Leading up to the Peterloo Massacre, Stockport became known as a hotbed of radicalism and the town was home to a number of protest rallies, strikes, marches and riots. Stockport radicals Reverend Joseph Harrison and John Bagguley led the way in oration and organisation, hosting rebellious reform meetings and forming the influential Stockport Union for the Promotion of Human Happiness.

“THE PUBLIC INFORMER”, from Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built

Local radicals were met with fierce opposition from the authorities; magistrates’ clerk John Lloyd was particularly keen to impede the progress of radicalism in Stockport. The two magistrates, Rev. John Phillips and Rev. Charles Prescot, were both elderly and they delegated much to their ambitious young clerk. Consequently, Lloyd became the de-facto head enforcer of the government’s repressive anti-radical laws and he wielded his considerable power with an iron fist. Lloyd’s role in subduing the Luddite uprising in 1812 had earned him major recognition both locally and nationally.

Lloyd engaged a wide network of informers that infiltrated radical circles and let him know what they were planning. He would then use this information to write detailed and frequently alarming reports to the Home Office, warning them of the “Traitors & Revolutionists” who he claimed were “now organising for a Revolution”. Lloyd’s diligence attracted the attention of Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, who expressed his gratitude for Lloyd’s “zeal and activity”. 

Lloyd employed his typically colourful writing style in his description of the arrival of the prodigious radical orator John Bagguley in 1818:

“That infamous Bagguley has given the common people of the town a sort of confidence to abuse and traduce everyone in authority or in superiority of situation.”

Lloyd to Hobhouse 12.08.1818, HO 42.179.
“An Orator, not quite from Greece” from The Dorchester Guide Or A House that Jack Built.

Originally from Manchester, Bagguley moved to Stockport to live with his reformist uncle Joseph Armstrong in 1818. Although he was still a teenager when he started his career as an orator, Bagguley quickly became famous for his ability to draw huge crowds with his flamboyant and occasionally violent speeches. He once told an audience “If you want a leader, I will lead you, and, sword in hand, I’ll lose the last drop of my blood in the glorious cause of freedom!”.

In July, Bagguley began to teach day and evening classes for the workers of Stockport at the Windmill Rooms on Edward Street, where he would eventually be joined by Reverend Joseph Harrison. Bagguley was a considered by Lloyd to be particularly dangerous due to his attempts to convince the striking weavers that radical political reform, rather than turning out for higher wages, was the best way to improve their miserable conditions.

Bagguley, along with his frequent collaborators Samuel Drummond and John Johnston, was accused of inciting the weavers during the summer of 1818 when industrial unrest in Stockport reached a boiling point. At the start of July, Stockport weavers gave notice of a planned walk out unless wages were increased but their Masters refused. Tensions increased when Thomas Garside brought in “black-legs”, from Burton-on-Trent strike to break the strike. 

“A Reprobate Pack” from The Dorchester Guide, Or, A House that Jack Built.

Violence finally broke out on July 16th when hundreds of workers attacked Garside’s mill. The authorities dispersed the crowd, with the help of cavalry brought in from Manchester. When reading out the Riot Act the magistrate Robert Harrison accused Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston of instigating the strike not for an advance of wages, “but to gratify their Hellish inclinations by throwing the whole country into rebellion”. Drummond angrily contested this claim in the Manchester Observer, deeming it a “foul and impudent accusation”.

Also in the Manchester Observer, Bagguley claimed that during the riot Constable William Birch and Yeoman Benjamin Brownhill had fired shots at the house of radical surgeon Dr Thomas Cheetham, after the doctor had refused to submit to arrest. More seriously, the aged pauper William Reek died of his injuries, allegedly after soldiers dragged him from his bed and beat him on the head and back with swords. When the coroner’s jury concluded that Reek died of natural causes, Bagguley published a broadside entitled “Oh Horrible!”, calling for a meeting on the 10th August about the two incidents.

Bagguley, 1818. The National Archives HO 42/179/ 130.

Despite Drummond’s denial of the trio’s involvement in the riot, the authorities were correct in their belief that the young Stockport radicals were actively seeking to recruit the weavers to the cause of radical reform. This handbill circulated around Stockport in August was believed to have been written by Bagguley:

Bagguley, 1818. The National Archives. HO 42/179/295

The handbill encourages to weavers to engage in “warfare”, armed with the powers of reason, determination and argument; “Thus armed you may conquer a World of Tyrants”.  Bagguley cleverly employs militaristic metaphor to inflame the passions of his audience but stops just short of advocating actual violence. The use of such passionate language and pugnacious imagery is characteristic of Bagguley’s rhetoric and symptomatic of his preference for direct action in the pursuit of reform.

“THE PRIEST, neither shaven nor shorn”, from The Dorchester Guide, Or, A House that Jack Built.

