Untold lives blog

118 posts categorized "Conflict"

12 December 2019

Emma Ewart Larkins' last letter from Cawnpore

On 9 June 1857, Emma Ewart Larkins, the wife of an artillery officer in Cawnpore, composed a letter to family and friends in England.  Along with about a thousand others, she, her husband George, their three youngest children, and Munna, their cherished family ayah, were sheltering from bombardment under appalling siege conditions, and behind hopelessly inadequate defences.

 Letter written by Emma Larkins in Cawnpore 9 June 1857 and smuggled out by her AyahMSS Eur F732/1 Letter written by Emma Larkins in Cawnpore 9 June 1857 and smuggled out by her Ayah


Addressing a sister-in-law in London, Emma began: ‘I write this dearest Henrietta in the belief that our time of departure is come’.  She explained: ‘the whole of the troops rose here & we took refuge in a Barrack We are so hemmed in by overpowering numbers that there seems no hope of escape’.  Emma was right: death was staring her in the face.  But Munna would take the dangerous decision to attempt to slip away, and she successfully carried the letter with her.

Portrait of Emma Ewart Larkins, India, 1840Emma Ewart Larkins by L. Power, India, 1840. © Rebecca Gowers.

Months later it somehow reached England.  Within it were individual messages for Henrietta and several others, including Emma and George’s four oldest children, sent ‘home’ for their education.  One of these, Alice Shaffalitzky Larkins, then aged 11, was my great-great-grandmother; and I was brought up knowing that my own life depended on the fact that she had avoided the Cawnpore Massacre.  Emma’s last letter was kept by the family in a double-sided picture frame so that it could be read front and back, though the crossed writing made it incredibly hard to decipher.  My grandmother showed it to me as a child.  But four years ago, when I found myself wondering about it again, I realised I no longer had any idea where it was.

Photograph of George and Alice Larkins 1851George Larkins, Artillery Commander, Cawnpore, 1857, here with his daughter Alice: daguerrotype, India, Christmas 1851. © Rebecca Gowers.

I looked idly online, and found the letter selectively quoted in a number of books on the Indian Mutiny.  The British Library held a rough transcript, but where was the original?  While I tried to solve this question, I stumbled on an outré, unproven theory: that another of the four children to survive, Henry Thomas Larkins, also addressed in Emma’s letter, just might be the same person as ‘Major Harry Larkyns’, a mysterious, louche character murdered in 1874 by the famous photographer of galloping horses, Eadweard Muybridge.  To my surprise, this was a theory I found myself able to verify almost at once.  And it has led to my writing a book about Harry’s genuinely extraordinary exploits.  Setting about this project, I badgered numerous relatives about boxes in their attics that might contain Larkins-family archive, with the particularly gratifying result that I ended up being given not only Emma’s final letter, but others that had preceded it too.  This reassembled correspondence forms a total of about a hundred letters whose terrific details I could only hint at in my book.

It was a great pleasure for me recently to donate the whole collection to the British Library, where I hope they will be of interest to other writers and historians.  Emma's last letter was in a frail state indeed, but it has now been conserved, and digitised as well, meaning that this pitiful survivor is now available for all to see.

Rebecca Gowers
Writer

Further reading:
MSS Eur F732 Papers of Emma Ewart Larkins (d. 1857), wife of Major George Larkins (1807-1857), Bengal Artillery
Rebecca Gowers The scoundrel Harry Larkyns and his pitiless killing by the photographer Eadweard Muybridge (2019)

 

03 December 2019

Marine Society boy to master mariner to pauper – Part 1

We met George Byworth in our story about the East India Company and Marine Society boys.  He was given as an example of a boy apprentice who made good of the opportunity offered by the Marine Society.  Here we look at his interesting life in more detail.

George was born in London, the son of watchmaker Thomas Byworth and his wife Mary.  His baptism record at St James Clerkenwell from March 1807 gives his date of birth as 23 February 1807.  This tallies with the age given on his death certificate.  However records from the Marine Society and the Board of Trade say George was 14 in March 1823 and 15½ in September 1824, suggesting he was born in 1809.  Why the discrepancy?

