New Peterloo Exhibition at Muncaster Castle

  • 16 Aug 2019
  • Article

Two hundred years ago today, approximately 60,000 people congregated at St Peter’s Field (now St Peter’s Square) in Manchester, to join a gathering calling for reform of parliamentary representation. They had come to listen to the leading radical orator Henry Hunt, alongside other speakers advocating reform of the political franchise. Shortly after the meeting began, however, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry charged into the crowd, having been ordered by local magistrates to arrest Hunt and disperse the crowd. Additional yeomanry charged in with their sabres drawn, killing at least 18 people and leaving an estimated 600 to 700 people injured.

What happened at St Peter’s Field would become known as the Peterloo Massacre, a name coined by local journalist James Wroe in reference to the bloody Battle of Waterloo four years earlier. Described by historian Dr Robert Poole (consultant to the Peterloo1819 Bicentenary Programme) as “the bloodiest political event of the nineteenth century on English soil”, Peterloo has marked British politics ever since.

In the months and years following the massacre, national debate raged about what had happened, who had been responsible, and the pace and extent of reform. One of the voices calling for a public inquiry into the events of Peterloo and condemning the response of “the majority in Parliament” was that of John Charles Ramsden MP, great great great grandfather of the current owner of Muncaster Castle, Iona Frost-Pennington.

The team at Muncaster has recently discovered documents in their archives that shed new light on Ramsden’s involvement in the national debate surrounding Peterloo, including letters, original newspaper cuttings and the draft of a speech he delivered at a public meeting in York on 14 October 1819, just two months after Peterloo. Newspaper cuttings estimate up to 30,000 people attended the gathering in York, the intention of which was to garner support for a petition calling on the Prince Regent to force parliament to establish a public inquiry into Peterloo, and to maintain the right to assemble in peaceful protest. During his speech to the crowds, John Charles Ramsden said: “I hope from what has passed this day that a powerful effect will be produced, as it implies the severest censure on the authors and abettors of those crimes which we believe to have been committed, and which will not only give them a lesson which they will never forget, but will inform our wicked Ministers that we will never suffer our rights, our liberties or our laws to be trampled upon”.

This petition and others seem to have fallen on deaf ears, and in the years immediately following Peterloo new legislation was passed that had the effect of suppressing any meetings for the purpose of radical reform. In the event it took many years for meaningful reform of parliamentary representation to take place, with the Reform Act of 1832 being just the start.

As the nation marks two hundred years since the tragic events of Peterloo, visitors to Muncaster Castle will be able to explore the role of John Charles Ramsden in the national debate following the massacre through a mini-exhibition, put together by one of the Castle’s volunteers. Find out more here. And remember, Historic Houses members visit for free.

If you’re in Manchester this weekend (16-18 August) there’ll be plenty of opportunities to learn more about Peterloo through the Anniversary Weekend events programme, run by Manchester Histories and supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund: find out more here.

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