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The Reign of George III. - (Concluded.) page 24

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Surely, both magistrates and soldiers might now have been satisfied. A defenceless multitude have no means of résistance, and, doing their best to get away, might have been left to do so without further molestation, which would be equally brutal in the magistrates, and cowardly in soldiers. But neither of these parties seems to have thought so on this unhappy occasion. The magistrates issued no orders to desist, and the soldiers, by the confession of one of their officers, went on striking and cutting the impeded people, who were thrown down in their vain efforts to get away, and piled in struggling heaps on the field. Mr. Hulton confessed that he walked away from the window, after ha had let loose the horse soldiers on the people. " He would rather not see any advance of the military." He was, in fact, so tender-hearted, that he did not mind the people - men, women, and children, met to exercise their political rights - being trodden down under the iron hoofs of horses, and cut down by the sword, so that he did not see it. What says lieutenant Jolliffe: - " The hussars generally drove the people forward with the flats of their swords; but sometimes, as is almost inevitably the case when men are placed in such situations, the edge was used by the hussars, and, as I have heard, by the yeomen also; but of this fact, how- ever, I was not cognisant; and, believing though I do, that nine out of ten of the sabre wounds were caused by the hussars, I must still consider that it redounds highly to the humane forbearance of the men of the 15th, that more wounds were not received, when the vast numbers are taken into consideration with whom they were brought into hostile collision."

Vast numbers of what? Of people endeavouring to fly, and tumbling over one another in their flight! Was this a hostile collision? Was it not a repetition of don Quixote attacking a flock of sheep? What was there in such a scene to excite brave English soldiers to cut and wound the defenceless and the yielding - a multitude that had not Struck a blow, and had no means of doing it? Did such a scene require " forbearance? " Was it not enough that the crowd, so far as it could not fly, lay prostrate? This same gallant officer of hussars confesses that the far greater number of the injuries arose from the pressure of the routed multitude. Was it not enough that there was this inevitable injury to the people, without still urging them, and still cutting at them? These were questions which were soon asked from one end of the country to the other, and with an indignation that left little answer on the part of the offenders in authority. The lesson which the public resentment of this outrage on a suffering people taught both magistrates and soldiers rendered very little forbearance necessary, on similar occasions afterwards. On the contrary, magistrates became as timid as they had here been rash, and soldiers found that there was no need to strike even with the flats of their swords in order to disperse an unarmed multitude. I myself saw, in 1832, the magistrates of Nottingham sitting three days, whilst mobs were setting fire to the castle, and to factories, without daring to give the order to the cavalry to disperse them, though the commander assured them that not a man should be hurt; and when the order at length was given, the mob dispersed in ten minutes without a single blow Struck. But before the Manchester massacre, as it was properly called, the people were held in great contempt as "a swinish multitude " - an epithet commonly applied to them; but the voice of human indignation which broke from the heart of the nation taught municipal authorities, at least, that the people had sacred rights, which could not be trampled upon with impunity.

Bamford, who, on the popular side, has described this revolting scene, says that, on seeing the cavalry advancing, sword in hand, he shouted to those around him to stand fast. He could not imagine that British soldiers would strike a multitude standing peaceably. But he soon saw his mistake; " they threw themselves, with all their weight of man and horse, on the compact mass of human beings, and, finding that they could not penetrate it, they began to hew away through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads. Then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion. ' Ah! ah! for shame! for shame! ' was shouted; then, ' Break! break! they are killing them in front, and they cannot get away! ' and there was a general cry of ' Break! break! ' For a moment the crowd held back, as in a pause; then there was a rush, heavy and resistless as a headlong sea, and a sound like low thunder, with screams, prayers, and imprecations from the crowd, moiled and sabre-doomed, who could not escape. In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air. The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; while over the whole field were strewn caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody. Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered, some of these still groaning, others, with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more. All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional pawing and snorting of steeds. Persons might be sometimes noticed peeping from attics, and over the tall ridges of houses, but they quickly withdrew, as if fearful of being observed, or unable to sustain the gaze of a scene so hideous and abhorrent."

Hunt, and about a dozen of his friends, were seized on the platform. Bamford and some others, who had escaped, were afterwards taken. The streets were then cleared by the infantry, and in doing this they fired on the people. Such was the celebrated Manchester massacre - the disgraceful outrage of the field of Peterloo. More than a hundred people were carried to, or went to the infirmaries to have their wounds dressed - a considerable number for severe cuts and fractured limbs; no doubt many hundreds were more or less injured, and six lives were lost, including a special constable run over by the cavalry, and a Manchester yeoman, who was Struck from his horse by a brick- bat, aimed by a man whom he was pursuing.

