Illustration: The Peterloo Massacre
The name of Mr. Hunt is too well known to require it to be introduced to our readers with any long explanation of the particular character which he filled up to the time at which he underwent an imprisonment for a misdemeanour against the government. He was probably the most popular demagogue of the day, with the exception of Wilkes; and, like his prototype, he appears to have been totally undeserving the confidence or the applause of the people. Like Wilkes, too. he was the occasion of several deluded people losing their lives, while he himself escaped with a comparatively trifling punishment.
Hunt was born at Widdington, in the parish of Upavon, near Salisbury Plain, on the 6th November 1773. His father was a respectable farmer; and our hero, when young, being designed for the church, obtained the rudiments of a classical education. At sixteen years of age, however, he altered his mind and joined his father, and having attained great proficiency in his new business, he was treated with great confidence by his father, from whom, at this early age, he imbibed principles diametrically opposed to those which he afterwards espoused. At the time of the threatened invasion in the year 1795, Hunt joined the Evelyn corps of militia; but his commanders having refused to permit their men to quit the county in which they were enrolled, our hero, indignant at the supposed cowardice of his fellows, after having delivered himself of his maiden oration, urging them to volunteer in a new corps, threw his sword at his commander's feet, and immediately afterwards joined a corps established under the patronage of Lord Bruce. It appears, however, that although his lordship's loyalty was greater than that of the officers of the Evelyn militia, his attachment to his manorial rights was so strong, as to occasion a serious quarrel with his followers; for some of them having exercised their powers of sharp-shooting against his lordship's pheasants, they immediately obtained their dismissal from his troop. Hunt was enraged at this supposed affront, and riding to the parade, he publicly challenged his late noble commander to fight a duel. Lord Bruce had not expected to meet with so violent a reception, and fairly fled; but in a few days afterwards he obtained a criminal information against his challenger, in the Court of King's Bench, who was in consequence fined 100l., and sentenced to six weeks' imprisonment. Old Hunt by this time had discharged the debt of nature, and the penalty was soon paid; but the six weeks during which our hero was detained in the Queen's Bench prison served to banish all those feelings of loyalty with which he had before been inspired; and having associated himself with some persons, who were professed democrats, he soon joined them in their political creed. At about this time he was married to the daughter of a respectable inn-keeper, for whom he is said to have formed a most romantic attachment. The heat of his passion appears to have worn off very soon; and ere five years had elapsed he seduced another man's wife, who eloped with him from Brighton. The conduct of Hunt in reference to this person appears to be of a most extraordinary character; for in his Memoirs, he speaks of the unalterable attachment which he bore her, and with the most fulsome declarations of his love for her, dwells on the happiness which he had experienced in her society up to the time of the publication of his work, when she was still living with him (1824). His indignant and injured wife, it appears, received an annuity of 300l. from him, with which she continued to maintain her two daughters, while her son remained under the care of his father, and his mistress.
Mr. Hunt, at this time, appears to have been living in a style of considerable pretension. The high prices of farm produce enabled him to maintain a large establishment, and he followed the sports of the field with great avidity, while he resided in Bath during the months which constituted the "season" of that then gay city.
We do not profess to give any lengthened history of his remarkable career, because to do so would be to exceed the limits and intention of a work of the character of the present; but the following, we believe, will be found to be a faithful, though necessarily short, narrative of the chief circumstances of his life.
While in Bath Mr. Hunt formed an acquaintance with the son of a brewer, who deluded him into a partnership; and it appears that he absolutely lost eight thousand pounds in a brewing concern at Bristol, which was the first occasion of his becoming acquainted with the people of that city.
In 1804 he first attended a public meeting, which was held at Devizes, respecting the conduct of Lord Melville; and, in the next year, he first affixed his name to a public address, calling on the inhabitants of Wiltshire to oppose the corn laws. Having once embarked in politics, he was ever restless, and on every possible occasion he forced himself upon public notice with officious zeal; and in 1807 he came forward at Bristol, to propose Sir John Jarvis, as a fit representative for that city.
