Wiltshire's Orator Henry Hunt and the Peterloo Massacre
16 August 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre where 60,000 people demonstrated in St Peter’s Field, Manchester demanding parliamentary reform. Eighteen people were killed and hundreds injured when the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and the 15th Hussars were sent in to disperse the crowd and arrest the leaders.
Politician, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, a principal speaker at the St Peter’s Field meeting, was born at Widdington Farm in Upavon, Wiltshire on 6 Nov 1773.
Hunt was educated at Tilshead on Salisbury Plain by a Mr Cooper and later in Hampshire. In his memoirs Hunt recounts he was ‘sent to boarding school at Tilshead in Wiltshire, at five and a half years of age… This school, which was situated in a healthy village upon Salisbury Plain, consisted of a master and an usher, who had the care and instruction of sixty-three boys. The scholars were better fed than taught’.
Although his father hoped he would go into Holy Orders, he was inclined towards farming, and began work on the farm aged 16. His experience of the local poverty and rural administration is what has been posited as the driver towards his radical views.
He married a Miss Halcomb, daughter of the innkeeper of the Bear Inn, Devizes and had two sons and a daughter, but the couple separated in 1802, and he eloped with a friend’s wife, Mrs Vince.
He farmed at various locations in Wiltshire, Sussex and Shropshire, and became involved in politics and became a noted public speaker. His rousing speeches at the mass meetings held at Spa Fields, London gained him his ‘Orator’ nickname.
He was invited by the Patriotic Union Society to be one of the key speakers at the scheduled meeting in Manchester on 16 August 1819.
Hunt wanted the St Peter’s Field gathering to be a great display of provincial strength, that it should be ‘very publick… rather a meeting of the County of Lancashire etc. than of Manchester alone’. In his intercepted correspondence with the secretary of the Patriotic Union Society, Joseph Johnson, he states that:
“We have nothing to do but concentrate public opinion, and if our Enemies will not listen to the voice of a whole People, they will listen to nothing, and may the effects of their Folly and Wickedness be upon their own Heads”. (The National Archives ref HO 42/189-91).
Hunt countered the Royal Proclamation condemning seditious meetings and unauthorized drilling, and asserted the legal and constitutional right of public meeting. He instructed that people should come to the meeting ‘armed with no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience; determined not to suffer yourselves to be irritated or excited, by any means whatsoever, to commit any breach of the public peace’.
Hunt’s insistence on the constitutional right was reflective of the popular constitutionalism of 19th century radicalism. In the Leeds resolution the radicals declared they were ‘perfectly satisfied that our Constitution, in its original purity, as it was bequeathed to us by our brave ancestor, is fully adequate to all the purposes of good government; we are therefore determined not to be satisfied with anything short of that Constitution’.
Hunt was imprisoned following the St Peter’s Field meeting at the New Bailey prison, Manchester. His trial took place in York in March 1820 and conducted his own defence. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment which was served in Ilchester during which time he wrote his memoirs, described in his entry in the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography as ‘wordy and egotistical’ (available here on the open shelves at the History Centre under UPA.921 if that has whet your appetite!) He was released on 30th October 1822. In 1830 he became an MP for Preston and was involved with further motions for reform, demanding universal suffrage and opposing the Reform Act of 1832 which he believed did not go far enough, moving for the repeal of the corn laws, and presenting the earliest petition in favour of women’s rights. He lost his seat in 1833 and subsequently focussed on business as a shoe blacking manufacturer. He died while travelling in Hampshire on 15 February 1835 and was buried at Parham.
- Tags: archives, corn law, farming, Henry Hunt, Joseph Johnson, Manchester, Member of Parliament, orator Hunt, Oxford National Dictionary of Biography, parliamentary reform, Patriotic Union Society, Peterloo, politics, prison, protest, reform, Royal Proclamation, St Peter's Fields, Upavon, Wiltshire, Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre