Cornwall and Peterloo

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As we commemorate the bicentenary of Peterloo on 16 August this year the reactions of people in Cornwall at the time merit consideration. What were the opinions of people in Cornwall on political reform? How did they respond to news of the deaths and injuries sustained by individuals congregating as a crowd to hear the farmer and reputed orator Henry Hunt speak? Today universal suffrage and elections by ballot are taken for granted (although Hunt was calling for universal manhood, not women’s, suffrage). At the time Hunt’s calls were regarded as ‘radical’ and potentially seditious. Hunt believed ‘mass pressure’ could achieve reform without insurrection, the authorities acted with violent repression avowedly in fear of an armed uprising.  

In August 1819 the eyes of political reformers were on Manchester. News travelled slowly. Parliament was in recess and the West Briton published on Friday 20 August noted that one of the MPs for Cornwall Sir William Lemon had arrived at Carclew with his family to spend the summer at home. The already out of date newspaper included a letter from Henry Hunt dated 13 August describing the economic distress of weavers in Manchester. In his editorial Edward Budd stated unequivocally that Hunt’s followers always ‘assemble without riot, and disperse without disorder … the Government have nothing to apprehend from such men as Mr Hunt’. The following week’s edition carried the Times reporter’s eye witness account of Peterloo which the West Briton subsequently referred to as ‘the Manchester tragedy’.

Before and after Peterloo the Tory Royal Cornwall Gazette provided more detailed accounts of political reformers’ activities in the north of England than the West Briton; many of the articles and letters published in the Gazette adopted a satirical tone with the intention of ridiculing and discrediting the radical movement. Under Budd’s first editorship the West Briton provided a platform for political reformers advocating ‘a temperate and Constitutional Reform’ who stressed their opposition to Hunt’s demands including annual parliaments; while calling for the abolition of corrupt boroughs (including many in Cornwall), an extended (not universal) franchise, and triennial parliaments. Budd’s reaction to the news of violence and arrests at Peterloo was defensive stating categorically that ‘In Cornwall … where a portion of the Gentlemen and Magistrates have shown themselves alive to the cause of the people, there are no itinerant orators, or radical Reformists’. If there were political reformers in Cornwall who shared Hunt’s objectives neither Cornish newspaper published their opinions. It was 24 September before Budd published a letter from ‘A Cornishman’ calling for an ‘impartial investigation’ of the events on 16 August at Manchester; the next week’s edition noted that Whigs were now coming forward to demand an enquiry.

The reformers’ request to call a County meeting in October to discuss the events at Peterloo was rejected by the Sheriff of Cornwall Joseph Sawle of Penrice. This caused delay as those seeking to hold a meeting organised a petition from freeholders to magistrates who then called the meeting on Tuesday 23 November. The names of those supporting the call for a meeting were printed in the West Briton, and were sufficiently numerous to fill a page and a half in single spaced columns. This meeting resulted in a petition calling for an enquiry which was presented to the Prince Regent by Sir William Lemon on 23 December 1819. By then it was all over in so far as Parliament had already voted against an enquiry into the events at Peterloo. In Parliament Lemon spoke in favour of and voted for an enquiry to be held.

At the same time Lord Dunstanville and others swiftly convened a rival meeting on 8 November and worked with Cornish boroughs to organise signatories of a ‘loyal declaration’ in opposition to the calls for an enquiry. The boroughs’ response can be understood as opposition to political reforms which would have resulted in the abolition of their parliamentary seats; but the signatories included many individual ‘inhabitants’ who were not electors. The loyal declaration and list of signatories were published in the Royal Cornwall Gazette on Saturday 20 November three days before the meeting of 23 November, and the names of many additional signatories were published in the ensuing weeks. These signatures outnumbered those who had called for the County meeting to be held. The Gazette’s editor continued to play to his gallery on 11 December by publishing a lengthy letter from the anonymous ‘Scrutator’ who had been present at the meeting on 23 November and ridiculed the proponents of an enquiry.


Cornish family historians and others wanting to discover the decisions of individuals can find the loyal declaration here and the list of ‘freeholders’ who supported the call for a County meeting was published in the West Briton on 19 November 1819 which is available at the Courtney library in the Royal Cornwall Museum.


@ Charlotte Mackenzie 2019


Title Image in public domain – courtesy Manchester Library Services


Charlotte MacKenzie lives in Cornwall where she is a freelance historical researcher and writer. Her current research is on women and eighteenth century Cornwall. Charlotte won the 2016 Cardew Rendle prize awarded by the Royal Cornwall Museum and published an article in the National Maritime Museum Cornwall online journal Troze in December 2016. She was previously a senior lecturer in history at Bath Spa University.

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