Warrington and Peterloo

On the 200th anniversary of  the Peterloo Massacre Collections Officer Craig Sherwood looks at the links between Peterloo and the town of Warrington.

On Monday 16th August 1819 a peaceful political demonstration of between 60,000 and 80,000 people at St Peter’s Field in Manchester were brutally attacked by armed cavalry who charged into a crowd with sabres drawn while infantry soldiers blocked the exits. Around 18 people were killed and 400–700 were injured.

The massacre was later named ‘Peterloo’ in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier in 1815.

Although Peterloo will forever be associated with Manchester its effects spread throughout the Northwest and the nearby town of Warrington was no exception. We know of at least two people from Warrington who were injured at Peterloo: records indicate that John Wrigley of Fennel Street was knocked down and crushed by the crowd while William Chantler was crushed by the railing of a cellar giving way.

The repercussions didn’t end with the dead and injured however. Prison sentences were handed out to the people who spoke at the meeting, medical treatment was withheld from the injured unless they promised not to attend further political gatherings and even entire families were sacked from their jobs because a single member had been present in the crowd

Peter Philips

Even in Warrington the authorities were keen to suppress any criticism of the event and maintain their control. In the days following Peterloo the Friars Green Chapel came under suspicion by the local authorities as a potential hotbed for radical reform and even revolution. This suspicion seemed to be confirmed when the preacher, Peter Phillips, announced that he would speak on the following Sunday from the text “He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one“.

When Sunday came, neighbours barricaded their windows fearing a riot and the chapel was packed with officers of the law taking prominent positions in the congregation. In the event, Philips delivered a pacifist message alluding to the beating of swords into ploughshares, the submissiveness of Christ in suffering, the importance of loving enemies and the injunction to Peter “Put up thy sword“. Philips referred obliquely to the massacre however, speaking of Christ as ‘the Prince of Peace’ and arguing that Christ’s government should be a government of peace in which his people should neither hurt nor destroy.

By taking this approach Phillips had managed to deflect official suspicion away from the chapel … while packing out his church for an important sermon into the bargain.

Many people sought justice for the massacre that had been committed at Peterloo. Two months after Peterloo on 25th October 1819 Mr Pearson and Sir Charles Worsley arrived in Warrington  to obtain a warrant for the arrest of members of the Manchester Yeomanry who had  injured two people during the massacre – a man called Hamnett and a 71 year old woman called Alice Kearsley.

Concerned by the possibility that Peterloo victims were whipping up civil unrest in Warrington deputy constable Paul Caldwell targeted the elderly Peterloo victim Alice Kearsley on arrival, threatening to imprison her in the Bridewell if she didn’t leave town. According to reports he taunted her and then exposed her injured ear that had been badly cut by a cavalryman’s sabre, before prodding her in the belly and striking her with his umbrella

The following day the Warrington magistrate met to decide upon the application for the warrant and a large crowd of people gathered to hear the outcome. The senior magistrate, John Borron, informed Pearson and Worsley that as these cases were already ongoing in another court he could not issue the warrant. Concerned by the potential reaction to the decision the clerk declared, to everyone’s surprise, “Sir, as the Senior Magistrate of this Division, I call upon you to suppress and disperse this tumultuous and riotous assembly”.

The senior magistrate refused his clerk’s request as he felt it unnecessary because the crowd were peaceful but then another magistrate, Thomas Lyon, joined with the clerk and repeated the tactic that had been so disastrously used to disperse the crowd at Peterloo two months earlier: he took a copy of the Riot Act from his pocket and announced he intended to read it Furthermore he called for the Yeomanry to be summoned “forthwith” and for Peter Ashton of the Cheshire Yeomanry to ride in full regimental uniform through the crowded streets of Warrington at full gallop.

Thankfully on this occasion although Thomas Lyon did indeed read the Riot Act and the military did indeed arrive the crowd had already largely dispersed by this point and a second massacre at Warrington was averted.

Although there are probably many more links between the massacre at Peterloo and Warrington I’ll leave you with just one more, and one that has particular resonance with the Museum and Library building.

Mary Fildes

The print by Richard Carlisle at the top of this article is probably the most famous image of the Peterloo massacre and at the centre of it you can clearly see a woman on the platform holding a banner. This woman is Mary Fildes (1789-1876) and she has a very particular link to Warrington’s artistic heritage.

Mary Fildes was born Mary Pritchard in Cork, Ireland in 1789. In March 1808 she married a Cheshire reed maker called William Fildes. A political radical from a young age she became president of the Manchester Female Reform Society and named several of her children after prominent political campaigners of the day including John Cartwright, Thomas Paine and the main speaker at Peterloo, Henry Hunt.

On the day of the Peterloo massacre Mary was standing on the platform holding the flag of the Society. In the confusion following the cavalry charge she tumbled out of her carriage seat and eye-witnesses describe how she was slashed across her exposed body by a cavalry officer as she hung suspended by a nail that had caught her white dress.

Although she was badly wounded Fildes survived the massacre and continued her campaign for the vote, establishing the Female Political Union of the Working Classes and becoming active in the Chartist movement. Perhaps influenced by the fact she had eight children Mary also became involved in the campaign for birth control and was arrested while attempting to distribute pamphlets for the cause on the basis she was distributing “pornography”.

In 1853 Mary descended upon her son’s home in Liverpool and took her favourite grandson Samuel into her own personal care. She adopted him and sent him to a private school in Chester hoping that he would have a career in politics.

Unfortunately Samuel was more interested in drawing than politics and wanted to become an artist. Much to the dismay of his grandmother he enrolled in Warrington School of Art which was then based in the Warrington Museum building. Graduating and moving to London, he later largely dropped the name Samuel in favour of his middle name and became known simply as Luke Fildes, the most successful Warrington artist of the 19th century and one of the most important painters and illustrators in Victorian Britain.

Sir Samuel Luke Fildes

A painting from the Warrington collection, an 1819 Royal Academy prizewinner entitled ‘In Search of the Heliotrope’ by Henry Perronet Briggs  is currently on display at Tate Britain in a spotlight exhibition on the theme of Peterloo until 2020. A number of works by Mary Fildes’ grandson, the painter Luke Fildes, are on display at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.

The author would like to thank Yvonne Eckersley and Philip Jeffs for their assistance in putting together this article.