Peterloo anniversary | My family history and C19th electoral reform

This week is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. It was Britain’s Tiananmen Square, with pro-democracy demonstrators facing off against the military, on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, 16th August 1819.

My great-great-great Grandfather was in the front line of the demonstrators and an eye witness to the violence.

If you know a lot about C19th British history, maybe from Fred Wharton’s A level class, you can skip the next bit.  

Harsh economic conditions and a political system that excluded most people in the North had created enthusiasm for political reform.   Parliament had passed the Corn Laws – protectionists legislation that benefited landowners at the expense of ordinary people.   

A mass meeting was held to hear radical orator Henry Hunt give a speech urging parliamentary reform, which attracted a crowd of nearly 80,000 people.   At the time only a tiny number of people, all men, could vote, and cities like Manchester had no MPs

The demonstration, while entirely peaceful, was seen as deeply threatening by the local magistrates, who had no official police force to keep order. The Terror of the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars had scared the English ruling classes beyond belief and demonstration of this size terrified the local magistrates. Fearing a revolution, local magistrates ordered the 15th Hussars to charge the crowd forcing them to disperse, killing 18 and injuring nearly 700.

The impact of the Hussar charge was huge.  The incident was nicknamed Peterloo, after the battle of Waterloo.   The campaign for electoral reform was strengthened hugely, and reform of the police followed shortly after.

Percy Bysshe Shelley immortalised events in his poem Masque of Anarchy, where he describes Tory leader Viscount Castlereagh and the Manchester magistrates in these bleak terms:

I met Murder on the way –
He had a mask like Castlereagh –
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

My ancestor, Thomas Chadwick, was in the front ranks of the Chartists on the day, and was an eye witness to events. History books recall Thomas as a mill owner, but I think this is a bit overstated.  He came from a family of weavers, and his mill probably only had a few looms run by family members.  His descendant Robert Chadwick would go on to become a large scale mill owner, and by all accounts a proper bastard. Robert married into the Staffordshire branch of the Chadwick family in order to gentrify himself. Another relative, Andrew Chadwick, was a slum landlord, who died fabulously wealthy. Thomas is my great-great-great Grandfather.

His brother James’ best friend was next to him, and was killed in the Dragoon charge.  The next day he wrote to his brother and described the events.  His description contains one of the most memorable lines ever written about Peterloo:

“an inhuman outrage committed on an unarmed, peaceful assembly.”

I was able to secure a copy of the letter in it’s entirety from the Rochdale archives.


Matching the letter to the list of victims I think he is describing the death of William Bradshaw, who was shot with a musket.

The significance of letters like this was crucial to the way Peterloo was perceived. The magistrates fought hard to get their version of events across, and newspapers like the Manchester Mercury were happy to oblige, praising “the necessary ardour of the troops in the discharge of their duty”, and blaming the radical orator Henry Hunt, who deserved “the deep and lasting execrations of many a sorrowing family”. 

The Times however went with the account of a Manchester businessman John Edward Taylor, which appeared on their front page on August 18th 1819

Taylor went on to found the Manchester Guardian as a direct response to Peterloo.

The Press condemnation, and the impact of letters like Thomas Chadwick’s had a profound effect. EP Thompson wrote “Never since Peterloo has authority dared to use equal force against a peaceful British crowd.”

Tiananmen Square by contrast did not prove to be decisive in changing Chinese history despite the stark image of the protestor facing down the tanks:

The true nature of events at Tiananmen Square are still disputed, however it is likely that nearly 10,000 were killed by 27 Army Group, according to a British Diplomatic cable:

It would be great to think that modern events would have more Thomas Chadwick’s recording their accounts, which would make it easier for the truth to get out. Instead it is easier for people who want to create a counter-narrative to spread disinformation and for Government’s to control the flow of information.

It would be great to think that current events in Hong Kong would have a better outcome than Tiananmen, but looking at troops massing at the border I am doubtful that is the case

Chadwick History Bit

For those of you interested in Chadwick family history this is my Grandfather, Robert:

My grandfathers grandfather was George Chadwick of Prestwich Manchester, baptised St Marys Prestwich 12/7/1807, married and buried All Saint Stand. His father was Thomas Chadwick, baptised 27/6/1766, St Marys Prestwich, the witness to the Peterloo massacre.

Thomas’ mother was called Alice, and his father was Samuel. Samuel was baptised St Chads Rochdale 24/4/1721, married Sarah Lock, 11/9/1757. His father was Robert.

At some point in the C17th my family moved from Rochdale to Prestwich. The last family member to live in Rochdale was Robert or Roberte Chadwick. The problem is that there are so many Robert(e) Chadwicks in Rochdale in the C17th that it’s hard to work out which one. There is a Roberte Chadwick who married a Dibrah Healey, but I think that the last Rochdale Chadwick is a generation older.

Working out why the family moved is equally hard. My best guess is that after the English Civil War Colonel Lewis (Louis) Chadwick, a hero of the New Model Army, moved to Lancashire. He was from the more aristocratic Staffordshire branch of the Chadwicks, but married into the Lancashire branch, gaining land.

This would make my family Roundheads; Puritans or Presbyterians. It does stick out that my family seem to have a rather limited choice of names; lots of Roberts, Andrews and Johns, which continues to this day. This is a feature of puritan families. We also have in the family tree a female relative called Silence Chadwick, which is about as Puritan as you can get.

My guess is that we were a fairly austere puritan family working in the cloth trades, probably as craftsmen working from home, who moved to Prestwich following Lewis Chadwick and his son John, who also served with distinction under Cromwell. A century later the black sheep of the family Thomas Chadwick, joined the Princes Manchester Regiment to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie, for which he was hung drawn and quartered at Tyburn. Accounts at the time stress the pious protestantism of his family, and their aversion to popery.

Getting much further back from the mid-C17th is a tricky task, give the numbers of Robert Chadwicks in Rochdale. In the C19th Robert Chadwick, the horrible mill owner, had a number of his poorer ancestors dug up and re-buried in his new family vault, in order to disguise his humble origins. Without their grave stones to act as a cross reference we have little that allows us to work out which Robert Chadwick is our ancestor.

2 thoughts on “Peterloo anniversary | My family history and C19th electoral reform

  1. Hi
    One hell of a coincidence here. I have been contributing to two forum posts, one is about Peterloo the other concerns my, (sorry, our) ancestor Lewis Chadwick . Here you are with both. Any way, great article.

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