Sunday, 8 April 2012

8th April 1812: Cancelled Loyalist meeting at Manchester Exchange Buildings turns into a riot

Manchester Exchange Buildings by John Harwood, from 'Lancashire Illustrated', 1832.
Following the requisition presented to the Manchester Borough Reeve by the Manchester 'Church & King club' of 25th March, the Reeve agreed to allow the organisers to convene at meeting at the Exchange Building dining room in Manchester for Wednesday 8th April.

The aim of the meeting was to draw up a congratulatory address to the Prince Regent for allowing the hated Tory administration to continue in office. In the midst of widespread disturbances, near starvation and hardship, it would be difficult to conceive of a more provocative time to hold such a meeting, but the authorities gave their consent.

Handbills opposing the meeting had already been distributed, calling for anyone who opposed such an address to attend and make their feelings felt. By the late afternoon of the day prior to the meeting, the Borough Reeve and local constables had changed their mind. A suitable excuse was found - that an architects inspection at the building considered the staircase not up to holding such numbers as might be expected, and that it was too dangerous to continue. But, although handbills to this effect were posted, it was too late. By 9.30 a.m., the front of the Exchange building, and the adjoining streets were thronged with people, mainly weavers, and a considerable number from outside the town of Manchester itself.

Meanwhile the 'official opposition' to the loyalist meeting was oblivious to what was happening at the Exchange, and were holed up at the Star Hotel in Deansgate debating what to do.

Finding the building closed, an impromptu meeting took place outside in St Ann's Square. Speeches were made, and the resolutions of the City of London Common Hall of 26th March were read aloud, and agreed to by all present. Amongst other things, these resolutions called for the dismissal of the Tory administration by the Prince Regent, the exact opposite of the demands of what the 'Church and King Club' had called for.

Whilst this was going on, a section of the crowd broke away, and managed to gain entry to the Exchange building. Once inside, a number of boys and young men occupied the newsroom: in the grand surroundings they called for each other to read aloud from the newspapers. They played games, stealing each others hats and flinging them across the large room.

Outside, Hugh Hornby Birley was passing by, and tried to remonstrate with the crowd outside the Exchange - the crowd recognised him, and taunted and roughly jostled him. Realising it was dangerous to linger any longer, he hurriedly ran away, seeking refuge in a nearby shop.

In the Exchange newsroom, fun and games had turned into something else. An object being accidentally thrown too hard broke one of the windows. An accident turned now to intent - windows were deliberately broken and soon chairs, tables, windows, and the pictures on the walls were all being smashed and broken, along with chandeliers and maps that adorned the Exchange. Some of the paperwork that could be found was set alight. A portrait by Thomas Lawrence of the Lancashire MP, Colonel Thomas Stanley, had a hole pushed through it. The damage done was later estimated at between £800-1000.

By now, the military had turned out and was attempting to move the crowds away from the Exchange building. The Riot Act was read, but the provisions of the Act meant that an hour had to elapse before any action could be taken. Cries were now being heard from the crowd "now is our time for a cheap loaf!"

It actually took several hours for the military to fully impose order on the centre of Manchester. During that time, there had been strong apprehensions that general disorder would entail, with rumours of a plan to destroy the Portico Library and an actual attack upon a factory/warehouse belonging to a Mr Schofield on Newton Street in which some windows were broken before the military arrived to disperse the crowd. Although there were no reports of deaths, several were apparently wounded by sabres wielded by the Scots Greys and Cumberland Militia.

The Loyalists who had called the original aborted meeting at the now wrecked Exchange later sought sanctuary at the police office, where the address to the Prince Regent was voted on. The address itself was then deposited at various locations around Town to be signed.

But something in Manchester had changed that day. The journalist, Archibald Prentice, who later gave accounts of what he had learned had happened said that "the tables had been turned upon those who had formerly instigated Church-and-King mobs into destructive action." (1851, p.40), and quoted a Thomas Kershaw, who said to him "But we had no Church-and-King mobs after that!" (ibid, p.52).

This account has been compiled from a number of sources: the Leeds Mercury of 11th April 1812; the Caledonian Mercury of 16th April 1812; Prentice's 'Historical Sketches...'; Cobbett's Political Register of 25th April 1812. Reid (1984, p.102) is also useful.

The estimate of the damage done is from a letter written by Colonel Ralph Fletcher to the Home Office two days later. £1000 is the equivalent to £670,000 using 2009 prices.

The resolutions of the City of London Common Hall can be read in Cobbett's 'Political Register' of 25/03/1812.

Hugh Hornby Birley took his revenge 7 years later, when he led the drunken bourgeois Yeomanry to slaughter men, women and children at St Peter's Fields in what became known as the 'Peterloo Massacre'.

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