The rotten borough of Dunwich in Suffolk gained notoriety in Blackadder the Third when its most notable voters were ‘a dachshund named Colin and a small hen in its late forties’. In the early 1800s, Dunwich was practically under the sea and had only 32 registered voters. Similarly, Old Sarum in Wiltshire was a desolate district with only one voter. Manchester, on the other hand, was a thriving city, with a population of 100,000, on the cusp of leading Britain into the industrial age. What did these three places have in common? Their parliamentary representation consisted of two MPs each.
The Manchester Patriotic Union Society (PUS) had been agitating for reform and its support had swelled due to the harsh economic conditions of the post-Napoleonic age. The Corn Laws of 1815 forbade the import of cheap grain from other countries in order to protect British producers. This resulted in a fixed high price of food at a time of severe shortages. To make matters worse, the wages of agricultural workers had fallen to one third of what they had been 10 years earlier.
To address these urgent issues, a protest meeting was arranged for 16 August 1819 in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, with an expected crowd of at least 80,000. The leaders were conscious of the somewhat negative reputation reformers had in the press, and instructions were given to all participants to promote ‘cleanliness, sobriety, order and peace’ and there was also a ‘prohibition of all weapons of offence or defence’.
However, only days before the meeting, a government spy intercepted a PUS invitation to Henry ‘The Orator’ Hunt to address the meeting, which said that the economic and social situation of the people of north-west England was so desperate that ‘nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection’. The government reaction was swift; the military was summoned, which consisting of 600 men from the 15th Hussars, two six-pounder guns, cavalry and a locally recruited militia, which bizarrely included a sizeable number of publicans infuriated that the throats of the reformers would remain dry on the day. The reaction showed that the decision-makers in the government, most of whom had stark memories of the French Revolution in 1789, were unable to differentiate between revolution and reform.
On the warm and clear summer’s day at St Peter’s Field, the sober reformers, donning their Sunday best, arrived in great numbers from surrounding areas such as Oldham, Rochdale and Stockport. They carried banners proclaiming ‘No Corn Laws’ and ‘Annual Parliaments’. At midday, the military formed a corridor through the crowd, which led to the hustings upon which Hunt would address the meeting. On his arrival, the crowd burst into enthusiastic cheers and whoops of joy.