Forget not St. Peter's Fields

Banners are great sources for historians of popular politics and protest. They can provide a much needed point of entry into the worldview of the masses who attended radical meetings. As historians we shouldn’t just focus on radical leaders like Henry Hunt and the speeches they gave at meetings. Of course, like any source they have their problems – how accurate were the reports in the press of the inscriptions and symbols; was it just the most eye-catching that made it into the columns of the press? Who made their banners, and why?

In this blog, which accompanies the latest set of banner inscriptions that I’ve just uploaded to my website, I focus on a mass radical meeting at Halifax on 4 October 1819.

The Halifax meeting was one of many held in the aftermath of Peterloo to protest against the actions of the authorities, to show solidarity with those left behind, and – in the words of the one banner inscriptions (no. 11 in the database): ‘Go call thy sons: instruct them what a debt they owe their ancestors’; reverse, a figure of Britannia, prostrate and weeping, motto ‘Forget not St Peter’s Field’.

This was not only a rallying call for the radical movement, it would also mark the beginning of the commemoration of Peterloo by radicals. Of course, earlier generations of radical reformers had occasionally invoked their ancestors to bolster the cause, but Peterloo was different – the never-to-be-forgotten 16 August 1819: ‘The immortal Memory of the Murdered Reformers at Manchester’, in the words of a banner from Ovenden (no. 4).

This time, working-class radicals were remembering their own; they were not just invoking the names of radical greats, dead and alive, like Henry Hunt, but also remembering the loss of working-class life at the hands of the state. To give him his dues, though, clearly Hunt was widely seen as the leader of radical reform at this time; no other leader, we might note, is mentioned on the banners.

As the banner inscriptions show, particular attention was paid to the suffering of women and children at Peterloo, which is congruent with the wider ways in which Peterloo would be responded to in the immediate aftermath. The banner belonging to the Female radicals of Gauckliffe (no. 25) made a particular point of this. Interestingly, this group of women also used their banner to make a statement in support of ‘The Rights of Women’, the precise details of which are not stated – perhaps deliberately to avoid causing too much controversy. Women had to be careful when entering the ‘manly’ public sphere of politics.

Perhaps what stands out the most are the many religious messages, by far and away the most dominant theme of the banner inscriptions. On one level, this is hardly surprising given just how important religion was in the early nineteenth century, and the working classes were no exception. Britain was underground a religious revival in the early decades of the nineteenth century. But in reaching for scripture, the producers and displayers of banners were doing more than just reflecting the religiosity of their times. What better way of rebuking the authorities and the state by turning the religious tables on them. In shedding blood on St. Peter’s Fields, the authorities stood condemned as Christian men.

Finally, the tone struck by the banners is interesting. It is not, as one might expect, a uniform one of outrage. Satire, including humour, is also present, and again this is of a piece with the wider cultural context in which radicalism operated during these Regency years. Hence the presence of a cabbage (no. 30 in the database), the caricature of the politician George Canning (no. 54), and the ‘very large mop’ (no. 59). Like all sage protesters, the radicals of Halifax knew only too well that indignation was only one of a number of weapons that they could deploy in their attacks on the state: lampooning also scored points.