drug use, and alcoholism. Most of these were from the somewhat darker writers, but not all. I think there is room for both.


P.S. And Pomroy, Too!

Janet Mullany
15 years ago

I’d love to find out more about Mary Hildes and her birth control movement. Does anyone know more about her?

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon
15 years ago

I like both. Sometimes after you’ve read several books in a row that fall under the heading of ‘light’, you long for something meatier. The best option is to have a book that explores both, the dark and the light.

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