After the second humiliation of the authorities at a major reform meeting on Sandy Brow in 1819, Stockport magistrates’ clerk John Lloyd was irate. On July 12th , he wrote a letter to the Home Office warning “Society is unhinged – Men’s minds are in a deplorable state – a very small spark would produce a great blaze”.

The Under-Secretary of State Henry Hobhouse urged Lloyd to make an example of Wolseley and Harrison, the two main speakers at the June 28th Sandy Brow meeting. Indictments for Harrison and Wolseley’s arrest were issued on July 13th . Wolseley was arrested at his home in Staffordshire soon after but Harrison had left Stockport to attend a series of radical rallies.  

Effects of the Eclipse IN THE “COURTS BELOW,” 1820. From The Total Eclipse by Thomas Dolby and I. R. Cruikshank . Figures depicted are believed to be Wolseley and Harrison on trial.

On July 21st, Harrison attended a rally held in Smithfield, London, where he was due to speak alongside Henry Hunt. Constable William Birch and a second constable arrested Harrison on the hustings, just as he had launched into his speech, and brought him back to Stockport on July 23rd. The police had tried to keep Harrison’s arrival in Stockport a secret but word got out and a crowd of thousands formed around Birch’s house.

Birch left his home to seek advice from John Lloyd who was not in. On his return, he was approached by a group of men and shot in the chest. Birch managed to run, screaming, through the gardens of Loyalty Place, passing the windows of Lloyd’s house and causing much alarm to the inhabitants. The surgeon, Dr. Killer, could not find the bullet and concluded that it must be lodged in Birch’s breastbone.

Local radicals, perhaps fearing the tide of public sympathy turning against them, began to spread tales that Lloyd’s son had shot Birch, that he had been shot only with cotton wadding, or that he had not been shot at all. John Lloyd recounted the events in a broadside:

From the John Lloyd Scrapbook. Stockport Local Heritage Library. Click to enlarge.

Lloyd quickly began a search for the assailants. William Pearson, a weaver, and James George Bruce, an assistant at Harrison’s school, were arrested. Pearson claimed that it was two Irish brothers, James and Jacob McGhinness, that had joined Bruce in the shooting and that Jacob had fired the shot.

One of the most outrageous Reformers who has always dreaded me has betrayed his Friends but it must not be known and through his means I have this day obtained the names of the 2 other persons concerned in the shooting of poor Birch and I have constables with Warrants in all directions to apprehend them _ God speed!  Their names are James Mc.Innis and Jacob Mc.Innis from Co. Down lived near this Town.

Lloyd to Hobhouse, 4 August 1819. The National Archive HO 42/191

Pearson’s information led to the discovery on Jacob McGhinness on 23rd August in Ireland, hiding in his Aunt’s bed with a woman’s cap on. He was arrested and taken to Chester for trial, where a Judge sentenced him to death; McGhinness responded: “It is a fine cure for a pain in the head”. While in prison, he wrote Jacob M’Ghinness, or a memoir of the extraordinary life and wonderful conversion of an infidel, atheistical reformer.

The shooting of Birch was widely reported both nationally and internationally.  In Bologna, Italy, Lord Byron wrote: “In England I see and read of reform… they have wafered Mr. Birch of Stockport.  –There is much of Hunt and Harrison, and Sir Charles Woolsey…”.

“A noble poet- scratching up his ideas” 1823 – a satirical depiction of Byron in Italy. ©Trustees of the British Museum. Click to enlarge.

When Birch died, an autopsy was performed and the bullet was found lodged in his breastbone. The breastbone of Constable Birch is now in the possession of Stockport Museum.  

While McGhinness was still on the run and tensions in the Manchester area reaching fever point, on July 31st The Manchester Observer announced a reform meeting to be held near St Peter’s church on Monday August 9th, with Henry “Orator” Hunt in the chair. Determined to put themselves at the forefront of what promised to be a momentous meeting, the next day the Stockport Union for the Promotion of Human Happiness invited Hunt to stay with the Stockport reformers before going to Manchester:

I am particularly requested by the General Committee of the Stockport Union for Promoting Human happiness to solicit you and your friends to arrive in Stockport (on Your way to Manchester) on Saturday or Sunday next, and oblige use with Your Company until Monday, […] the idea of your arrival here strikes terror to the very foundation of the Borough faction in this part of the country there is nothing but hurry and bustle amongst them this fortnight past, troops marching artillery firing & every species of falsehood that they can possibly circulate with intent to intimidate & warp use from out object, but no, their acts we despise, & every effort they make against use tends to shew their weakness and adds to our strength, out object is our Rights & Liberties, equal Laws and strict Justice but theirs apparently is the direct contrary, but the brave Reformers of Lancashire & Cheshire are not to be intimidated by such a puny and despicable Race of half throttled Dandies.