Sailor Boy on the lookoutSailor boy on the look-out from Mark James Barrington Ward, The Round World (London, 1890) Shelfmark 10004.f.7.  BL flickr  Noc

From March 1823 to May 1824 George served in the East India Company ship Scaleby Castle on a voyage to Bombay and China.  He sailed with nine other Marine Society boys, one of whom fell overboard and drowned.  They were paid a monthly wage of 10s. 

List of Marine Society Boys on the Scaleby CastleList of Marine Society boys from IOR/L/MAR/B/34-O Journal of Scaleby Castle Noc

Captain David Rae Newall’s journal of the voyage sheds light on how vulnerable these young boys were.  On 1 April 1823 seaman Thomas Barnes was confined in irons for making attempts ‘to commit an unnatural crime on some of the Marine Society Boys’.  On 13 August 1823 a court of enquiry found seaman James Russel guilty of an ‘unnatural attempt’ upon George Byworth.  Russel had a cut on the back of his hand which George said he had made with his knife.  Russel was punished with three dozen lashes.

 In September 1824 George was bound as a merchant navy apprentice to William Shepherd for four years.  He petitioned the East India Company in September 1827 to be granted free mariner’s indentures for India.  This was approved and he spent some time in Calcutta as a merchant officer in the intra-Asia or ‘country’ trade.

George then based himself in Australia undertaking convict and sealing voyages.  Questioned about provisions on sealing vessels in 1834, he described an allowance of pork, bread, flour, coffee, sugar and spirits, supplemented by gathered food such as fish, penguin eggs and petrels.

Map of KerguelenMap of Kerguelen from John Nunn, Narrative of the Wreck of the 'Favourite' on the Island of Desolation (London, 1850) Shelfmark 10460.e.23. BL flickr  Noc

In March 1832 George was the chief officer in the Adelaide when she was sent to Kerguelen, or Desolation Island, to rescue five shipwrecked men.  The Adelaide met with Captain Alexander Distant who reported that he had already taken the men to St Helena.  George went on board Distant’s ship for some supplies but a violent gale prevented him from returning to the Adelaide.  He was obliged to sail with Distant to St Helena.

View of St Helena from the seaView of St Helena from the sea from John Charles Melliss, St. Helena: a physical, historical, and topographical description of the island (London, 1875) Shelfmark 10096.gg.15.  BL flickr Noc

On 14 August 1833 George wrote to the Governor of St Helena telling his story and asking to be paid the cost of clothing provided by Captain Distant plus the rate allowed by the British government to wrecked mariners.  The St Helena Council granted him a daily allowance of 1s 6d.   George wrote again on 9 September expressing his thanks for the island’s kindness, and asking for £12 for his passage on the Lord Hobart to the Cape of Good Hope where he could pick up a ship to return to Tasmania.  The East India Company was repaid George’s expenses by the Admiralty in March 1834.

Part 2 will tell what happened next!

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/L/MAR/B/34-O Journal of Scaleby Castle and IOR/L/MAR/B/34DD Pay Book of Scaleby Castle.
IOR/B/180 pp.398, 406 Petition of George Byworth to the East India Company to be granted free mariner’s indentures September 1827.
The National Archives BT 150/1 Merchant Navy apprenticeship September 1824.
IOR/G/9/24 Cape Factory Records.
IOR/G/32/96 St Helena Factory Records.
Trove newspapers.
Thierry Jean-Marie Rousset, ‘Might is Right’. A study of the Cape Town/Crozets elephant seal oil trade (1832–1869). A dissertation submitted for the degree of Master of Arts in Historical Studies. Faculty of the Humanities University of Cape Town. 2011.

 

26 November 2019

Sending sad news from India in 1858

A letter reporting the death of a friend in India in 1858 was donated earlier this year to India Office Private Papers.  Alfred Eteson of the Bengal Medical Service wrote from Camp Amorka Gorruckpore on 4 April 1858 giving an account of the death of Dundas William Gordon, Bengal Artillery, who was killed at Lucknow on 8 January 1858 during the Indian Uprising. 

