The area in Stockport once known as Sandy Brow was the site of one of the most important radical reform meetings of 1819. In stark contrast to the calamitous meeting at St. Peter’s field that would follow a few months later, at Sandy Brow a crowd of around 4000 to 6000 reformers successfully resisted an attempt by the authorities to seize the Cap of Liberty and break up the meeting. The triumph of Sandy Brow was celebrated by radicals across the country.
Sandy Brow was a large open area of land between St Petersgate and Wellington Street. The top right corner of this sketch of Stockport, produced in 1818, shows the Brow at the top of the hill in front of Stockport Sunday School. The location had the advantage of being in the centre of town as well as being close to the Stockport Union’s headquarters at the Windmill Rooms on Edward Street.
The meeting was held on the 15th February 1819 at 11 am. Its purpose was to consider whether or not to send a remonstrance to the Prince Regent, as well as to protest against the arrests of local radical leaders Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston.
A crowd of around 6000 reformers carried two banners to Sandy Brow calling for “NO CORN LAWS” and “RIGHTS OF MAN”. They also displayed a Cap of Liberty, which had been brought in from Manchester. The Stockport magistrates’ clerk John Lloyd had tried to take the Cap at Lancashire Bridge but the reformers smuggled it onto the brow.
The Cap of Liberty was adopted by British radicals as a symbol of revolt against the establishment in homage to the French revolutionaries who wore the “bonnet rouge” in order to signify their allegiance to the Revolution. The Cap therefore represented a particularly dangerous threat to local and national authorities, who were seriously concerned that the British radicals may follow the French in overthrowing their government.
Mr Fitton, who presided said: “the people of Stockport, like the universal inhabitants of England, were weary of the joke of petitioning the Commons”. John Thacker Saxton, who would write an article about the meeting in The Manchester Observer, spoke next. He pointed to the Cap of Liberty, which, he claimed, “a ruffian banditti are at this moment contemplating to wrest from your grasp. For his part, should an illegal seizure be attempted, his mind was made up, to perish in its defence.”
The Reverend Joseph Harrison then gave a speech to encourage donations to a subscription for the relief of the radical leaders Bagguley, Drummond, and Johnson, who had been arrested after their heated speeches at the reform meeting on September 1st, as well as urging the reformers to refrain from violence:
You have heard much, and read much, and thought much, therefore act as your own prudence dictates, and as the urgency of the case requires. You have petitioned long to no effect, now you are remonstrating, and perhaps it will be with as little effect. Words are but wind. But I know your patience – you have borne long. – I know your humanity; – it must be dire necessity that will compel you to harsh measures. It is not cowardice, but a tender feeling for your fellow creatures which makes you forbear in the manner you do, – you are the patientest people in the world…Rev. Joseph Harrison qtd. in The Manchester Observer, 20/02/1819.
After Harrison had finished speaking, five constables on horseback rode through the crowd, striking people as they went and attempted to pull down the Cap. Unwilling to give up such an important radical symbol, the crowd fought back and a riot broke out. The cap was knocked to the ground but a reformer picked it up and ran into the fields to hide.
John Thacker Saxton gave a colourful account of the riot in The Manchester Observer:
It was indeed, laughable to see one stout fat fellow…address the Chairman in these words: “I-I-I dede-demand th-th-that cap cap of li-li li-liberty – in th-th-the name of the ki-king!!!” At this instant, a countryman stepped forward, and exclaimed: “Thou art not the first scoundrel that has told a lie in the name of the poor Old King,and I should na wonder if thou’s been stuffing thy guts at his expense now, so tak’ this toothpick, at the same moment the countryman gave Sir John a most unwelcome salute on the left ear with a stout ash-plant […]
‘Stand firm’, was the order of the day, and the air in an instant was darkened with nature’s ammunition, brick bats, stones and mud. The horses, with ten-fold more sense than their riders, unwilling to face ‘the pelting storm’, galloped from the ground, and all the foot-pad crew that were enlisted for the Sandy Brow Expedition were driven before the majesty of the people with the rapidity of lightning.John Thacker Saxton in The Manchester Observer, 20/02/1819.
The speakers were escorted by a cheering crowd to the Windmill Rooms, which were the headquarters of the Stockport Union for the Promotion of Human Happiness. They were followed by a group of military lead by the Rev. Charles Prescot, who was the magistrate and rector of Stockport. Prescot read out the Riot Act in order to disperse the crowd but they refused to move. The Riot Act was an act of Parliament that authorised local authorities to declare any group of twelve or more people a “riotous and tumultuous assembly” and arrest them unless they dispersed within an hour of the act being read.
