George Austin on a recent telling of the Peterloo Massacre

Two history programmes with a difference recently. Children of the Third Reich on the UK History Channel brought together children whose parents or grandparents had experienced the Holocaust, and both sides were anxious. A Jewish woman feared meeting people who might seek to excuse the horrors perpetrated by their parents – one was the son of Martin Bormann, while the father of another was a doctor who conducted appalling operations on helpless Jewish captives.

Not so, and in fact it was moving and liberating for all who took part. After all, none of us can choose our relations, a fact from which I took comfort when I watched the recent Channel 4 documentary on the Peterloo massacre, which took place at St Peter’s Fields in the centre of Manchester on August 16th 1819.

The Yeomanry

There had been a carnival atmosphere when crowds of mill workers from all around Manchester had gathered to hear Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt speak to them about the need of electoral reform to give them proper representation in Parliament.

But with European unrest in mind – it was only thirty years after the French Revolution, and there were stirrings in other countries – the High Sheriff, William Hulton, read the Riot Act and almost immediately sent in the soldiers of the Manchester Yeomanry, an ill-trained collection of part-timers – middle-class shopkeepers and tradesmen.

Eventually they were joined on St Peter’s Fields by the professionals of the 15th Hussars, who were shocked at what they saw and had to threaten the Yeomanry to hold them in check. By then it was too late. Hundreds of men, women and children had been injured and maimed, eleven of them fatally.

What made the Channel 4 programme different was that the dialogue was made up from the recorded testimony of participants at the inquest of a young man who died after having been ‘sliced and stabbed’ by the soldiery.

The sole inquest

There was no inquest for the others who died, but John Lees, a young man of 22 who had fought at Waterloo, was the son of a mill owner and magistrate. John Harmer, a radical lawyer from London, appeared at the start of the inquest and it was through his persistence that the witnesses’ testimonies began to reveal the awful truth, a reality the coroner and his superiors had hoped to brush away in one perfunctory day.

It was only late in the three-week inquest that Lees’ father revealed to the court – to the furious astonishment of the perpetrators of the massacre – that he had brought in Harmer just to make sure that the circumstances of his son’s death were properly investigated. By this time, the High Sheriff, William Hulton, and Roger Entwistle, another magistrate, both directly responsible for ordering the actions of the Yeomanry, were becoming increasingly uneasy at Harmer’s success in bringing out the truth and discomfiting witnesses they themselves had ‘encouraged’ to give false testimony.

In the end they won, in that the coroner adjourned the inquest ‘for six weeks’ and left the court. It was never resumed. To the lawyer John Harmer, looking sadly at the deserted courtroom (in a pub in Oldham) it must have seemed like defeat. But it was a completely hollow victory for Hulton and the magistrates, in that it spurred the process of parliamentary reform.

By allowing the witnesses to speak for themselves, with just a commentary by the dead John Lees to guide the viewer, Channel 4 produced a riveting programme. The Times of London had a correspondent at the inquest and quickly the horror of St Peter’s Fields was revealed to a wider public. Even some of the masters were scandalized by what had happened. One Rochdale mill owner, Thomas Chadwick, described the massacre as ‘an inhuman outrage committed on an unarmed, peaceful assembly.’

William Hulton

As for William Hulton, he was never able to live down the incident in the eyes of working people. He had to turn down a safe parliamentary seat in 1820, and even in 1841, while campaigning for the Tory candidate in Bolton, he was attacked and had to be rescued by party workers as his assailants chanted ‘Peterloo’.

He continued to believe he had done nothing wrong and described August 16th 1819 as ‘the proudest day of my life.’ It was not his only questionable action. Seven years before, at the age of 25, having inherited his father’s post as High Sheriff, he arrested twelve Luddites accused of torching a Westhoughton woollen mill. Four of them, one a boy of only 12, were hanged.

For me it had a more personal interest. My father’s maternal grandmother, who married William Austin, was a Lancashire Hulton, and I have traced her ancestry back to Bleddyn de Hulton in the 12th century, who had fled persecution in his native North Wales and had been granted land near Manchester by the King.

The other Hultons

Happily for us, our line broke from the main Hulton line in about 1270, when John de Hulton, the youngest son of David, Bleddyn’s grandson, married and was given Hulton land in Farnworth, with the main estate centred on Hulton Park going to the eldest son, Richard de Hulton. He it is who is the ancestor of William Hulton.

With three more ‘second sons’ and a reduced inheritance, by the 1800s they had just a couple of farms in Ainsworth, between Breightmet and Bury. By the time of the Peterloo Massacre, my Hulton line had travelled socially far from William Hulton’s and they were listed as farmers, publicans, bleachers, weavers and shopkeepers. Some of those in the cotton industry may well have been among the crowds who gathered on that fateful day in August 1819.

The programme was a deeply shocking portrayal of a terrible event in our history, of callous murder, deliberate cover-ups, intimidation of witnesses, and of powerful interference in the due process of law.

Could it happen now? Well, it was a quite inadvertent coincidence that as the programme came to our screens stories are appearing in the media about the Stevens inquiry into the work of the security services in Northern Ireland, particularly in the early 1990s.

Allegations are increasingly being made of ‘dark forces’ interfering with the enquiry, about the fire attack on their offices that destroyed vital evidence, about intimidation of witnesses and reporters, including the seemingly foolish arrest of a Sunday Times journalist. And it produces paranoia. When intelligence tapes of private conversations between ministers of the present government and IRA leaders are leaked, we now begin to wonder, in the circumstances, if those under investigation are really saying, ‘Watch out!’ Will those whose power is threatened never learn?

George Austin is a former Archdeacon of York.