EtesonMss Eur F731 Letter from Alfred Eteson at Camp Amorka Gorruckpore 4 April 1858, giving an account of the death of Dundas William Gordon

Eteson asked a friend, Mrs Barnett, to pass on the sad news to the Gordon family: ‘I think it is incumbent on every survivor in these troubled times to send home if he possibly can, any account of those who have fallen, more particularly if he has been at all intimate with any one of them’.  From clues in the letter, I have identified the recipient as Eliza Barnett, wife of medical practitioner Henry Barnett, living in Blackheath, Kent.  Her son James was serving as an officer in the Madras Army - Eteson reported that he thought he had caught sight of him in Burma.

Alfred Eteson and Dundas Gordon had lived in the same house in Burma from November 1854 until May 1857.  They then travelled together to Calcutta where they separated in July. Eteson went with Major Vincent Eyre to Arrah whilst Gordon was disappointed to be left in Ghazipur to guard the opium in the warehouses. 

The young men were reunited in September 1857 and went on together to Allahabad.  Eteson then stayed behind, ill with fever, and that was the last he saw of his friend.   He wrote to Gordon several times but the letters may never have reached him as the post was so uncertain at that time.  Eteson received no reply.  He only heard of Gordon’s death when he met up with two sergeants of their old battery a few days before he wrote to Mrs Barnett.

Gordon had been in charge of an 8-inch howitzer gun at the Alambagh in Lucknow.  He was leaning over the parapet, looking through his glasses, when a stray round struck the top of his head killing him instantly. Eteson said he felt full of hatred and vengeance at losing an old friend in this way.

Gordon never told Eteson anything about his family and so he did not know their address or even if the parents were alive.  Eteson had found out by accident that Gordon knew his friends the Barnetts.  When talking about batting, Gordon mentioned that he had been a pupil of ’Felix’ at Blackheath – Nicholas, or ‘Felix’, Wanostrocht was a schoolmaster and famous amateur cricketer.  Eteson then asked if he knew the Barnetts of Blackheath.  Gordon said he did and that he had just received a letter saying that his sister had gone to a ball with Miss Barnett.  

Eteson wanted to pass on to the Gordons £30 which was his friend’s share of the house in Burma.  He had instructed his agents to keep this money separate from his estate should anything happen to him meanwhile.  He expressed his willingness to do anything necessary in Bengal for the Gordon family. 

The letter ends with him sending good wishes to the Barnetts although he added: ‘I can scarcely flatter myself by supposing any of the younger ones remembering me after so long an absence’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Mss Eur F731 Letter from Alfred Eteson (1832-1910), Bengal Medical Service, at Camp Amorka Gorruckpore 4 April 1858, giving an account of the death of Dundas William Gordon, Bengal Artillery, who was killed at Lucknow on 8 January 1858.  Kindly donated in 2019 by Lucy Henley, great great niece of Dundas William Gordon.

 

21 November 2019

Hostility to the Census of India in 1880

In 1872, the British began the decennial Census of India, as part of the continuing work to survey India and its people. The next census was carried out in 1881, and every ten years after that.  The collecting of data for the census was sometimes looked on with fear and suspicion by local people.  One such instance is described in a report from the Santal Parganas, an area in the Bengal Presidency, where local people objected to the recording of names and the numbering of houses.

Santal Parganas - detail from a Forest Map 1908 Santal Parganas - detail from a Forest Map  1908  IOR/V/27/450/37

The hostile reaction to the collection of census data was reported on by W B Oldham, Deputy Commissioner of the Santal Parganas, on 14 December 1880.  He described being informed of a meeting held at Narayanpore where anti-British sentiment was strongly expressed.  Oldham immediately set out to find and arrest the ringleaders.  Arriving at Jamtara, he was confronted by a man named Gulia who informed Oldham that he would not permit any names to be taken as part of the census.  Gulia was arrested on the spot, and later that day Oldham tried and sentenced him to six months rigorous imprisonment.

