The Peterloo Massacre occurred during a period of immense political tension and mass protests. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote and hunger was rife with the disastrous corn laws making bread unaffordable.
On the morning of 16th August a crowd began to gather, conducting themselves, according to contemporary accounts, with dignity and discipline, the majority dressed in their Sunday best.
Speeches and banner poles topped with the red cap of liberty and reading ‘REFORM’, ‘UNIVERSAL’ ‘SUFFRAGE’, ‘EQUAL REPRESENTATION’ and ‘LOVE’ panicked Manchester’s magistrates who read the riot act, ordering the crowd to disperse.
The local Yeomanry, on horseback, armed with sabres and clubs, headed for the hustings to arrest the leaders. They charged when the crowd linked arms to try and stop the arrests, and proceeded to strike down banners and people with their swords.
In the panic, further infantrymen, artillery, cavalry were ordered in. An estimated 18 people, including four women and a child, died from sabre cuts and trampling. Nearly 700 men, women and children received extremely serious injuries.
The speakers and organisers of the protest were arrested and put on trial, at first under the charge of High treason - a charge that was reluctantly dropped by the prosecution. Whereas the infantrymen and Magistrates received a message of congratulations from the Prince Regent and were cleared of any wrong-doing by the official inquiry.
One of the speakers put on trial was sentenced to imprisonment at Lincoln Castle’s prison: Samuel Bamford.
Bamford, along with other “radicals” Healy and Johnson, were charged with “a seditious conspiracy to overthrow the government” and sentenced to one year jail in Lincoln. They had marched with 6,000 at Peterloo, forbidding even walking sticks from their fellow radicals to ensure a peaceful protest, but were arrested for their part in it.
He arrived at the Lincoln Castle gaol on May 17th 1820 and, agreeing not to talk politics with other prisoners, was treated as a debtor rather than a felon. In fact, the prison Governor, John Merryweather, and other Lincoln magistrates went out of the way to show Bamford the utmost consideration.
Bamford says that, at this time, Lucy Tower was shut up and prisoners who died were buried in a hollow at the base of the tower within the castle walls. He also notes that the Observatory Tower was built by Merryweather for his love of astronomy – and inadvertently prevented many escape attempts!
According to Nick Mansfield, director of the People’s History Museum in Manchester, “Peterloo is a critical event not only because of the number of people killed and injured, but because ultimately it changed public opinion to influence the extension of the right to vote and give us the democracy we enjoy today. It was critical to our freedoms.”One of those magistrates, Reverend Nelson, arranged for Bamford’s wife to stay with him, stating “We do not approve of all that the Manchester magistrates have done - but we consider you to be here under peculiar circumstances, and we should be sorry to be the means of depriving you of any little indulgence compatible with your safe custody.”
On his release, Bamford left the world of politics and made a living as a poet and writer. His autobiography “Passages in the Life of a Radical” (1841) describes his imprisonment in Lincoln, and specifically a description of the double hanging of the housebreakers David Booth and John Pariah, hanged in 1821.
You can experience the Georgian prison Bamford stayed in for yourself when visiting Lincoln Castle. Much of what we know about the conditions at the time, and in particular Governor Merryweather, is from Bamford’s writings.
An inclusive ticket to explore the prison for yourself is available from Lincoln Castle for £13.50 for adults, £11 for concession, £7.20 for children (ages 5 – 16).
Image: Richard Carlile (1790–1843) - Manchester Library Services.