Prescot asked Rev. Harrison, as the leader of the Union, to persuade the crowd to leave peacefully, after which they moved to the market-place. There, the reformers found some of their friends had been beaten up and a fight broke out again between the reformers and the militia. The Riot Act was read a second time and the crowd started to leave, “but rallied the following hour and, we understand, gave their opponents such a drubbing, as they will have cause to remember to the last moment of their disgraceful existence”(Saxton). After the third reading of the Riot Act late into the night the crowd finally went home, singing the following popular song “Millions be Free!”:
Letters written to the Home Office show that local law enforcement were seriously worried by the events of Sandy Brow. Writing to the Under Secretary of State, magistrate’s clerk and sworn enemy of the reformers John Lloyd reports the events of Sandy Brow:
The Reformers advertised a meeting for the 8th February to take place at Stockport but owing to the Royton Meeting postponed it to the 15th (yesterday). Having an intimation that the Cap of Liberty was to be brought in from Manchester – I got ready with 2 or 3 men to take it on the bridge but it was smuggled in I suppose for after the orators had been some time on the stage and collected numbers to give them sufficient confidence they hoisted the Cap upon the pole of one of their flags – “The Rights of Man” the other “No Corn Bills” […] when the military had marched off the mob reassembled & fell on a few constables with whom was my younger son whom they got down and attempted to kill – They succeeded in punishing him for the love they bear the father – of such cowardly materials are Reformers made but I do wrong to call them by so mild a name –They are traitors & Revolutionists – and I am enabled to prove what I say – They are now organising for a Revolution.Letter from Lloyd to Hobhouse, Under Secretary of State. 16 Feb, 1819. HO 42/184.
Manchester Stipendiary Magistrate James Norris, who would later be attendance at Peterloo, wrote a letter to Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, expressed regret for the attempt on the Cap:
The affair which ensued by the appearance of a party to seize the Cap of Liberty was unfortunate and particularly as it gave the multitude an apparent air of triumph and no doubt several of the men who made the attempt were severely hurt – and one or two nearly killed […] The wages of the weavers are at present extremely low and if the principles held out on these occasions are pursued it can have but one conclusion in some serious public disturbances throughout the country.Letter from Norris to Lord Sidmouth dated 20th Feb, 1819. HO 42/184
Also in a letter to Sidmouth, Charles Prescot warned that the speeches at Sandy Brow were “bold, seditious, & rebellious in the extreme . . . They adopt the Cap of liberty, the fatal signal of murder in the French revolution”.
Just as Norris had feared, the triumph of Sandy Brow was quickly brought to a national audience. Saxton’s article in The Manchester Observer was reprinted in the popular London radical journal The Black Dwarf. The Stockport crowd’s victory also inspired several poems, including one written by the Middleton weaver, and famous radical leader, Samuel Bamford:
“Sandy Brow, A Poem” was written by Henry Ross O’Bryan and dedicated to Rev. Joseph Harrison:
O’Bryan aimed to preserve the name of Sandy Brow for future generations, urging the reader to “Let ages yet unborn, hear, when and how/ The sons of freedom fought on Sandy-brow.” This long poem was written in the epic style and its quality is unusually high; Magistrate Charles Prescot wrote to Lord Sidmouth about the poem, noting that “the stile [sic] of it is superior to what might be expected from an author in Union Street” (HO 42/186/278).
It is not unlikely that the violence of the Yeomanry at Peterloo was influenced by their desire to get their own back for Sandy Brow. John Lloyd was part of the troop of Cheshire Yeomanry that were present at Peterloo, as he had been at Sandy Brow, when his efforts to seize the Cap of Liberty were evaded twice, his troop was routed and his son was given a beating. Benjamin Brownhill, another Cheshire Yeoman, earned the nickname “the Butcher of Peterloo” for his part in the Massacre.
After the massacre in Manchester, the Cheshire Yeomanry went to Stockport to display the flags they had captured from the reformers, including one they had wrested from the Royton Women’s Union reading “let us die like men and not be sold as slaves”. In a letter to the under-secretary of the Home Office Henry Hobhouse, Lloyd gave a glowing review of his troop’s actions on St. Peter’s Field, claiming “We have come back with honour today”.
For more information on Sandy Brow and Stockport Radicalism please contact Stockport Heritage Library at: firstname.lastname@example.org.