Monday, 27 January 2020

Newcastle October 1819 (2006)

A truly mass demonstration unearthed: Newcastle October 1819
Written By: John Charlton
Date: January 2006
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 26: Lent 2006 

A vast but little known reform demonstration took place in Newcastle on 11th October 1819. Strangely this demonstration is not a celebrated event in radical history. It was widely reported at the time but modern historians with the exception of Edward Thompson who did notice its significance, have given it very little attention.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. It took place in the shadow of Peterloo which registered as a deeply significant event. There was no violence. No one died. So far as we know no one was injured and there was no associated riot. It took place far away from the epicentres of revolt in 1819: London, Manchester, Yorkshire and the east midlands.

I started to research the event about six months ago and have shared my enthusiasm with friends and local historians. Many of them have looked askance when I have mentioned the contemporary reports of over seventy thousand people attending. Some have put that down to the common tendency of participants to exaggerate the numbers taking part in such events. When I have pointed out that non-participant observers also reported such numbers it has met with the rejoinder that no one at that time had any experience of large crowds so that any estimates could be wildly inaccurate.

There is probably some truth in both of these points. On the former I can speak with personal experience. There is a tendency to exaggerate but to what degree? Organisers and reporters get a feel for the size of an event. Rounding up does take place. So if an event ‘feels’, say over twenty thousand you might round up to thirty thousand. Why not fifty or a hundred thousand? Largely I think because of the need to maintain credibility with those participating. Ludicrous exaggeration is damaging to the movement itself.

Of course rounding down takes place too, usually by the law enforcement agencies anxious not to give the demonstrators too much credibility. This may be relevant to the military estimate for 11th October. When it comes to estimates no one is neutral. On the latter point whilst it is true that there could be little or no experience of massive political events citizens of Newcastle would have regularly attended race meetings and fairs. Indeed the rally took place at the Race Course on the Town Moor and one of the estimates relates to previous experience at that spot.

What grabbed my interest was noticing the size reported in the press and the lack of research interest in it by historians. So I decided to pursue it to try to establish the truth of the numbers and to look at how it came about both in terms of political context and organisation.

I started by looking at the press accounts. Newcastle (thirty thousand inhabitants) had three newspapers in 1819. The Times carried a pretty full and not unsympathetic account. The Manchester Observer also followed the event. Of the semi-underground papers only The Black Dwarf covered it and it was also invaluable in reporting pre-demo happenings. The Chairman of the October 11th platform, Eneas McKenzie subsequently wrote an excellent history of Newcastle in which he included a full and lively account. Two pamphlets were produced soon afterwards and one of them included a marvellous engraving of the event on the Moor which provided a lot of iconographical information.

The 1820 General Election Poll Book carries the names, trades and voting choice of 2,500 electors. This is a very large electorate for the unreformed Parliament and a useful source for understanding the social structure.

Home Office and Parliamentary Papers were also trawled and revealed, among other things, that the north east was viewed with intense anxiety in that Autumn. There were more references (September-December) to the area than any other single area including Manchester.

There were also a couple of diaries with useful material. Of course as with most attempts to reconstruct such events there is a frustrating absence of ordinary people’s voices but with the usual reading between lines sense can be made.

Political activity in the present can supply a way of thinking about past situations. One example will suffice. A contemporary journalist helpfully supplied a list of slogans appearing on banners on the day. Having been part of placard making squads before demos over the years it is possible to imagine the situation in the workers lanes and houses ‘the night before’ frantically working out the most telling slogans. The words chosen give clues to the political thoughts of those distant activists and the large movement to which they belonged.

Two further points can be made. The political thought embodied in banner slogans and the sheer volume of support suggest the presence in the area of a long and deeply rooted democratic tradition. Finally the evident success of the event was a very important factor in helping to push forward this tradition in the several radical campaigns of the next two decades in which the people of the north east of England played a vital part.

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