The Peterloo Massacre in 1819 was so great a shock to the British view their historical development is peaceful and constitutional that it has become legendary. However the legend has obscured the developments which preceeded the events in Manchester, which did not fall out of a clear blue sky. Two years before the yeomanry attacked the crowd in St Peters Field, the emerging working class movement had faced grim choices to achieve solutions to the powerless and poverty which scarred their lives. The March of the Blanketeers and the Ardwick conspiracy both in Manchester, had posed the two alternatives, commonly summarised as physical force – revolution – or moral force – constitutional non violent methods, with the Pentridge uprising the same year sharply demonstrating what revolution was about as it was met with a brutal and cynical government response.
The importance of the events of 1817 has not been appreciated, in part because the legacy of mainstream historiography has created confusion around discussion of the issues. Even the very best analysis of the headline events of the period, that from the pen of E P Thompson, has left the picture fuzzy. It is time to reconsider how reform agitation was met by government repression after the end of the French wars in 1815, and working class democrats in Manchester drew the conclusion that peaceful mass protest was the way to advance the reform of the franchise – a decision which would lead to the demonstration attacked by yeomanry two years later when reform met reaction.
In his classic study The Making of the English Working Class when outlining the way, E P Thompson argued that:
“This coincidence of persecution and confusion is the background to the tangled story of the March of the Blanketeers, the Ardwick Conspiracy, and the Pentridge* Rising (1)”.
Thompson however does not untangle the story of these three highpoints of 1817. By then the political climate in England had soured from the hopes of a victory dividend for working class people after Napoleon’s defeat. Whatever had been expected from a working class perspective, particularly in the areas affected by Luddism where hopes had never been high, and the government deployed 12,000 troops to repress Ned Ludd and his followers (2), the actual experience of hard times and government interpretation of even the mildest call for relief as a revolutionary threat produced working class determination to secure changes which the political class was equally determined to resist.
Thompson provides a general discussion of the reform movement mainly in London, Lancashire and the north Midlands, though as he knows, the focal point of the movement was Manchester, where the March of the Blanketeers happened in 1817, followed closely by the events linked to the Ardwick area of the city, and where Peterloo would happen in 1819. Thompson is very impressed by Pentridge and the uprising in the villages on the Derbyshire-Nottinghamshire border, but wholly unimpressed with the March and the Ardwick developments. What then was the March of the Blanketeers, what happened in Ardwick, why did Pentridge see violence which led to a killing, and in the wider perspective why was this significant to a major historian in his classic work, while Manchester developments were unimportant to Thompson?