Perry at Stockport to Hunt (copy), 1 August 1819. The National Archives HO 42/191

By August 9th, the meeting had been postponed until August 16th but Hunt arrived in Stockport anyway as a guest of the Stockport Union and travelled to Manchester with Harrison and Wolseley to give an impromptu address to the disappointed crowds, telling them to come back next Monday to hear him speak.

My Lord,

My Information to your Lordship last night that Mr Hunt had arrived in the quarter turns out to be true. He arrived at Stockport yesterday & Sir C. Wolseley followed him they repaired to the Union rooms & I believe threw that town into great Confusion. This morning about one of P.M. the High Constable of Stockport came over to us at the instance of Mr. Prescot to say that Hunt & Sir Cha. Wolseley, Harrison & Johnson were setting out for Manchester accompanied by a great concourse of people.”

Norris to Sidmouth, August 9th 1819. The National Archives HO 42/191.

On August 14th, Lloyd gloated over the postponement of the meeting:

“The Meeting will take place next week _ How they now feel ashamed that it has not been done sooner!”

Lloyd to Hobhouse, 14 August 1819. HO42/192 f.121 and 122

The Stockport contingent for the meeting had been excitedly preparing to appear at their best at the great meeting in Manchester. On August 11th, an anonymous letter writer informed Stockport Sunday School head Joseph Mayer of the presence of two Radical Reformers in the Stockport Sunday School Orchestra and told him of their intention to play in the band as part of the Stockport procession to the meeting:

Stockport Local Heritage Library. Stockport Sunday School Collection. Click to enlarge.

Transcription of the above image:


I wish to inform you of two great Reformers that attends the Orchestra the first Jas. Gosling & Dooley Gossling said he would never atend if it was not for having the instrument and as for such Characters they are not worth of notice. Some of the Reformers wishes the band to go to Manchester but Sir If I was in your place I would bring Sackbut home and let them go ther play for Mr. Hunt.

I remain yours a true Church

and King and constitution for

Ever huza

August 11 1819                                            

On August 16th, the Stockport contingent of around 1500 men, women and children marched in file with three abreast in perfect order. They carried caps of liberty and banners, as they had done at the reform meetings held at Sandy Brow in Stockport. Along the way, the procession was passed by coach maker and long-time Stockport radical James Moorhouse, who described their conduct as “perfectly Peaceable”.

The procession from Stockport contained 40 women (all members of the Stockport Female Union), and was the second to arrive at the meeting. It was led by Mary Waterhouse, who carried a banner reading ‘SUCCESS TO THE FEMALE REFORMERS OF STOCKPORT’, and who earned the description of “profligate amazon” by loyalists for her involvement in Peterloo (The Trial of Henry Hunt, Esq., Jno Knight, Jos. Johnson [and Others]) .

The Stockport contingent found themselves among the first of the organised parties to arrive on St. Peter’s Field. Having the opportunity to choose their spot to listen to the speakers, they placed themselves behind the hustings, where the slope up to Windmill Street would enable them to have a clear view over the whole of the field.

Detail from the Peterloo Panel created by Megastitchers (The Manchester Branch of the Embroiderers’ Guild). Click to enlarge.

At one, the chief speaker Henry Hunt arrived on the field and took his place on the hustings to the sound of tumultuous cheering. Watching from the first floor of a terraced house on Mount Street, the magistrates read out the Riot Act, ordering the crowd to disperse.

The 60,000 strong crowd were unlikely to have heard the riot act being read from a window. The Manchester Yeomanry, a newly formed and inexperienced part time unit, were ordered to enter the crowd and arrest the speakers. As they neared the hustings, the Yeomanry struggled to press through the dense mass of spectators who had gathered.

“To Henry Hunt, Esqr. 1819.” ©Trustees of the British Museum. Click to enlarge.

At this point, the 14th hussars arrived in Mount Street and the Cheshire Yeomanry on Windmill Street, both in good order. Both regiments immediately entered the field and headed towards the hustings in an effort to clear the field and rescue their comrades who were now isolated amidst the vast crowd.

As the Yeomanry began slashing their way through the crowd, the crush of the masses was now immense and irresistible. From the moment the Manchester Yeomanry entered the crowd it took only ten to fifteen minutes to clear the field. As the dust settled from the tumult of thousands of bodies violently displaced by mounted soldiers, the field was strewn with abandoned clothing, the wounded and the dead.   

“A Peterloo medal”, 1821. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

The Metropolitan and Central Committee assembled a record of the victims of Peterloo, reaching a final figure of 654 people injured and 15 killed, with more dying of their wounds some time later. The list names 50 people from Stockport who were injured on the day, but no known deaths. Whilst not the highest casualty figures of all the contingents on the field, it is by far the highest ratio of injured considering the numbers present. This is accounted for by the fact that they stood close to the hustings where the violence erupted.

Of these 654 injured, at least 168 were women, 4 of whom were known to have died as a result. Although there were at least 8 times the number of men present at the meeting as women, only 3 times as many men were injured, suggesting that the military and police deliberately targeted women.