His noisy interference on all public questions at this time, drew upon him a host of enemies, particularly among his own neighbours, who forbade him to sport upon their grounds; and, as no gentleman would hunt with him, he was obliged to dispose of his stud of horses. On one occasion he committed a trifling trespass, on which an action was brought against him, when he effectually pleaded his own cause, and, encouraged by success, he determined, from that day forward, to dispense with the assistance of counsel in any legal proceedings in which he might be engaged.
In 1809 he held the first meeting for reform, for by this time he had become a disciple of Cobbett. In 1811 he took a large farm in Sussex, called Rowfant, where he continued to reside for one year, at the expiration of which he sold it, and went to live at Middleton cottage, which is situated on the western road, three miles from Andover.
In 1812 he stood twice candidate for Bristol, but was defeated by a large majority on the opposition of the venerated Sir Samuel Romilly. This year he also became a liveryman of London, and from that time Guildhall was often favoured with his presence. He now attended almost every public meeting throughout the country, and gradually became the idol of the mob, to whose comprehension his speeches were admirably adapted. His patriotism, however, proved injurious to his private affairs, for we find, that in 1815, he had overdrawn his account with his bankers, who refused to advance him any more money.
In 1816 he attended the notorious meeting in Spa-fields, where he acted as chairman; but it is only justice to say, that he had held no previous communication with Thistlewood and his colleagues, except for the purpose of striking out some portion of their resolutions, which he considered as offensive. In the year 1818, he appears to have become so flattered by the success which his previous exertions as a popular speaker had gained for him, that he resolved to stand for Westminster, in opposition to Sir Francis Burdett; but whatever may have been his popularity among his own peculiar party, the experiment was unsuccessful, and at the close of the poll it was found that his friends had given only forty-one votes for him; and he had also to regret his rashness in thus publicly thrusting himself forward, as, while upon the hustings, he was soundly horsewhipped by a gentleman, upon whom he had previously inflicted a cowardly and an unmerited injury.
In the year 1819 the principles of radicalism appear to have reached a point of almost ungovernable fury, and Hunt secured to himself the character of the best and firmest champion of the party, by his conduct at a public meeting, which took place at Smithfield at this period, and at which, in truth, it appears that he acted in a manner without reproach.
An event, however, soon afterwards occurred which procured for him still greater notoriety. The Manchester reformers, who had posted up notices of a meeting to be holden on the 9th of August in this year, for the purpose of proceeding to the election of a representative, as at Birmingham, where the people had, some time before, elected Sir Charles Wolseley as their legislatorial attorney or representative, was informed by the magistrates that as the object of the proposed assemblage was unquestionably illegal, it would not be permitted to take place. In consequence of this expressed determination on the part of the authorities, the meeting was abandoned, but fresh notices were issued for a new assemblage on the 16th of the same month, with the avowed legal object of petitioning for a reform in parliament. An open space in the town, called St. Peter's Field, was selected as the place of meeting, and never upon any former occasion of a similar nature was so great a number of persons known to have met together. For some hours before the proceedings were appointed to commence, large bodies of people continued marching into Manchester from the neighbouring villages and towns, formed in ranks five deep, and many of them armed with stout staves, while the whole body stepped together as if trained for military purposes. Each party bore its own banners, and among others two clubs of female reformers made their appearance, bearing flags of white silk. By mid-day it was calculated that 60,000 persons had assembled. The magistrates, it appears, were anxious that the peace should be preserved, and a number of special constables were sworn in, who formed themselves in a line, from the house in which the justices were sitting, to the stage or waggon fixed as a platform for the speakers. Soon after the business of the meeting had commenced, a body of yeomanry cavalry entered the ground, and advanced with drawn swords towards the stage, when their commanding officer called to Mr. Hunt, who was addressing the meeting, and informed him that he was his prisoner. Mr. Hunt endeavoured to procure tranquillity among the people, and offered to surrender himself to any civil officer who should present himself, and should exhibit his warrant; and a constable immediately advanced and took him into custody, with some other persons who were similarly engaged. Some uneasiness being now exhibited among the mob, the yeomanry cried out to seize their flags. The men stationed near the waggon, in consequence began to strike down the banners, which were attached to the platform, and a similar course being pursued with respect to those which were raised in other parts of the field, a scene of the most indescribable confusion ensued. The immense number of persons on the field, rendered it almost impossible for the military to move without trampling down some of them underfoot; and some resistance being offered, many persons, including females, were cut down with sabres, and while some were killed, the number of wounded amounted to between three and four hundred. In a short time, however, the ground was cleared of its original occupants, and as they fled in all directions, military patroles were immediately placed in the streets, to preserve tranquillity.