Government of India orders about the 1880 censusGovernment of India orders  IOR/L/E/6/54

As wild rumours circulated, a panic spread among the non-Santal and British residents who feared escalating violence.  The Deputy Magistrate at Jamtara, W Rattray, was so nervous he sent his wife away by the afternoon train to ensure her safety.  His fears were not without foundation as that evening he awoke to find his bungalow on fire.  The building was quickly consumed by the flames, although Mr Rattray escaped, and the Government records and most of his furniture was saved.  Oldham wrote that there was no possibility of the fire being accidental.

Account by Mr Rattray of the fireAccount by Mr Rattray of the fire  IOR/L/E/6/54

In his account of his escape Rattray wrote: ‘At about 12.30am, I was startled by hearing the crackling of timber.  On awaking, to my utter astonishment, and at the moment in utter bewilderment, I found the north-west corner in flames.  My first thought was that I had been surrounded by the Sonthals, so I wished for my gun, which I kept loaded resting against the wall, some six feet from my bed, but could not reach it as the roof had already fallen in.  I then made a rush for the bath’.  Rattray went on to claim that he believed the Sonthals had made up their mind to kill him, and being unable to get into his bungalow had set it on fire in the hope of burning him.

Report by Mr OldhamReport by Mr Oldham  IOR/L/E/6/54

On this point Oldham commented in his report: ‘Mr Rattray was naturally much frightened.  There are no other grounds for this belief.  Mr Rattray is too nervous and fidgety an officer to deal with an occurrence like the present; but will no doubt be able to carry on the census satisfactorily, when he is in a position to deal with opponents to it’.  Oldham was sceptical that the Santals were responsible, but felt that stringent measures against those opposing the law, with a corresponding strengthening of the police would put a stop to any further agitation.  The Government of India ordered that the numbering of houses could be dispensed with, and the registering of males by name relaxed, if it would help allay the apprehensions of the people.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further reading:
Correspondence regarding the state of public feeling in a part of the Sonthal Pergunnahs [Santal Parganas] in Bengal in respect to the Census, December 1880 to February 1881 [Reference: IOR/L/E/6/54, File 98]  
 

24 October 2019

The General Strike 1926

Whilst cataloguing a new acquisition to the India Office Private Papers, I came across some interesting items relating to the General Strike of 1926.  The Garrod Papers consist of the family archives of William Francis Garrod, a Chaplain in the Indian Ecclesiastical Establishment from 1930 until 1947, his wife Isobel and their four children.  The collection also contains letters between Garrod and Isobel before they got married and moved to India, and it is in these letters that Garrod described his experience as a volunteer policeman during the Strike.

Oxford Daily Strike BulletinOxford Daily Strike Bulletin 10 May 1926 (Garrod Papers) - Copyright of heirs to proprietors of Oxford Monthly (discontinued 1972)

Emergency Bulletin 10 May 1926Emergency Bulletin (shelfmark Mss Eur F142/82) - Copyright of heirs to Chandler & Co

The General Strike was one of the biggest industrial disputes in British history.  It started with a dispute over the pay and working hours of miners, and spread to workers from other industries who came out in support of the striking miners.  Between 4 May and 12 May 1926, thousands of bus and train drivers, dock workers, print workers, and workers in the gas, electricity, building, iron, steel and chemical industries went on strike.  Protests by strikers took place in towns and cities around Britain, often coming into conflict with the police.  The Army was mobilised to protect food lorries and volunteers began doing some of the work of strikers, such as driving buses. 

Recruitment poster for volunteers during the General StrikeVolunteer recruitment poster (shelfmark 1851.d.30.) - Copyright City of Westminster

The Government’s efforts to find volunteers to fill jobs temporarily is clear from a file in the India Office Records.  The India Office’s Military Department put together lists of Indian Army officers who happened to be on leave in Britain at the time, and who could be called on to temporarily fill civilian jobs.  A letter was sent to everyone on the lists stating that they were at liberty to offer their services to the local authorities during the ‘present emergency’.  However, they were not to wear their uniform, and any volunteer employment was not to be allowed to interfere with their return to duty in India at the end of their leave.

