In October 1819, thousands of north east people including, almost certainly, miners from Heaton Colliery and their families, took part in a remarkable demonstration on Newcastle’s Town Moor. They were protesting about the massacre at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, two months earlier, which became commonly known as Peterloo (in an ironic comparison comparing it with the battle of Waterloo, four years earlier).
This is a short description of how the meeting came to take place, what happened and also a little specifically about the involvement of people from Heaton.
The working people of north east England showed their desire for greater civil rights in no uncertain terms in their reaction to the Peterloo massacre, which had taken place on 16 August 1819. On that terrible day a large crowd, who had come to listen to Henry Hunt and demand their democratic rights were attacked by yeomanry on horseback. The yeomen, fuelled by alcohol, angrily slashed their way through the large, hopeful crowd to arrest Hunt. As they did so they trampled on a young girl resulting in her death. The crowd then turned angry surrounding the yeomanry who were supported by the regular troops who cut through the assembly like a knife through butter, resulting in eleven further fatalities.
One witness to the events that day, the radical leader Samuel Bamford, later recalled that, ‘the sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air, over the whole field, were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress; trampled, torn and bloody… All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.’
A wave of protests spread throughout England. One of, if not, the biggest was in Newcastle.
The ‘Tyne Mercury’ reported that an initial meeting was held in Newcastle on 8 October and at this meeting it was decided that ‘the only solution to war, taxation, corruption and ‘misrepresentation of the people in Parliament’ was ‘radical reform of the House of Commons’. In Sunderland on the same day, all the corn in the market was seized and soup kitchens were opened by the Corporation, for what were described as the ‘deserving poor’.
On behalf of the United Committees of Political Protestants in Newcastle and Gateshead. a W Weatherston issued notices for a general meeting to protest against Peterloo. The meeting was set for 11 October at midday on the Parade Ground in Newcastle, where the Haymarket is today.
Thousands of people of Newcastle and surrounding districts, which would have included Heaton, came and it was soon clear that that the crowd was so big that it could not be contained in the Parade Ground. Consequently, a decision was made that the crowd should move north to the large open space on the Town Moor. Indeed, the crowd was so huge, that it has been noted that, ‘the procession took one hour and a quarter to cross Barras Bridge’ then the name of an actual bridge over Pandon Burn.
The text below the above engraving describes the appearance and sound of the crowd:
‘The leaders carried white rods surmounted with crape. Each division was distinguished by a splendid banner of flag and some of them were preceded by a person carrying a Roman fasces (ie a ceremonial bundle of rods sometimes containing an axe. Ed). Several bands of Music played popular tunes and imparted order and interest to the procession, which was an hour and a quarter passing Barras Bridge.’
The penultimate sentence reads:
‘The shouts of the multitude were so tremendous that a Partridge, flying over their heads, dropt down dead with the shock.’
The flags and banners proudly proclaimed the protesters beliefs and why they were there in such huge numbers. They demanded universal suffrage, just as the Manchester protestors had done and they mourned the dead.
‘An hour of glorious liberty is worth a whole Eternity of Bondage’
‘Do unto all men as ye would they do unto you’
‘Annual Parliaments – Universal Suffrage – Election by Ballot’
‘The day of retribution is at hand – England expects every man to do his duty” and on the reverse side, “Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory.’
Other banners included the following:
“’In memory of those who were murdered at Manchester’
‘We mourn for the massacred at Manchester’
‘We’ll be brothers for a’that’
‘We fight your wars – and look how you treat us’
‘Through hand joined in hand the wicked will not go unpunished’
A black flag with red border bore; ‘Rachel weeping with her children’ and ‘Would not be comforted because they were not’.’
The demonstrators came from from many places outside Newcastle, shown by the fact that a banner from the the Winlaton Reform Society proclaimed, ‘Evil to him that evil thinks’, whilst a banner from North Shields paid homage, ‘to the immortal memory of the Reformers massacred at Manchester on 16th Aug. 1819′.
It can be safely assumed that there were protestors from Heaton amongst those at the meeting. Indeed John Charlton has reported that Heaton colliery viewer John Buddle , noted that the Heaton pitmen had made the ‘constant cry’, that they worked, ‘far too hard for their wages’ and indeed ‘cannot resist on them’. Buddle also claimed that, ‘one fellow at Heaton, after having solemnly made this declaration last say (sic i.e. pay) Friday, gave 6s. 10d next day for a White Hat, just like Orator Hunt’ (who had addressed the crowd at St Peter’s Field’).
There are still arguments about just how big the crowd was. Those of a conservative bent put the size of the procession at somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000. However, the local newspaper, the Tyne Mercury, estimated that the size of the final crowd was 76,000. It has been noted that this estimate was ‘calculated at four to a square yard was 76,000‘. John Charlton has observed that, ‘an 1881 scale map shows that tents on race days took up around a quarter of the Race Course within the rail and that if people were packed tightly, the figure of 76 000 is by no means unfeasible...’
This was a remarkable show of support for greater civil rights, but is even more incredible when one considers that according to the 1801 Census, the population of Northumberland was 168,078 and that of County Durham 149,384. It gave Newcastle’s population as 28,000. The population from the Tweed to the Tees in 1819 was about 400,000.
The meeting itself, which was peaceful, saw denunciations of the entire political system of the time, as well as criticisms of what had happened two months earlier at St Peter’s Field. Indeed it has been noted that ‘radical Thomas Hodgson of Winlaton, speaking at the great Peterloo protest meeting on the Town Moor in 1819 said, ‘I warn you, gentlemen, against all party men of whatever colour’. ‘
Another of the main speakers, Eneas Mackenzie, delivered a rousing speech in which he denounced both the national government in London and those who ran the local government of Tyneside. He declared that, ‘We are groaning under monstrous debt. Taxes are multiplied to a ruining extent. Our finances are delayed, trade and commerce are languishing. One-fifth of the population are pauperised.’
As can be imagined, it didn’t take long for the establishment to respond. Barely two months later, in December 1819, the Northumberland and Durham Volunteer Cavalry was formed, with Charles John Brandling, the region’s leading Pittite acting as Lieutenant Colonel. There were to be no repeats of the huge 1819 meeting for some time.
However, those residents of Heaton and miners from the Heaton Colliery, who made their way to the Town Moor that October day in 1819, would have their demands met, even if they weren’t alive to see all their hopes fulfilled. Starting with the 1832 Great Reform Act pushed through parliament by Prime Minister Earl Grey, a Newcastle MP whose statue still stands in Newcastle City Centre, working people in Britain did get the vote, bit by bit and struggle by struggle over the next 100 years.
We must never forget the residents and miners of Heaton and all those others who went to the great meeting on the Town Moor in October 1819. We owe them much.
Researched and written by Peter Sagar, Heaton History Group. Thank you to New York City Public Libraries for the digital copy of the engraving.
Peter Cadogan, ‘Early Radical Newcastle’
John Charlton, ‘North East History, Vol 29, 2008’
John Charlton, ‘The Wind From Peterloo; 1819 – Newcastle’s Great Reform Demonstration’
Mike Barke in, ‘Northumbria, History and Identity’
Norman McCord, ‘Some Aspects of North-east England in the 19th Century,’ Northern History Volume V!! 1972
Norman McCord, ‘NE England The Region’s Development 1760-1960’
A Moffat and G Rosie, ‘Tyneside: a history of Newcastle and Gateshead from earliest times’
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