The strong, and very just feeling of the disgraceful conduct of the Manchester magistrates was heightened, in the country, by the fact that many other meetings were held, about the same time, in différent parts of the country, but these had been suffered to assemble, to pass their resolutions and disperse, without the necessity of resorting to measures so violent as these. In fact, the more the circum- stances of the Manchester meeting were considered, the less it appeared to the public at large to warrant the proceedings of the magistrates.

The ministers and the prince regent, indeed, fully approved of the conduct of these magistrates, and that was to be expected, for neither of these parties ever evinced much sympathy for the people, and consequently received very little regard in return. There was a disposition te rule by the high hand in both the prince and the cabinet, which eventually brought them into extreme odium, and warned them that very différent times were approaching On the re-assembling of parliament, lord Sidmouth made the most candid statement of the full and entire approbation of himself and his colleagues of this cruel and dastardly transaction. He said that the news of the event reached town on the Tuesday night; and that it was followed on the Wednesday by two gentlemen from Manchester, one of them a magistrate, to give the government the most minute particulars regarding it; that a cabinet- council was immediately summoned, at which the two Manchester gentlemen attended, and entered into the fullest details of all that had taken place; and that the attorney and solicitor-generals, then present, gave it as their opinion that the proceedings were perfectly justified by the necessity of the case. The statement of all particulars was then dispatched to the prince regent, who was yachting off Christchurch, and, on the 19th, the prince replied, by the hand of Sir Benjamin Bloomfield, expressing his " high approbation and commendation of the conduct of the magistrates and civil authorities at Manchester, as well as of the officers and troops, both regular and yeoman cavalry, whose firmness and effectual support of the civil power preserved the peace of the town on that most critical occasion."

To most people this appeared to be giving commendation, not for preserving, but for disturbing the peace of the town; but lord Sidmouth, having received this sanction, addressed letters, on the 21st, to the lord-lieutenants of Lancashire and Cheshire, the earls of Derby and Stamford, requesting them to convey to the magistrates of the two counties, who were present at Manchester on the 16th, " the great satisfaction derived by his royal highness from their prompt, decisive, and efficient measures for the preservation of the public tranquillity."

That Sidmouth, notwithstanding the storm of popular odium which burst upon his head for his conduct on this occasion, continued to satisfy himself that he had acted properly, was probable from the narrowness of his political vision, and his ignorance of the nobler principles of government, and we find this freely stated by his biographer, in the third volume, page 262, of his life: - " Lord Sidmouth was aware that this proceeding would subject him to the charge of precipitation, but he was acting upon what he considered an essential principle of government - namely, to acquire the confidence of the magistracy, especially in critical times, by showing a readiness to support them in all honest, reasonable, and well-intended acts, without inquiring too minutely whether they might have performed their duty a little better, or a little worse. So impressed was his lordship with the importance of this principle, that he constantly declared, in after life, that had the question recurred, he would again have pursued a course, the policy of which was not less obvious than the justice. If, indeed, the government had left these magistrates exposed to the storm of popular indignation until the verdict against Hunt and his associates, in the succeeding year, had demonstrated the legality of their conduct, the magistracy at large must, from the dread of abandonment, have failed in duty towards the royal authority, which either could not or would not stand by them in the hour of peril; and thus, in all probability, the most calamitous consequences would have ensued."