During the summer, Bagguley was joined at the Windmill Rooms by Reverend Joseph Harrison who had recently moved to Stockport from Glossop. Harrison was a Nonconformist Minister and renowned radical orator who described himself as “chaplain to the poor and needy”. Employed at the Windmill Rooms as a teacher and preacher, Harrison’s classes and sermons became extremely popular.

Harrison was an energetic and dynamic promoter of the radical movement in Stockport and he quickly gained national fame for his influence and oratorical abilities. He spoke at reform meetings across the country as a delegate for Stockport and he became an associate of Henry Hunt. Harrison was the probable target of the parody of the radical clergyman in loyalist pamphlet The Dorchester Guide, Or, A House that Jack Built.

On September 1st, Harrison chaired a large reform meeting held in the town centre on Sandy Brow attended by hundreds of workers from Stockport, plus 500 spinners from Manchester and 300 from Ashton. Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston were the main speakers. The meeting coincided with the first day of the weavers’ strike, but the majority of weavers were at this time keen to distinguish themselves from the radical reformers.

“Ruffian assemblies”, 1819. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The meeting was nevertheless very well attended and the jubilant speakers were all were reported to have drunk heavily. Bagguley urged forcing Parliament to support reform using armed resistance, and suggested the establishment of a National Convention while Johnston threatened to “blow out the brains” of government ministers Sidmouth, Castlereagh and Canning. Radicals hated these three government ministers for their part in suppressing the reform movement.

“THE DOCTOR. DERBY-DOWN TRIANGLE. THE SPOUTER OF FROTH”, from Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built

As Home Secretary, Sidmouth had been responsible for some of the most repressive measures for dealing with social unrest. These measures included the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1817, the Gagging Acts and the Six Acts in 1819. He also made machine breaking punishable by death following the Luddite Riots. Canning was involved in the founding of the Anti-Jacobin, a counterpoint to the proliferation of radical journals and periodicals. War Secretary Castlereagh was widely despised and when he committed suicide, Lord Byron suggested the following epitaph: “Here lie the bones of Castlereagh: Stop, traveller, and piss”.

The meeting dispersed peaceably, but Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston were later arrested and charged with sedition. Their bail was set at the unmanageable sum of £2000, so they remained in jail until spring 1819. Harrison, along with John Knight, and Liverpudlian pamphlet seller, Joseph Mitchell and Dr Thomas Cheetham, filled the resulting vacuum in the radical leadership of Stockport.

Membership card of the Stockport Union. The National Archives, HO 42/157/309.

In October, Harrison formed The Union for the Promotion of Human Happiness, and they set up their headquarters in the Windmill Rooms alongside Bagguley’s school. The society was initially set up to raise funds for the three prisoners. Harrison drew up the declaration and principles of the Union and had them published as a pamphlet. The aims of the Union were to achieve universal suffrage, annual parliaments and secret ballots. Union member G.L. Bolsover said that the Union’s object was “to obtain a great and positive good, viz. equal rights, equal laws, equal justice; and our weapons being reason, discussion and persuasion”.

Declaration of the Union, probably written by Harrison. The National Archives, HO 42/187/136-9.

The Union became the most successful radical organisation in Stockport and it may have been supported by as many as 1 in 10 local people. Its popularity was due to several factors; emphasis on education and religion, openness to women, and being a simple and tolerant organisation. The Union also housed its own Sunday school, the first to be organised by a radical group in England, which contained around 2000 pupils at its peak. The Manchester Chronicle lamented that “Stockport led the way” in setting up Sunday Schools with a reforming ethos and further schools opened up in Manchester, Oldham, & Bury, with more soon on the way.

Following Harrison’s efforts to publicise the formation of the Union, the arrests of Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston gained the attention of influential reformers from across the country. The radical Baronet Sir Charles Wolseley and reformist politician Sir Francis Burdett both offered to post bail for the three prisoners in Chester Castle.

Image result for Henry Hunt Esqre

Henry Hunt Esqre 1819. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

In January 1819, famous radical orator Henry Hunt visited Stockport and addressed crowds from the Bull’s Head in Stockport Market Place. In a letter to the Home Office John Lloyd complained that Hunt “gave audience to all the ragamuffins in the town”. Hunt was known for his rousing rhetoric and delivered speeches in favour of Universal Suffrage at radical rallies all over the country. Stockport radicals adopted Hunt’s fashion of wearing white, undyed, hats to emulate Henry Hunt, as a public declaration of their beliefs.

On February 15th, 6000 Stockport radicals met at Sandy Brow. The meeting decided that the radicals’ main aims were Parliamentary reform, support for Bagguley and others imprisoned, and a repeal of the Corn Laws.  They displayed two banners with the phrases “No Corn Laws” and “Rights of Man”, and a cap of liberty on a pole. Yeoman and constables were sent to confiscate the cap of liberty and disperse the crowd, but were themselves displaced and routed by the radicals. John Lloyd’s son was among those assaulted.

