Manchester 1819-Hong Kong 2019: The Long Wait for Reform
The 16th of August was an important anniversary. It was 200 years to the day when soldiers dispersed a peaceful political assembly at St Peter's Fields in Manchester, England. They killed eleven people and injured several hundred. Cavalry was the principal arm used to disperse the crowd of about 60,000 men, women and children. Most deaths and injuries were attributable to cavalrymen's sabre thrusts, trampling by excited horses and crushing injuries sustained in the press of bodies caused by people trying to escape.
Some of the crowd and the soldiers had been at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, just four years earlier. The press was quick to give the name 'the Peterloo Massacre' to the disaster and condemn the use of excessive and lethal force by the civil authorities who had called for the army to be used.
The events leading up to the massacre resemble in some ways the current developments in Hong Kong. The organisers of the meeting were concerned with political reform. They complained of a system which closely resembled the sclerotic functional constituency scheme save that the only qualification for the parliamentary vote in 1819 was property. They intended to demonstrate peacefully.
Like here, the government of the day in England was not sympathetic to wholesale reform. However, deaths, not just injuries, resulted from the one mass meeting in Manchester. Tear gas had not been invented and there was no modern police force trained in crowd control techniques.
Prosecutions followed the massacre which saw organisers and leading figures imprisoned. The press of the day was full of stories about the massacre and its consequences. The government of the day had to eventually face up to the crowd’s demands and make concessions.
It is because of these similarities that it is worth knowing more about the events of that August day two hundred years ago.
Electoral law in 1819 was behind the times. It conferred the right to vote on male property-holders who owned land that had an annual rental value of about HK$2000 in present-day money. They voted in geographical constituencies in each county. Manchester was in the county of Lancashire. The county returned only two Members of Parliament (MP's) at an election held by an open ballot so that the candidates would know the identity of voters. Wherever you lived in the county, you had to travel to Lancaster, a journey of about fifty miles from Manchester in order to vote.
In 1819, Manchester was an important industrial centre, famous for its cotton industry. It did not return an MP of its own though. This although its outlying industrial towns like Oldham, Middleton, Bolton, Bury, Salford and Wigan, numbered several hundred thousand waged skilled and unskilled workers and small businessmen.
By contrast, some towns' populations had dwindled and died. The original site of the cathedral town of Salisbury, 'Old Sarum', returned two MP's to Westminster. This was so even though only one householder was living there who had the necessary property qualification entitling him to vote.
The people marched to the centre of Manchester that day to hear a political reformer speak to them, Henry Hunt.
Hunt was a gifted speaker, and his eloquence earned him the nickname 'Orator' Hunt. He sought political reform for the working classes by the peaceful means of persuasion to bring about change.
Although Hunt was dead set against violence, the authorities were concerned that is words might encourage the crowd to acts of violence. Economic conditions were dire in Manchester at this time. Wages for industrial workers had been cut by more than half since 1815. There was no chance that your average workingman could acquire a property of the value required to be able to vote.
Another source of discontent was some laws that protected landowners by setting the price of corn at an artificially high price. When the wars against Napoleon ended in 1815, Parliament imposed massive tariffs on corn imports from Europe to protect farmers and landowners and corn could not be imported without paying heavy duties. Bread was expensive.
Some workmen had talked of revolution, and there had been a few convictions for sedition in Stockport in 1818 for talk of men taking up arms in rebellion.
The authorities in the form of several magistrates gathered in a nearby house to watch the assembly. They still feared the power of Hunt's oratory on the massive crowd and so they issued a warrant for his arrest even before he began to speak.
The magistrates believed that special constables of the peace were not up to the job of arresting Hunt. They thought that the crowd would be infuriated by an attempt to detain him. Because of this reason, they called on part-time cavalry and some regular soldiers to "keep the peace" by asking them to force a passage through the crowd and arrest Hunt.
The cavalry, assisted by the special constables, succeeded in arresting Hunt but they aroused the hatred of some of the crowd in doing this. Some members of the assembly threw stones at the soldiers and jostled them. The cavalry, a part-time outfit made up of middle-class men, lost its nerve and began to use sabres to cut at and bludgeon members of the crowd. Officers called for restraint, but the crowd had panicked too. People tried to get away but found the obvious exit route blocked by some infantry. Other crowd members then crushed them.
The event shocked public opinion. The press condemned the deaths and injuries. However, injured persons tended not to seek help for fear of being identified and made subject to reprisals such as being sacked by unsympathetic employers.
There were several prosecutions of men who had played a prominent part in organising the meeting for sedition in 1820, which resulted in convictions and terms of imprisonment. A man injured in the disturbance sued some cavalrymen for injuries sustained but lost the case. He lost because the court found that the soldiers' actions were justified. They were justified because the magistrates had read the Riot Act, which required the crowd to disperse, before they rode into the crowd.
However, there was one good thing to come from the massacre almost immediately. Some reforming businessmen in Manchester clubbed together to establish a new progressive newspaper calling for reform. The first publication of the Manchester Guardian was in 1821, and the paper continues to this day as "the Guardian'.
The massacre also inspired the poet Percy Shelley to write just after the massacre one of the finest political poems in the English language, excoriating the government of the day. 'The Masque of Anarchy' is too long to set out in full here. However, the last verse contains the eternal truth that a powerful political minority wielding power today cannot resist change and sooner or later will have to yield to the powerless majority.
'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.'
The sleep lasted another thirteen years. The appetite for political reform did not go away, in spite of the prosecutions. Places like Manchester continued to grow and contribute more and more to the economy and labour began to organise. Voices calling for change grew more numerous and more insistent. Successive governments resisted change but knew that the public would not stand for another Peterloo. Eventually, it yielded.
The Reform Act 1832 abolished many 'rotten' boroughs and created new constituencies for the new towns and cities. Parliament extended the franchise so that the property qualification was relaxed. This relaxation allowed shopkeepers, tradesmen, tenant farmers, and skilled workers to vote. A more generous franchise, allowing working men the vote, was only introduced in 1867. Women had to wait for another fifty-two years for the vote.
Most people would hope that political reform comes sooner than the survivors of Peterloo had to wait. Hong Kong's complicated electoral arrangements are, after all, a product of political thinking over the past thirty years and change is promised in the Basic Law but is painfully slow in arriving.
If you would wish to know more about the troubles of Manchester men (and women) in 1819, then I commend to you a new film. 'Peterloo' was directed by Mike Leigh and released only last year.
Like Mike Leigh's other films, 'Peterloo' is a bit too politically self-conscious and worthy. It is a timely reminder though that the political problems of the past are still the struggles of the present and that some important things never change.