On the Anniversary of Peterloo, one of our volunteers, David Phipps writes about an interesting Devon connection to the events in Manchester…

After the launch of Mike Leigh’s new film about the Massacre of Peterloo (named to echo the battle of Waterloo), I wondered just how many people were aware of just what happened in St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester in 1819.  I also wondered how many knew that Henry Phillpotts, our Bishop in Devon from 1831 -1869, had become involved in the row which followed.

The Background

The social situation in 1819 was unbelievably different from what it is now.  In the first place, only male property owners could vote in Parliamentary elections.  These amounted to about 1.6% of the population.  And towns like Manchester had no MP’s at all, whereas some tiny villages had populations in single figures, all of whom depended upon a single landlord, so he chose the M.P.  Even then, people often did not vote against the landlord, for there was no secret ballot.

This time, just after the end of the Napoleonic wars, was a period of severe civil unrest in Britain.  The Industrial Revolution was going on apace and causing unemployment.  The Corn Laws, which prohibited the import of relatively cheap wheat, were in force.  They were wonderful for the farmers because they kept prices high, but were much less wonderful for the poor because they made the price of bread almost prohibitive.  In 1904, William Canton wrote that

For thirty years the monstrous Corn Law, which was enacted in 1815 not for the purpose of public revenue but solely to maintain the rental of the landowners, blighted the hopes and energies of the people.  No foreign grain was to be imported until wheat in the home markets had been for six months at or over 80s. per quarter [This equates to about £1.10 per kg – it never reached this, so effectively it was a complete ban. The going rate now is about 15p per kg.]…. In country places labourers tried to keep body and soul together on roots and wild plants, and died of starvation. If corn might be imported on certain terms, trade in foreign cattle, alive or slaughtered, was prohibited sans phrase [without qualification or exception].  Salt was taxed to forty times its value….  Windows were taxed, and men suffered the discomfort and unhealthiness of excluded light and air…. Little wonder that in such circumstances there was a clamour for Parliamentary reform.

The Morning Chronicle of 30th October, 1816 reported that there had been a riot in Birmingham to which troops had had to be called from Wolverhampton to restore order. On 12thDecember, the Morning Post also reported on riots which had taken place within the City of London.

In the light of these threats, the Government took draconian action, having in mind the French Revolution of thirty years before.  In February, 1817, Parliament not only suspended Habeas Corpus (the law which says you can’t be imprisoned without a trial), but also took severe measures against potentially treasonable meetings: meetings of more than fifty persons were banned unless they had permission from the magistrates and persons not dispersing after one hour were to be arrested, and the Justices were indemnified should any protestors be killed or maimed; and those obstructing the Justices from reading the Riot Act were to suffer the death penalty.

Exactly what Happened?

St. Peter’s Church which stood near to the field which shared its name

On 9th August, 1819, a meeting was called in Manchester to raise a petition to protest against the Corn Laws and for an extension of the franchise. The magistrates declared that such a meeting for such a purpose was illegal, so it was abandoned, and another called at St. Peter’s Fields for a week later. Some estimated that 80,000 people, including many women and children, turned up.  This assembly was addressed by Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, a notable Radical, and banners bearing slogans such as ‘No Corn Laws,’ ‘Annual Parliaments,’ ‘Universal Suffrage,’ and ‘Vote by Ballot’ were visible. 

Hunt later wrote, from prison, that he did his best to reassure the magistrates because he had heard that there was a warrant out against him.  “They politely answered,” he said, that “they knew of no such thing, or any such intention.”  Then, he said of the meeting, that the people did their best to show that they were loyal citizens, and not revolutionaries:

As soon as they assembled, they all struck up the national air of ‘God save the King,’ and after that, ‘Rule Britannia.’  But even these symptoms of loyalty, it seems, were not to be respected on this occasion.  I was as much taken by surprise as any part of the people could have been, for I was particularly guarded and cautious to give the magistrates no pretence for interrupting the meeting.

Before Hunt’s speech had finished, the magistrates panicked and had the troops charge the crowd with drawn sabres in order to arrest the leaders.  It is estimated that about fifteen people were killed and around five hundred injured, many of these women and children.  It has gone down in history as the ‘Peterloo Massacre.’

Where does Bishop Phillpotts come in?

Gentleman’s Magazine for August 1819 which contains an An Account of the Meeting at Manchester

Phillpotts, at this time was Vicar of Gateshead and a Prebendary of Durham Cathedral.  One  meeting, condemning the outrage, took place on 21st October, in the County Hall, Durham.  Whilst almost the whole country was up in arms about Manchester, Phillpotts chose to issue a pamphlet objecting to criticism of authority and expressing the belief that, upon full inquiry, the Government would be vindicated.

This pamphlet – they did go in for snappy titles in those days – A Letter to the Freeholders of the County of Durham on the Proceedings of the County Meeting holden on Thursday, 21st October Instant; and particularly on the Speech of John George Lambton, Esq. M.P., was exclusively political, rather than spiritual, and one is forced to the conclusion that Phillpotts wrote it either for the good of the Government, or to further his own interests with the Government.  The main reason it caused controversy was because parts of it descend to rank abuse of Lambton, later Earl of Durham and son-in-law of Earl Grey (later Prime Minister and tea-drinker).  Phillpotts said of Lambton’s discussion of the events in Manchester that

Nothing short of running the full career of rashness and peril could glut his morbid avidity of distinction….  The Hon. Member might amuse himself and his friends in any manner that suits their taste.  But, unhappily, the Constitution of our country is exposed to danger, while he is thus playing wth the torch of sedition, and wantonly tossing it about, amidst the combustible matter which surrounds him.

This was not the end of the matter, for a review of the pamphlet in the Edinburgh Review ,written (anonymously) by Henry Brougham, later to become Lord Chancellor, took Phillpotts’ character to pieces:

Mr Phillpotts cannot be… commended.  His language is insolent and coarse; he attacks individuals, and imputes motives; he is ambitious of sustaining, not merely the questionable part of a political parson, or the inconsistent part of an angry parson, but the despicable part of a foul-mouthed parson; a part always most condemned by those who set the highest value upon that amiable and venerable character, happily so frequent an ornament of the Church, – a meek, charitable, and liberal minister of religion.  What right has this man to accuse one of the most honourable and patriotic gentlemen in all England, of being actuated solely by ‘a morbid avidity of distinction?’ What authorizes this wrangling pamphleteer to insinuate, in plain terms, and contrary to the manifest sense of the words, that Mr Lambton recommended measures too ‘atrocious’ to be particularized?  Who that deserves regard, or possesses any authority, will approve of this forward priest launching, from the stall of his cathedral, against that most respectable individual, the charge of ‘wantonly tossing about the torch of sedition?’ 

Phillpotts would not let the matter drop, but wrote an article in response to this attack.  Brougham came back with even more vehemence:

We shall certainly not think of following this unhappy man through his new set of blunders, all delivered with the presumption which is called pedantry and arrogance, when accompanied with learning; but which is truly laughable when bottomed in sheer ignorance and conceit.

The Free Trade Hall which was built on the site of the Peterloo Massacre and is now hotel

This controversy, and Phillpotts’ defence of the Establishment did no harm to the upwards march of his career.  In the next year he was appointed to the living of Stanhope, which was one of the most valuable, if not the most valuable living in England, because it entitled him to a share of the income from the rich deposits of lead ore underneath the parish.  It was estimated that it was, in 2003 terms, worth almost £200,000 per annum.  From there he went, via the Deanery of Chester, to become Bishop of Exeter in 1831, having had several more similar political scrapes along the way.


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