I have been a human rights activist in Northeast England for over 30 years and of course had the honour of being the Amnesty International UK for 14 years between 2000 and 2014. In those 30 years of activism I have felt that there is a groundswell of support for human rights’ work out there, if we could only make the stories we tell more relevant to people in our region and help people to feel that they are their stories as well. One way of doing that would be to show how we went through many of the same human rights struggles here as they are now going through in other countries today; it is just that we industrialised earlier and went through the struggles much earlier. Remembering our own struggles for human rights in the Northeast and Yorkshire also reminds us how our human rights in this country had to be fought for and can be lost if we are not vigilant.
Perhaps the most striking example of the way in which ordinary people of North-East England showed their desire for human rights came in their reaction to the Peterloo Massacre, which took place on the St Peter’s Fields, just outside Manchester on 16th August 1819. A large crowd had come that day to listen to Henry Hunt and demand their democratic rights, but they were instead attacked by yeomanry on horseback. The yeomen, who wanted to arrest Hunat, were said to have slashed their way through the crowd. Consequently, a young girl was trampled on and she died. This made the crowd very angry and they surrounded the yeomanry who were supported by the regular troops who attacked the assembly, resulting in eleven further fatalities. (1) A witness to the events that day, One of the organisers of the protest, Samuel Bamford, later recalled that, “the sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air, over the whole field, were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress; trampled, torn and bloody…All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.” (2) This resulted in a wave of protests spreading throughout England and the North-East and Yorkshire was no exception to this.
According to the Tyne Mercury, a meeting was held in Newcastle on 8th October where it was decided that “the only solution to war, taxation, corruption and ‘misrepresentation of the people in Parliament’ was ‘radical reform of the House of Commons’. On the same day in Sunderland, all the corn in the market was seized and soup kitchens were opened by the Corporation, for what were described as the ‘deserving poor’. (3)
W. Weatherston, issued notices for a General Meeting to protest what happened at Peterloo on behalf of the United Committees of Political Protestants in Newcastle and Gateshead. The notices announced that the meeting was to take place on 11th October at midday on the Parade Ground in Newcastle, where the Haymarket is today. However, so many thousands of people of Newcastle and surrounding districts turned up and it soon became clear that that the crowd was so big that it could not be contained in the Parade Ground area. Consequently, a decision was made that the crowd should move to the Town Moor. The crowd was so huge, that it was observed that, “the procession took one hour and a quarter to cross Barras bridge, then the name of an actual bridge over Pandon Burn.” (4)
It has been noted that the crowd brought with them banners which proudly proclaimed their beliefs and why they were there in such huge numbers:
“An hour of glorious liberty is worth a whole Eternity of Bondage”
“Do unto all men as ye would they do unto you”.
“Annual Parliaments – Universal Suffrage – Election by Ballot”
“The day of retribution is at hand – England expects every man to do his duty” and on the reverse side, “Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory.” (5)
Other banners included the following:
“’In memory of those who were murdered at Manchester.’
‘We mourn for the massacred at Manchester.’
‘We’ll be brothers for a’that’.
‘.We fight your wars – and look how you treat us’.
‘Through hand joined in hand the wicked will not go unpunished’.
A black flag with red border bore; ‘Rachel weeping with her children’ and ‘would not be comforted because they were not’.” (6)
Demonstrators came from numerous places outside Newcastle, as demonstrated by the fact that there was a banner from The Winlaton Reform Society, which proclaimed, “’Evil to him that evil thinks”, whilst another banner from North Shields paid homage, “to the immortal memory of the Reformers massacred at Manchester on 16th Aug. 1819” (7)
A conservative estimate of the size of the crowd put it at somewhere between 25 000 and 30 000, while another estimate “calculated at four to a square yard was 76 000”. (8) This was, by any estimations, a remarkable show of support for human rights, but is even more incredible when one considers that at the beginning of the 19th century, a mere 18 years earlier, the population of Northumberland was 168 078, while the population of County Durham was 149 384. (9) Indeed, the first census in 1801 had given Newcastle’s population as 28 000 (10)
The protest clearly saw what happened at Peterloo as a symptom of a wider disease in the political system of the day., for alongside condemnation of the actions of the authorities at Peterloo, there was also a denunciation of the entire political system of the time. It has been reported that, “radical Thomas Hodgson of Winlaton, speaking at the great Peterloo protest meeting on the Town Moor in 1819 said, ‘I warn you, gentlemen, against all party men of whatever colour”. (11) Another of the main speakers, Eneas Mackenzie delivered a rousing speech in which he denounced both the national government in London and those who ran the local government of Tyneside declaring that, “we are groaning under monstrous debt. Taxes are multiplied to a ruining extent. Our finances are delayed, trade and commerce are languishing. One-fifth of the population are pauperised.” (12)
The Peterloo protest was not the only sign of discontent that year and Peterloo was not the only time working people were attacked; during the same year of 1819, a keelmen’s strike was marked by troops firing on a stone-throwing crowd. (13) Here we see what was in that area a recurring theme of a need for an entirely new political system, to reflect the lives and aspirations of the vast majority of people of the time, who were disenfranchised and becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their lack of political power. The mood of the crowd at the Peterloo protest must have been extraordinary, as they sought to make history, by bringing real democratic rights to the people of the region for the first time. It also must have worried the authorities. Here was a huge crowd who undoubtedly felt themselves linked by common bonds of humanity with those who had fallen on the field at Peterloo.
