The post Peterloo ‘Six Acts’

2019 is the centenary of the Peterloo massacre, when a pro-reform demonstration in Manchester was attacked by Yeomanry and Hussars, resulting in as many as 18 protestors being killed and up to 700 more injured. (Figures are disputed: these are taken from the Peterloo Massacre website.)

If the historical event itself is well-known, the ramifications and repercussions are perhaps less so. It became a national event, with pamphlets recounting the bloodshed and condemning the government widely circulated, protests and demonstrations in support of the victims held nationwide, and reports of imminent uprising sent from all over to the Home Office.

(For an interesting way of presenting the fall out, see the Peterloo 1819 news twitter account; a remarkable and comprehensive tracking of events.)

In response, the Government passed a series of laws – the ‘Six Acts’, as they became known – at the end of 1819, a legislative program against the democratic movement.  These statutes firstly strengthened the state’s local presence by giving exceptional powers to the Justices of the Peace. The J.P.s could act in neighbouring jurisidctions, issue warrants to raid houses and oblige public meetings to be authorized. Legal procedure was quickened, to the detriment of the accused. Rights of assembly and organization were limited, public meeting and military drilling alike (and give the state a monopoly over the latter).

The last two statutes dealt with publications: the Seditious Libel act permitting the seizure of works critical of state and church and punishing repeat offenders with banishment and transportation, and the Stamp Duties Act taxing printed works, to make them too expensive for their plebian and proletarian audience.

Notwithstanding the few concessions wrung out of the government by the Whig opposition, these acts offer both an anatomy of, and a program against, the radical movement. It considers it as geographically diffuse, present all over the country so local authorities are given powers to oppose it. Each locale is a point for gathering people together to communicate with each other, so meetings and ‘military’ associating are repressed. The locales are connected with each other, made national, through the medium of print, so publications are taxed and seized.

The acts also describe the government of the day: as fundamentally repressive and based in the final instance on brute military force, the violence of which provoked the subsequent movement.

Although the drilling provisions were the longest lasting legally (until 2008), and as time limits were set on the seizure and meetings acts, the tax on print was the most repressive measure. However, it led to the ‘War of the Unstamped‘, the refusal of publishers and vendors to pay the duty, and their willingness to go to prison for their pains. The stamp on newspapers was lowered to a penny in 1836, then abolished in 1855, thirty six years after its passing.

If the Peterloo massacre can be fixed to a time and place, its consequences, of which these statutes are just a few, were very directly felt for years afterwards.

60 George 3 & 1 George 4 c.1: The Unlawful Drilling Act

60 George 3 & 1 George 4 c.2: The Seizure of Arms Act

60 George 3 & 1 George 4 c.4: The Misdemeanours Act

60 George 3 & 1 George 4 c.6: The Seditious Meetings Act

60 George 3 & 1 George 4 c.8: Blasphemous and Seditious Libels

60 George 3 & 1 George 4 c.9: The Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act

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