Hoots from the Archive - MGS and the Peterloo Massacre

Posted by Rachel Kneale on 01 Oct 2019

Modified by Rachel Kneale on 29 Nov 2022

Samuel Bamford

This piece is an updated and expanded version of a previous article posted in Spring 2019. Thanks go to OM James Brennan who pointed out the significance of Charles Ethelston.

For most of its five hundred year history, Manchester Grammar School was situated right at the heart of the city. The Peterloo massacre occurred at St. Peter's Field, just a fifteen minute walk away from the School. Three key people link the School to the protests, Jeremiah Smith, Charles Wickstead Ethelston and Samuel Bamford.

Jeremiah Smith was High Master of Manchester Grammar School from 1807 - 1838. He had succeeded the long-serving Charles Lawson who remained High Master until his death at the age of 79. The School was in need of reform, requiring a more modern curriculum, but Smith was not the man for the job. One of his former pupils, the novelist Harrison Ainsworth wrote: "...he looked like a Bishop and he should have been one". It seems he was a competent and effective High Master in many ways, yet despite the reforms happening all around him, Smith was a conservative at heart and did not see the need to modernise the School. It is not surprising to discover that Smith would later give evidence against one of the leaders of the protesters at Peterloo, Henry Hunt, at his trial in 1820.

                                                                                                     High Master Jeremiah Smith

On the morning of the day of the massacre, the local magistrates published a notice recommending that people stay at home indoors that day.  Jeremiah Smith afterwards stated at the trial that most of the shop windows were closed, and that as there was a general feeling of apprehension, he dismissed his day boys after breakfast. He eventually went home and locked his boarders into his house on Long Millgate for safety. Later, he was unable to get back to his house due to the protest and, taking refuge in the Star Inn on Deansgate, saw Henry Hunt and his companions pass by, "hissing and jeering". Smith would later recount this experience at Hunt's trial.

Smith spent over thirty years in the role of High Master, and he compiled the biographical "Admissions Register of the Manchester Grammar School" which is invaluable in providing information on Old Mancunians for a century from 1730 - 1830. However, it seems he was out of step with a city that was becoming a hot bed of radicalism and agitation for political reform.

Charles Wickstead Ethelston was born in March 1767, the son of a vicar. He joined MGS in January 1776 before a degree at Trinity College, Cambridge. He followed his father into the church, becoming curate of St. Marks, Cheetham Hill in 1794. He was elected a fellow of the Collegiate Church of Manchester in 1804 (the Collegiate Church would later become Manchester Cathedral). He kept in touch with his old school, acting as the steward at the Old Boys’ Dinner in 1804. He was also a magistrate, and it is in this role that Ethelstone became embroiled in the protests in August 1819.

Jeremiah Smith sets aside a large section in his “Admissions Register of the Manchester Grammar School” to chart the career of Ethelston. In it he states “He was also a magistrate of the County of Lancaster, taking an active part when Manchester was threatened with political disturbances in 1819, and reading the riot act at the Peterloo meeting on the 16th August in that year.” Ethelston was a writer, and the titles of some of his works give a clue as to his political and religious leanings: “A Patriotic Appeal to the good sense of all Parties, by an anti-Jacobin” and  “The Unity of the Church Inculcated”, a pamphlet which, according to Smith “gave rise to a long controversy with a Methodist named Hare.”

The authorities knew that protestors were planning to travel to the centre of Manchester on the 16th August. The magistrates, including Rev. Ethelston and Rev. William Hay, formed a self-termed “Committee of Public Safety” and gathered at a house overlooking St. Peter’s Field to observe the crowds. By the early afternoon, the gathered protestors numbered around 60,000, and it was at this point that according to the evidence of Rev. Hay, Ethelston read the riot act from the window of the house:

“He read it with his head very far out of the window. He leant so far out, that I stood behind him, ready to catch his skirts for fear he might fall over. Mr. Ethelston is a gentleman who I have occasionally heard sing, and he has a remarkably powerful voice. When he drew his head back into the room after reading the proclamation, I observed to him, ‘Mr. Ethelston. I never heard your voice so powerful.’”

Others claimed that the riot act was never read, or that if it was, the crowd was too large to have heard.

Addressing the crowds that day was Samuel Bamford. Bamford was born in 1788 in Middleton and was the son of a weaver. He joined the Manchester Grammar School around 1798. Bamford would later write of his memories of the School at that time:

"The School was a large room of an oblong form extending north and south, and well lighted by large windows. At the northern end of it was a fireplace with a red cheerful fire glowing in the grate. The master’s custom was to sit in an arm-chair with his right hand towards the fire and his left arm resting on a square oaken table, on which lay a newspaper or two, a magazine or other publication, a couple of canes with the ends split, and a medley of boys’ playthings, such as tops, whips, marbles, apple-scrapers, nutcrackers, dragon banding and such articles. The scholars were divided into six classes, namely Accidence or Introduction to Latin, Higher Bible, Middle Bible and Lower Bible, Testament and Spelling classes."

                                                                                                              Samuel Bamford

According to MGS historian Alfred Mumford, when Bamford's father was made Master of the Salford Workhouse, he withdrew his son from the School and sent him to work as a weaver. Prior to the Peterloo Massacre, Bamford had gained a reputation as a radical and was imprisoned briefly on suspicion of treason due to his political activities. In August 1819 he was one of the leaders of the protesters at what would become known as the Peterloo massacre. This excerpt from Bamford's "The Life of a Radical" provides a first-hand account of what happened:

"We had got to nearly the outside of the crowd, when a noise and strange murmur arose towards the church. Some persons said it was the Blackburn people coming, and I stood on tiptoe and looked in the direction whence the noise proceeded, and saw a party of cavalry in blue and white uniform come trotting, sword in hand, round the corner of a garden wall, and to the front of a row of new houses, where they reined up in a line. 

"The soldiers are here," I said; "we must go back and see what this means." "Oh," someone made reply, "they are only come to be ready if there should be any disturbance in the meeting." "Well, let us go back," I said, and we forced our way towards the colours. 

On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people..."

The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion. 

Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heart-rending, and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment: but here their appeals were in vain. 

In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air. The curtains and blinds of the windows within view were all closed. 

Several mounds of human being still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more. 

All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds."

For his part in the protests he was imprisoned for one year, with the charge being incitement to riot. Bamford eloquently though ultimately fruitlessly defended himself against the charge:

"My Lords – If I have been rightly informed the principal part of the charge against me is the motto contained in the blue flag ‘Unity and Strength’. I am certainly at a loss to know how this motto could contain a criminal meaning. I am at a loss what degree of criminality is attached to that or how that criminality is continued. Since I have been in London I have heard much boasting occasionally of the liberty of Englishmen. Now I conceive that liberty cannot exist without there be a proportionate degree of strength with which to secure that liberty when attained and I also contend that strength cannot exist without unity therefore in that view of the question the motto ‘Unity and Strength’ certainly did not convey any idea of a seditious nature or a turbulent disposition, it merely went to express the feelings which we all as Englishmen are proud to boast: the liberty of our country. All our hopes are founded upon that liberty. The foundation of strength is laid in unity.

I am a reformer and have always professed it that I am an enemy to a system that I do conceive the most highly detrimental to the interests of the Country. I shall always use my utmost endeavours to promote Parliamentary Reform by peaceful means, but although I am not an enemy to the principle I am not going to sacrifice every feeling. I am not a friend to blood but after what has taken place at Manchester I can hardly confine my expressions and although felt myself obnoxious to the provincial authorities whom by the bye I would rather glory in as enemies than count as friends and in consequence of that alone can I be brought to submit myself to your Lordships which I do in a hope that justice will be administered. I want only Justice – no Pity – I claim only Justice."

Bamford always regretted being forced to leave MGS, but it gave him the educational foundation to become a gifted writer and campaigner for political reform.

Rachel Kneale


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