List of Indian Army Officers on leaveList of Indian Army Officers on leave (shelfmark IOR/L/MIL/7/12530)  Noc

 

Circular letter to Officers on leave Circular letter to Officers on leave (shelfmark IOR/L/MIL/7/12530) Noc

In four letters to Isobel, Garrod describes travelling from Oxford down to Southampton docks.  At 10am on Tuesday 11 May, he was sworn in as a Special Constable along with a number of other Oxford men.  Equipped with an armband and a truncheon, the men patrolled the docks in two 12 hour shifts, and were garrisoned on the cross-Channel steamer Alberta.  Garrod was on the night shift patrols and described it as ‘frightfully boring’.  He wrote that the docks were busy, with very little likelihood of any trouble, and that he got a cheer from some strikers when he walked through the dock gates. 

Garrod letters (Garrod Papers)Letters from the Garrod Papers Noc

Garrod’s time as a Special Constable was brief; the strike was called off on 12 May and he returned to Oxford a few days later. 

City of Westminster poster about coal and light restrictions and the resumption of household refuse collectionsCity of Westminster poster 17 May 1926 about coal and light restrictions and the resumption of household refuse collections (shelfmark 1851.d.30.) - Copyright City of Westminster

The Garrod Papers will be available to view in the Asian & African Studies Reading Room from next year.

John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Garrod Family Papers [Collection reference: Mss Eur F730] 
Papers published during the General Strike May 1926 [Reference: Mss Eur F197/536] 
General Strike news-sheets 1926 [Reference: Mss Eur F142/82] 
General Strike, May 1926: arrangements for emergency duties by personnel of India Office [Reference: IOR/L/MIL/7/12530]
A collection of posters and pamphlets issued during the general strike, 1926, in the City of Westminster (London, 1926) [General Reference Collection 1851.d.30.]  
The National Archives online guide: The General Strike

22 October 2019

Indian military widows

The terrible plight of the widows of Indian soldiers in the period before, during and after the First World War is revealed in a file from the India Office's vast military archive.

The earliest document in the file dates from March 1913, but the outbreak of war in the following year brought the issue to the fore.  A letter of 26 February 1915 from Viceroy Lord Hardinge to the Secretary of State for India Lord Crewe attempted to lay down rules for the granting of military pensions:

(i) The widow must be proved beyond doubt to be in straitened circumstances  ... Absolute destitution not to be a necessary condition for the widow of any person above the rank of a private soldier.

(ii) The deceased husband must have performed really good service ... Other considerations to be taken into account  ...will be (a) the rank subsequently attained, (b) the character and conduct of the deceased, and (c) the length of his service.

(iii) The date of marriage will be an important consideration. We propose that the rules should not ordinarily include widows who married after their husbands had retired ...

Indian soldiers forming the escort for the Gilgit Mission 1885-1886 from the album of George Michael James Giles Photo 104032 - detailIndian soldiers forming the escort for the Gilgit Mission 1885-1886, from the album of George Michael James Giles - detail from Photo 1040/32 Images Online

It is understandable that Imperial bureaucrats in London and New Delhi felt the need to formulate guidelines to deal with such matters, but the contrast with the appalling suffering touched upon in many of the cases cited throughout the file is stark.  Umrao Bi, thought to be aged about eighty, was the widow of Mutiny veteran Sowar Shaik Imamuddin, and in June 1914 she petitioned the British Resident at Hyderabad for assistance, stating that her husband's Mutiny medal had been lost during a flood in 1908.  The previous month Amir Bi, aged 95, widow of Mutiny veteran Sowar Azmuth Khan, applied for an allowance ' ... so that she may endure the remainder of her life without experiencing the pangs of hunger’.

The dismal theme is continued in a list of 9 June 1916 which provides brief details of 55 applications for compassionate allowances, with 26 containing the simple words 'Woman was destitute'.  The majority were widows of soldiers who had served on the British side in 1857-58.  Qamru Bi '... was 80 years of age, and was begging for a living’.  Hasharat Bi '...earned about Rs. 4 per mensem by sewing, but she was getting old and was partially blind’.  Firdaus Begum '...had a small income of about Rs. 2 per mensem out of which she had to support 2 female relatives.  She had incurred a debt of about 500’.  The children of several petitioners were themselves too poor to support their mothers.      