Victory of Peterloo. 1819. ©Trustees of the British Museum.

Such brutality against women provided reformers with the means to tarnish the government’s reputation. They portrayed the meeting as a peaceful family affair, therefore presenting their attackers as blood-thirsty monsters. The republican Richard Carlile, for example, described “the wanton and furious attack made on [women] by that brutal armed force, the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry.”

Major Dyneley, commander of the Royal Horse Artillery, praised the Stockport Troop that was part of the Cheshire Yeomanry, saying that they “cut their way through [the crowd] in form”. Stockport Yeoman Benjamin Brownhill, the corn dealer who along with Constable Birch had shot through the door of radical surgeon Dr. Cheetham the year earlier, was described as “The butcher of Peterloo”. 

John Lloyd, one of the members of the Stockport Troop, was elated by the triumph of the authorities over the “enemy” on St. Peters Field. He sent an ecstatic email to the Home Office about the “Glorious day at Manchester”:

Stockport 18 Augt. 1819


Altho’ a Capt of Infantry for many years I thought it an honor to enlist into the Stockport Troop of the Cheshire Yeomanry _ & to volunteer my services on the glorious day at Manchr. _ We have come back with honor to day having with our Troop done essential service and obtained praise _ on the Field on Picquet and in pursuit of the Pike men yesterday in the neighbd of Oldham

We took 2 Standards and have brought home with us the one Red & gold _ “Let us Die Like Men and not like slaves” on one side _ on the other _ “Liberty is the Birth-right of man”

The other Green & gold “Henry Hunt Esq the undoubted Friend of Liberty” one side The other _ “Cartwright Universal Suffrage” with the names of “Wolseley Wooler _ Cobett” inscribed in a scroll shall present them to Sir Jno Leicester _ Major Trafford Trafford Esqr was push[?] + took hold of their Colour _ The Casualties are few – 4 men hurt 2 wounded one dangerously _

We have had a glorious meeting today of all the Cheshire worthies at Stockport _ passed some spirited Resolutions _ and a subn to Birch _ you shall have the papers tomorrow _

Harrison the Preacher presented himself at the meeting + was hooted and hissed out of the room _ The Enemy still talk big and arm themselves _ We remain on duty and now is the time to make a good finish _ Excuse the hasty Epistle of Your very faithful and abed Servant

J Lloyd

Lloyd, at Stockport, to Hobhouse, 18 August 1819 National Archives HO42/192

In the aftermath of Peterloo, the desire for revenge among the Stockport radicals was building dangerously. Groups of men were seen congregating on the road between Manchester and Stockport and Lloyd found a pike near a radical’s house in Offerton. Rev. Harrison, though generally a proponent of peaceful radicalism, delivered an inflammatory sermon, saying: “The people should rise en masse to suppress such a tyrannical government as the one of this country: and it will not be long, but very soon, that it shall be overturned.”

“A representation of the Manchester reform meeting dispersed by the civil and military power. Augt. 16th”, 1819. ©Trustees of the British Museum. Click to enlarge.

Horrified by the atrocities committed at Peterloo but alarmed by reports of the vengeful spirit that was spreading across the country, Percy B. Shelley decided to write an appeal to the reformers. “The Masque of Anarchy” casts the ruling class of Britain as tyrannical monsters that derive power from the employment of anarchic violence against the people. The reversal of the usual framing of the establishment as orderly and the people as an unruly mass in need of control warns the reformers to give up the desire for violent retribution: “Do not thus when ye are strong”.

Shelley argues that to use violence for the sake of revenge would sacrifice the long term goal of reform. Victory could yet be won by telling the story of Peterloo, thereby re-imagining the horrors of the 16th as an incitement for the people to find strength in peaceful unity and inspire future generations with the knowledge of their own power:

And that slaughter to the nation                             
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular ⁠—
A volcano heard afar.
And these words shall then become
Like oppression’s thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again ⁠— again — again
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number;
Shake your chains to earth like dew        
Which in sleep had fallen on you ⁠—
Ye are many, they are few.

The Masque of Anarchy , Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819.

 Click to enlarge.

In 1819, John Lloyd sent a Stockport Union membership card to the Home Office. At each of our Peterloo events this year we asked people to sign their names on copies of this card which would have been carried by local reformers, many of whom attended the meeting at St. Peter’s field. Inspired by Shelley’s famous concluding verse, the completed cards form the mane of a lion breaking free from its chains. Members include Mike Joyce of The Smiths, the Oldham Tinkers, Stockport M.P. Ann Coffey, historians Robert Poole and Katrina Navickas and actor Maxine Peake, who wrote on her card “Rise like lions!”.

For more information about Stockport’s role in Peterloo and the reform movement, please contact or visit: Stockport Local Heritage Library, Wellington Road South, Stockport, SK1 3RS. Tel: 0161 474 4530. Email: Web: