Thursday, 25 October 2018

Cutting up at London's Smithfield Market

Smithfield, the site of London’s ancient meat market, lies just north of the old city walls. It was an open air market for centuries. The image above shows the old open air market just before it closed down to make way for the massive Victorian structure that occupies the site today. That building, part of which is pictured below, opened in the 1860s. Smithfield is the largest meat market in the UK and one of the largest in Europe.

For centuries, cattle, sheep, poultry, swine, and horses have been brought from all across Britain to feed and transport London. The name of a nearby street, Cowcross, proclaims the final path that many a beast took to its place of execution. (Image: Cowcross)

After slaughter, their carcasses were tossed into the nearby Fleet River, or Fleet Ditch as it became known, as the river congealed into a gooey, foul-smelling mass of animal remains and human wastes, an open sewer of ill fame.

The River Fleet was covered over in the 18th and 19th centuries and now runs below ground under Farringdon Rd. and Farringdon St., exiting into the Thames at Blackfiars Bridge.

Smithfield was not only a place for animal slaughter. People were chopped up and otherwise disposed of there as well.  The most famous, thanks to Mel Gibson, was William Wallace, AKA “Braveheart” who was hung, drawn, and quartered at Smithfield for having had the balls to defend his country from the rapacious Edward I. In one of its many errors, the film shows Edward dying at the same as Wallace was being executed. In fact, Edward died two years later. (Below: Memorial to Wallace across from Smithfield, on the outer wall of St, Bartholomew's [Bart's] Hospital) 

In the 1550's, “Bloody Mary” Tudor had several hundred Protestants burned here for their refusal to abandon their "heresy."

In 1381, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, Wat Tyler, was treacherously killed here by the mayor of London while parleying over the peasant’s demands. The peasants were aroused by a new tax, a poll (head) tax, to pay for an imperialistic war against France, the so-called Hundred Years War. Although Tyler was killed and the revolt subsided, the government abolished the tax. 

Six hundred years later, Margaret Thatcher, defied history and tried to introduce a poll tax in the UK. As in 1381, the people revolted again, a revolt that helped lead to her ultimate downfall.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

The Peterloo Massacre, 1819: British Soldiers Attack Peaceful Protesters

On 16 August 1819, a huge crowd of men, women, and children, estimated at between 60,000 and 80,000, assembled at St. Peter’s Fields near the rapidly growing industrial city of Manchester.

According to historian Joyce Marlow, the meeting is believed to have been the largest to date in British history. The purpose was peaceful, to hear speakers promoting a much-needed reform of Parliamentary representation.

At the time, most men and all women were denied the right to vote or run for Parliament. The legislature and the government were controlled by a tiny fraction of the population, mostly aristocrats and their clients. Since the defeat of Napoleon, the masses had suffered from high unemployment. Food prices had skyrocketed, in part a result of the recently enacted Corn Laws. These acts placed high tariffs on imported grain, in a bid to keep domestic prices up. 

Radicals blamed the dire conditions in the country on a government that represented narrow landed (aristocratic) interests, hence their call for a reform that would make parliamentary representation more democratic. 

A pro-reform organization, the Manchester Patriotic Union, organized the mass demonstration at St. Peter’s Fields. For their headline speaker, they chose a popular radical, Henry Hunt. He had been an outspoken advocate of parliamentary reforms for years, but he favored tactics of mass persuasion rather than violence. His Tory enemies mocked his reputation as a speaker, calling him “Orator” Hunt.  The name stuck.

The clamour for reform, added to the unrest in the country, had long alarmed the authorities. They feared (or claimed to fear) that Britain was headed for a revolution similar to that in France in 1789. Hunt's popularity added to their concern.

On the day of the Manchester meeting, the local militia and regular soldiers were out in force. Hundreds of heavily armed cavalry and infantrymen surrounded the meeting place. Contemporary accounts claim that the crowd was well behaved, and included families dressed in their Sunday clothes.

As Hunt got up on the platform to speak, the crowd erupted with a huge roar of approval. The head of the local magistrates issued a warrant for Hunt’s arrest. 

The man charged with serving the warrant requested military assistance. The upshot was that cavalry charged into the crowd, wielding sabers to clear the way and disperse the crowd. As they became entangled among the mass, more cavalry rode into their rescue. Before the melee finished, they had killed about a dozen people and injured about 700. One of the dead was a two year old boy, Joseph Fildes.

The actions of the soldiers sparked immense outrage throughout the country, especially in the popular press. In pointed, shameful contrast to the victory at Waterloo, it soon became known as Massacre of Peterloo. Among other things, it led to the foundation of the radical Manchester Guardian and inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his oft-quoted poem, The Masque of Anarchy.

Peterloo was the subject of many contemporary prints. The one below was published only a few days after the event and depicts the moment of Hunt's arrest. 

Perhaps the most famous image of Peterloo was that produced by George Cruikshank, who later illustrated some of Dickens' writings.

Peterloo did not have any immediate effect on reform. In fact, the terrified Tory government quickly passed a series of acts designed to repress the radical movement, the infamous Six Acts.

The acts were not rigorously enforced, however, and the reform movement continued to attract popular support in the wake of Peterloo. Fears of popular revolt grew again after another French Revolution deposed King Charles X in 1830, but on this occasion the British government conceded some of the popular demands. 

In 1832 a Whig dominated Parliament passed the Great Reform Act. Ironically, the ministry that drew it up it was the most aristocratic in British history. (The Prime Minister, Earl Grey, later had a bergamot flavored tea named after him.)

Far from democratic, the Great Reform Bill did extend representation to many new voters, mostly from the middle class. It also eliminated many corrupt electoral practices. It was followed by other reform bills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that gradually extended political rights to all men and then women. In that sense, Peterloo was stage on Britain's evolution into a democracy.

Further reading: Joyce Marlow, The Peterloo Massacre, 1969.