The sum allocated by the British authorities to cover all successful applications for relief between 1915 and 1927 was capped at a miserly Rs. 1500 per year.  Although more money was made available through the establishment of the Indian Army Benevolent Fund in September 1927, eighteen months later its administering Board had made a mere 197 grants out of 1160 applications received.

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Team Leader

Further reading:
IOR/L/MIL/7/12143

 

05 September 2019

A librarian’s death on Lake Onega - Roger James Chomeley

The British Librarians’ memorial at the British Library records the names of 142 persons who died during the First World War.  Two died after the signing of the Peace Treaty at Versailles on 28 June 1919.

Captain Roger James Chomeley M.C. of the Cheshire Regiment died during the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War.  The Allies began to withdraw their forces from North Russia in June 1919, but it was a long, drawn-out process.  Chomeley was drowned on Lake Onega on 16 August 1919, aged 47.

Steam tug Azot captured from the Bolshevik forces on Lake Onega  1919Steam tug Azot captured from the Bolshevik forces on Lake Onega, 1919 © IWM (Q 16793)

A naval court of inquiry reported:
‘Captain R. J. Cholmeley was on board the Russian steamship Azod, one of the lake flotilla, on Lake Onega, and on the night of August 16, 1919, he was washed overboard while overhauling machine guns which were required for action at daybreak the following morning.  The vessel was heavily laden, and there was a very heavy sea, hence this imperative duty was most dangerous.  The court considers that Captain Cholmeley sacrificed his life in the execution of his duty’ (Brisbane Courier 20 February 1920).

Studio photograph of Roger James CholmeleyRoger James Cholmeley, lecturer in Classics, The University of Queensland, c1910?  Fryer Library Photograph Collection

Roger James Cholmeley was born at Swaby, Lincolnshire in 1872, the son of the Rev. James Cholmeley and his wife Flora Sophia. He studied at St Edward’s School in Oxford, before gaining an open classical scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, graduating in 1894.  He afterwards taught at Manchester Grammar School and the City of London School.  Roger married Lilian Mary Lamb in Oxford on 12 August 1896.  They had one daughter Katharine Isabella born at Wimbledon in 1903.

Having already served with the East Surrey Volunteer Corps, Cholmeley enlisted in the Imperial Yeomanry at London in March 1900.  He served in South Africa until June 1901. He obtained a commission and, on his return to the UK, continued to serve with the volunteers and the Territorial Force.

In 1901 Cholmeley published his edition of The Idylls of Theocritus.  He returned to South Africa in 1905 to take up a post as professor of Latin at the Rhodes University College at Grahamstown, where he also acted as librarian.  In 1909 he moved to Australia, teaching classics at Scotch College, Melbourne.  In 1911, he was appointed to a lectureship in classics at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, combining teaching with sorting out the University Library.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Cholmeley once again offered his services.  He was initially employed as a military censor in Australia, a post using his considerable knowledge of French, German, Russian, Dutch, and Greek.  He was rejected by the Australian authorities for active service, so in June 1915 he sailed to the UK where he obtained a commission in the Cheshire Regiment.  Chomeley wrote the preface to a revised edition of his Theocritus on the voyage over, lamenting the war’s interruption to scholarship.


Cholmeley's preface to his new edition of The Idylls of TheocritusCholmeley's preface to his new edition of The Idylls of Theocritus shelfmark 2280.d.10 Noc

Despite his age, Cholmeley served with the 13th (Service) Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment on the Western Front, being wounded twice.  In September 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross for his actions as brigade intelligence officer.

After the Armistice, Captain Cholmeley was posted to Northern Russia.  In expectation of his return from military service, the University of Queensland promoted Cholmeley assistant professor of classics, but he died before he could take up the post. 