This is simply saying that Lord Sidmouth was of that naturally despotic and incorrigible nature that the plainest lessons of experience were lost upon him. Instead of supporting the authority of the magistrates, the sanction of the government only augmented to a high degree the indignant feeling of the country. There was a general expression of reprobation of this wanton act of cruelty, which, so far from protecting the magistrates from odium, only extended that odium to the cabinet and the prince. This act was held to be neither an " honest, reasonable, nor well-intended" one; and for a government to encourage a magistracy in such acts is to undermine all respect for government in a country. In fact, no proceeding of the magistracy and the government, for a long time, cost them so much popular dislike as this Manchester outrage. It was an event which became a public epoch; and from that period, so far from magistrates venturing to imitate it, they were essentially intimidated, and their decision weakened by the fear of incurring like odium. Neither was it true that the legality of the act of the magistrates depended on the verdict on Hunt and his associates. The question of the legality of their act was not at all mooted on those trials; it had long before been virtually abandoned by the highest law authorities of the country. Lord Eldon had declared, in a letter to his brother, Sir William Scott, to be found in his biography, that the Manchester magistrates must be supported; that this would be difficult if it were pronounced merely an unlawful assembly; but it could be done if it were found to be treasonable, and he was of opinion that it was so. Accordingly, Hunt and his confederates were charged with high treason; but, on the circumstances being examined, they were found not to bear out this charge, and Hunt and his friends were indicted only for a treasonable conspiracy; and true bills to the extent of this mitigated charge were proved against Hunt and nine others at the summer assizes for the county of Lancaster.

The approbation of the regent and cabinet was all that the Manchester magistrates were destined to find. We have, indeed, been surprised to read, in a modern historian of generally liberal opinions, this observation, that " however grievous an error in judgment they may have committed, it does not appear that the Manchester magistrates can be made out to have done anything absolutely illegal." But it does not appear that, before proceeding to disperse this meeting by an armed force, they even read the Riot Act, without which no such dispersion can be deemed legal or justifiable. True, they had refused their sanction to the meeting, and could have proceeded to arrest the leaders in the movement either before the crowds reached the place of meeting, or afterwards. The latter course had been adopted by the magistrates of Stockport in regard to Sir Charles Wolseley and Dr. Harrison, and that with all necessary effect, and with the avoidance of chance of riot or injury to any one.

In the country at large the most decided condemnation of them prevailed, and they were made to perceive that there is a tribunal at which the acts of magistrates will be tried, where neither prince nor minister can protect them. The reformers of all ranks throughout the kingdom took every means of expressing their sense of the illegality and inhumanity of the deed. Sir Francis Burdett, immediately on reading the account in the newspapers, expressed his abhorrence of it, in the most unsparing terms, in a letter to the electors of Westminster, which he published. For this he was served with an ex officio information for libel by the attorney -general.

Great meetings were held in various towns and counties to condemn the whole proceedings, and addresses were sent up and presented to the prince regent, which were, in fact, censures of his own conduct, and were not, therefore, received in a pleasant manner. To one from the common council of London, he replied that he received it with regret, and that those who drew it up knew little or nothing of the circumstances which preceded or attended the Manchester meeting. The fact was, that they knew these a great deal better than he did. Similar addresses were sent up from Westminster, York, Norwich, Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, and many other towns. A meeting of the county of York was calculated at twenty thousand persons, and amongst them was the earl Fitzwilliam, lord-lieutenant of the West Riding, who had also signed the requisition to the high-sheriff. For this conduct he was summarily dismissed from his lord-lieutenancy. Scarcely less offence was given by the duke of Hamilton, lord-lieutenant of the county of Lanark, who sent a subscription of fifty pounds to the committee for the relief of the Manchester sufferers, expressing, at the same time, his severe censure of the outrage committed on the 16th of August. Of course, the ministerial party in town and country did all in their power to counteract this strong and general expression of disapprobation. In Scotland and the north of England the squirearchy got up associations for raising troops of yeomanry, as in direct approval of the savage conduct of the Manchester yeomanry. In the immediate neighbourhood of the scene of outrage, the conflict of opinion between the two parties ran high. The friends of the people indicted numbers of the Manchester yeomanry for cutting and maiming in St. Peter's Field, with intent to kill; but these bills were thrown out by the grand jury at the Lancaster assizes. An inquest at Oldham, on the body of one of the men killed, was also a scene of a fierce and regular conflict for nine days, and was put an end to by an order from the court of King's Bench. But even men who were accustomed to support ministers generally were startled by their conduct on this occasion. Mr. Ward, afterwards lord Dudley and Ward, in one of his letters written from Paris at the time, and since published, says: - " What do reasonable people think of the Manchester business? I am inclined to suspect that the magistrates were in too great a hurry, and that their loyal zeal, and the nova gloria in armis tempted the yeomanry to too liberal a use of the sabre - in short, that their conduct has given some colour of reason to the complaints and anger of the jacobins. The approbation of government was probably given as the supposed price of Support from the tories in that part of the country." But the worst feature of the case was that the hussars appear to have used their swords as freely as the raw yeomanry.

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Death of George III
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Brighton Pavilion
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