Indeed it didn’t take long for the establishment to strike back. Two months after the huge protest meeting on the Town Moor, in December 1819, they formed the Northumberland and Durham Volunteer Cavalry, with Charles John Brandling, the region’s leading Pittite acting as Lieutenant-Colonel. (14)
Meanwhile there was another huge response in another growing town in our region of the Northeast and Yorkshire and that place was Sheffield. Following the massacre at Peterloo, there was on of the biggest public meetings ever held in Sheffield to protest what happened across te Pennines in Manchester. It has been noted that the Iris, “estimated 40-50 000 were present.” (15) This was equal to about half the population of Sheffield at the time, which was about 90 000. (16)
A vast procession formed in the Wicker began the protest and had representatives from almost all of the local clubs and friendly societies, who arrived with their banners and their bands playing the ‘Dead March’ from Saul. The men wore white hats with crepe and green ribbons, while the women wore black. As in Newcastle, many banners were on display, saying things such as ‘Beware, beware a plot, a plot’ or ‘The Rights of Man – Liberty, Truth, Justice’. (17)
The procession made its way to a natural amphitheatre known as the Brocco, which was near to Broad Lane. A platform for speakers was erected in Allen Street. The chairman was the elderly Samuel Shore. He presided over a number of speakers, including Thomas Rawson, who us said to have given a fiery speech which ended with the words, ‘I scorn bondage, I will be a free man’ and Lord Milton, the son of the Earl Fitzwilliam, who had recently been sacked as Lord Lieutenant for taking part in a county meeting in York, which had called for an enquiry into the events at Peterloo. It is also noted that, “the Sheffield resolutions, like those from York, called for an inquiry and passed unanimously. The great meeting dispersed peacefully and in order”. (18)
I was reminded of these struggles when there were the large pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma and Iran in 2007 and 2009. In Burma the demonstrations began in late August and it has been noted that “by 24 September over 100,000 monks and ordinary citizens were marching in Rangoon and demonstrations were taking place in every state and division in Burma.” (19) In Iran in June 2009 hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest what they saw as an unfair election with Amnesty International reporting that. “during the widespread unrest that followed the contested election result in June 2009, thousands of people were arbitrarily arrested, dozens were killed on the streets or died in detention, and many said they were tortured or otherwise ill-treated.” (20) There were hundreds of thousands involved in these protests, but if one considers that the size of Peterloo protest in Newcastle was around twice the population of Newcastle today, then we could imagine that a similar protest today would see 600 000 on Newcastle’s Town Moor.
The huge monks’ protest in Burma in 2007 and the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, with its ‘Where’s My Vote?’ banners were both modern examples of the same impulses from human for freedom and to be treated with dignity, which also motivated people at St Peter’s Field in Manchester in August 1819 and those in Newcastle, Sheffield and many other places, who protested against what happened at St Peter’s Fields. We need to help the people of our region to understand and appreciate how we gained our rights, so that they can both defend them at home and have a greater appreciation of what people in other parts of the world are going through today.
1. Simon Schama, BBC Series, History of Britain
2. The Guardian 25th July 2009
3. John Charlton, North East History Vol 39, 2008, p. 81
4. Peter Cadogan, Early Radical Newcastle, p. 30
5. ibid. p. 31
6. J. Charlton, North East History, Vol 29, 2008, p.89
8. Peter Cadogan, Early Radical Newcastle, p. 31
9. M. Barke in, Northumbria, History and Identity, p. 194
10. N. McCord, Some Aspects of North-east England in the 19th Century, Northern History Volume V!! 1972, p. 73
11. Peter Cadogan, Early Radical Newcastle,. p. 21
12. A. Moffat and G. Rosie, Tyneside; A History of Newcastle and Gateshead
from earliest times, p. 224
13. N. McCord, NE England The Region's Development 1760-1960, p. 81
14. P. Cadogan, Early Radical Newcastle, p. 23
15. D. Price; Sheffield Troublemakers p. 31
17. D. Price; Sheffield Troublemakers p. 31