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager

Further reading:
Damien Wright, Churchill’s secret war with Lenin: British and Commonwealth military intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20 (Solihull: Helion, 2017), pp. 75-85.
Ian Binnie, 'Captain Roger James Cholmeley, MC', Moseley Society History Group
The Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 20 September 1919, p. 9
Brisbane Courier, 20 February 1920, p. 2
J.M.S., 'Roger James Cholmeley', The Classical Review, 34 (1920), pp. 76-77
R. J. Cholmeley (ed.), The Idylls of Theocritus (London: George Bell & Sons, 1901).
R. J. Cholmeley (ed.), Principiorum Liber (London: Edward Arnold, 1910).
R. J. Cholmeley (ed.), The Idylls of Theocritus, new ed. (London: George Bell & Sons, 1919)
Albert C. Clark, Journal of Hellenistic Studies, XLI (1921), pp. 152-154

 

 

16 August 2019

Peterloo

Today, 16 August 2019, marks the two hundredth anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre – a major event in British history in which dozens of peaceful protesters were killed and hundreds injured when Yeomanry cavalry charged into them as they rallied for parliamentary reform.

Map of St Peter's Field Manchester'Map of St. Peter's field, Manchester, as it appeared on the 16th of August, last' from Peterloo Massacre, containing a faithful narrative ... Edited by an Observer (Manchester, 1819) 601.aa.9.(1) Noc  Images Online

On 16 August 1819 thousands of political protesters met at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester to campaign for parliamentary reform.  They sought a widening of access to the vote and a more democratically accountable Parliament.  It is estimated that somewhere between 60,000-100,000 people gathered at the meeting.  A large draw for the crowd was the speech of the noted radical and orator Henry Hunt (1773-1835).  Concerned that his words might incite a riot the Manchester magistrates ordered the local volunteer Yeomanry to arrest him.  Inexperienced in crowd control, the Yeomanry rode into the crowd with their swords drawn followed by the 15th Hussars who sought to disperse the crowd.  Hunt was arrested, but in the process at least eleven people were killed and many hundreds were wounded.

Portrait of Henry Hunt, and title page of Peterloo MassacrePortrait of Henry Hunt, and title page of Peterloo Massacre, containing a faithful narrative ... Edited by an Observer (Manchester, 1819) 601.aa.9.(1) Noc Images Online

Though the magistrates were officially praised by the government for their actions, there was an immediate national outcry as news spread of the attack.  Very quickly the event was derisively dubbed as ‘Peterloo’ scornfully comparing it with the Battle of Waterloo.  There was considerable public sympathy for the protesters and, for decades after, Peterloo was invoked by radicals as a powerful symbol of political corruption, working-class oppression and the need for parliamentary reform.

One author who was particularly appalled by the Peterloo massacre was the radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).  Shelley was living in Italy when the news reached him.  In response he drafted his, now famous, poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’.  According to Shelley ‘the torrent of my indignation’ flowed into the work and throughout his anger is tangible. 

The poem gives an apocalyptic vision of a Regency England in political crisis.  Shelley describes several monstrous creatures riding upon horses wearing masks that look like leading politicians.  Taken together they personify murder, hypocrisy, and fraud and they parade a final beast: anarchy.  The poem then describes a ‘maniac maid’ called Hope, though ‘she looked more like Despair’.  Like the protestors at St Peter’s Fields,  Hope is about to be trampled under the horse’s hooves when ‘a Shape arrayed in mail’ rises to defeat the monstrous creatures.  ‘A great Assembly…Of the fearless and the free’ is then described, like the crowd at Peterloo, and a voice is heard advocating freedom and imploring the people to rise up for liberty.  Famously, the poem ends with the rallying cry:

‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’


Percy Bysshe Shelley, 'The Masque of Anarchy' autograph draftPercy Bysshe Shelley, 'The Masque of Anarchy' autograph draft, 1819. Ashley MS 4086 Noc

                 
The British Library holds the original manuscript of Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’. It was never published in his lifetime. After writing the poem, Shelley sent a copy of it to his friend Leigh Hunt (1784-1859) who felt that it could not be published safely following government censorship in the aftermath of Peterloo. Others also refused to publish the poem and it did not come out in print until 1832.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
Peterloo
'The Masque of Anarchy’

 

Image from The Life of the Buddha

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