It would be almost impossible to give any lengthened or minute description of this riot, or "massacre," as it has always been called by the radical opponents of government, without in some degree entering into the very strong feeling of party prejudice, which has been universally excited upon the subject. The real circumstances of the case may be said to be unsettled even to this day; and while the magistrates and their friends declare that, the Riot Act having been read, the subsequent proceedings on the part of the soldiery were both justified and necessary, the friends of the people as invariably deny the allegation of the reading of the Riot Act, and therefore contend that the introduction of a military force was harsh and unconstitutional. The whole transaction does not appear to have occupied more than ten minutes, in the course of which time the field seems to have been cleared of its recent occupiers, and filled with different corps of infantry and cavalry. Hunt and his colleagues were, after a short examination before the magistrates, conducted to solitary cells, on a charge of high-treason, and on the following day notices were issued by the magistrates, by which the practice of military training, alleged to have been carried on in secret, by large bodies of men, for treasonable purposes, was declared to be illegal. Public thanks were, by the same authority, returned to the officers and men of the respective corps engaged in the attack; and, on the arrival in London of a despatch from the local authorities, a cabinet council was held, the result of which was, the return of official letters of thanks to the magistrates, for their prompt, decisive, and efficient measures for the preservation of the public tranquillity; and to all the military engaged, for the support and assistance afforded by them to the civil power.
The circumstances of the Manchester case eventually turned out to be such, that government, by the advice of the law officers of the crown, found it expedient to abandon the threatened prosecution of Mr. Hunt and his colleagues for high-treason. Those persons were accordingly informed that they would be proceeded against for a conspiracy only, which might be bailed; but Mr. Hunt refused to give bail, even, as he said, to the amount of a single farthing: but some of his friends liberated him. On his return from Lancaster, where he had been confined, to Manchester, Hunt was drawn about two miles by women, and ten miles by men. In fact, his return was one long triumphal procession, waited upon by thousands, on horse, on foot, and in carriages, who hailed him with continued shouts of applause.
The sensation produced throughout the country by this fatal business was intense. Hunt's conduct was universally applauded, and he received the thanks of nearly every county in England, and those even who opposed him on principle now forgot their enmity, and hailed him as the uncompromising champion of liberty. His entry into London was public, and some of the first characters of the day honoured him with their presence, whilst hundreds of thousands welcomed him with deafening applause.
The agitation had hardly subsided when true bills were found against Hunt and his companions, and their trials came on at York, and continued, without intermission, for fourteen days, during which time Hunt displayed powers of intellect, and acuteness of perception, of which even his friends did not suppose him to be possessed. He was found guilty, however, and ordered to be brought up to the Court of King's Bench for sentence, but he afterwards moved, in person, for a new trial. Although he argued with all the tact and ability of the most experienced lawyer, his motion was refused, and he was sentenced to two years and a half imprisonment in Ilchester jail.
He had not been long incarcerated when he brought to light a system of the most infamous cruelty which had been practised on the unfortunate inmates of that prison by the barbarous jailor. Mr. Hunt himself, being treated with great cruelty, addressed a letter to Mr. Justice Bayley, detailing cases of atrocious cruelty; and the question being at length brought before the House of Commons, an inquiry followed. Hunt substantiated all his charges, and the inhuman jailor was dismissed and punished, while the country rang with the praises of his accuser.
The period of his imprisonment having expired, he again made a public entry into London; but he found that the times had changed, even during that short time. The public prosperity had banished discontent, and with it that wild enthusiasm, which had before been exhibited in his favour, and he was greeted with none of those demonstrations of delight which had been before exhibited. He made several attempts to arouse the lethargy of his former admirers, but in vain; and he at length betook himself to repair his broken fortunes by the manufacture of English coffee, with roasted corn, and subsequently in 1824 he added that of blacking; and so successful was he in this enterprise, that "Hunt's matchless "became almost as celebrated as the polish of Messrs. Day and Martin.
Mr. Hunt was subsequently returned as member for Preston in Lancashire, and he died while yet representing that place in parliament.