“Radical tottering pyramid inverted”, 1820. ©Trustees of the British Museum

Though previously keen to separate themselves from the radicals, some hand loom weavers began to join the Union and call for reform meetings. In June this trend increased when the employers of the hand loom weavers reneged on the agreements made in September 1818. The Stockport Weaver’s Committee gave up its campaign on minimum wages and the twist export ban, and threw their full weight behind the radicals. With the widespread support of the cotton workers finally secured, the Stockport reform movement was now at its strongest.

The National Archives, HO 42/188/196

On June 28th, another reform meeting was held on Sandy Brow with a crowd that numbered “upwards of 20,000 people”, according to the Manchester Observer (03/07/1819). This audience was composed of a number of smaller groups that had marched in processions from surrounding towns carrying banners with reformist slogans. The committee for the Stockport Union believed that loyalist spies had been encouraging people to take weapons to the meeting so that the authorities would be able to justify suspending Habeas Corpus. They issued the following handbill to remind people that it was “by legal and constitutional measures only that they can obtain a Radical Reform”:

The National Archives, HO 42/188/1/2

The guest of honour was Sir Charles Wolseley, the Radical Baronet, one of the founders of the original Hampden Club, a radical debating society formed in London in 1812.  A member of a very old and very rich Staffordshire family, Wolseley often donated money to reformers that had been imprisoned. The presence of Wolseley suggests that Stockport was becoming increasingly regarded as an important site of national radicalism.

Wolseley set the tone by mythologising the first Sandy Brow meeting, describing the victory of the protesters over the “lawless banditti [who] instead of wresting from your hands your Cap and Banner, they have rendered the name of Sandy Brow sacred to the cause of Liberty’ [cries of ‘Bravo, Bravo! Hoist the Cap’, vociferated from thousands]”. (Manchester Observer 03/07/1819). 

The Birmingham new member, 1819. ©Trustees of the British Museum. According the reformist device of electing members for unrepresented towns, Wolseley was appointed “legislatorial attorney” for Birmingham in July 1819.

Perhaps emboldened by the air of celebration the language used by speakers became increasingly wild. Wolseley denounced the government in the strongest terms, instructing the informers in the audience:

“tell Sidmouth Castlereagh and the mountebank George Canning that there is no love lost between themselves and the PEOPLE OF ENGLAND for these gentry have long since shown their hatred to the labouring classes we the ‘lower orders’ must in just retaliation declare that we not only hate, but we despise and abominate them all alike that we do not intend to suffer hatred to exhaust itself in idle Words.”

Wolseley qtd. in the Manchester Observer 03/07/1819

Likewise, Saxton, the Radical orator and writer for the Manchester Observer, railed against the now deceased ex-Prime Minister, “that infernal Monster Pitt”. It was Reverend Harrison, however, that made the most offensive comments, regarding the futility of the people “petitioning their own servants for a portion of their rights”, he argued that

“If the people are to petition at all let them petition either of the two branches the Throne or the Lords; and indeed, if we could only get to the former, it would have this effect – it would decide a point in many unbelievers, whether the seat of royalty was or was not occupied by a pig or a man (loud laughter) and that perhaps might be the extent of the  benefits we could justly contemplate. The monsters behind the throne had skinned us alive, and were now starving us to death, for we are being ground to the face of the earth, whilst hey are belching full of the luxuries of the land, wrung from the sweat of the poor man’s brow”.

Harrison qtd. in the Manchester Observer 03/07/1819

George IV was notoriously fat, a characteristic that Radical satirist William Hone lampooned in the Political House that Jack Built. He was also known for an excessive lifestyle and extravagant spending at a time when the Napoleonic Wars were imposing huge taxes on the people, causing widespread poverty and starvation.

“A Dandy of Sixty” from Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The meeting concluded with no interference by the authorities, who perhaps feared a repeat of the events of February 15th meeting on a larger scale. A dinner was held at the Stockport Union rooms during which a great many toasts were made by drinking out of the cap of liberty. The meeting concluded with a reading of a poem that had been written for the occasion by Isaac Murray, who was later wounded at Peterloo:

Isaac Murray, printed in the Manchester Observer 03/07/1819

The meeting was therefore a resounding triumph for the radicals, as John Lloyd confesses in a melodramatic letter to Home Office Under-secretary Hobhouse:

“We are forever disgraced, and if the Cap of Liberty has any symbolic meaning the Revolution has actually commenced. The effect cannot easily be done away with”.

Lloyd to Hobhouse, 28/07/1819, HO 42/188 .

Stockport Radicals were in the ascendant and gaining the support from a wide range of inhabitants, to the authorities’ considerable alarm. The government, fearing an imminent revolution, were prepared to sanction any measures necessary to quell a potential uprising.