The Peterloo Massacre, in which 15 people were killed and many injured, lives on in public memory. Yet, it was not an isolated event – the intervention of the military was not an uncommon response to nineteenth-century mass gatherings, especially during elections. As the following instance illustrates, this could lead to tragedy and death for bystanders:
During the 1868 election, the contest for Newport proved to be quite disorderly. Newport in fact had something of a reputation as a centre of unrest, being the location of the famous Newport Rising of 1839, in which nearly 10,000 Chartist supporters had marched on the town, leading to military intervention and twenty-two deaths.
The tumultuous progress of the 1868 contest reached a climax after the polling had finished and result declared. The successful candidate, Sir John Ramsden, proceeded to address a very large crowd of 10-12,000 people from a balcony of the Westgate Hotel; after this was concluded, the streets largely cleared, and the authorities generally assumed that the excitement of the election was finally at an end.
However, at this point a rumour began circulating that the local police had mistreated certain unnamed locals – this provoked a re-gathering of a mob of people, who proceeded to smash windows across the town. Next, in a chain of events which had been repeated so many times before, in so many places across the UK, the Mayor and Magistrates sent for the military. A detachment of the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers arrived and proceeded to the Town Hall. The Mayor twice read the Riot Act there, and troops charged the crowd with fixed bayonets. The crowd ‘at once skedaddled; but only to re-assemble almost as soon as the soldiers returned to the Town-hall’.
One of the charges down Bolton Street was fatal – A Mrs Grant, tailor’s wife, had been ‘quietly sitting at the fireside, and alarmed by the noise rushed to the door’. Soldiers passed by at this moment, and she received a bayonet wound full to the chest, through her heart – she died immediately. Her son, standing slightly in the recess of the doorway, also received no fewer than five bayonet wounds. Others were injured, and another, who had previously been wounded in a struggle with police, died. The crowd eventually dispersed, and the military withdrew from the town at one o’clock on the following morning. At the later coroner’s inquest, it was asserted that Mrs Grant had been killed while trying to save her son, being ‘wantonly bayoneted while she lay on the ground’. Her son also eventually succumbed to his wounds, passing away shortly after.
As the nineteenth century progressed, such interventions by the military became less common, as increasingly professionalised police forces were formed and expanded, in conjunction with other factors. Our project looks at the causes and consequences of electoral violence between 1832 and 1914 – the causes were complex and varied. The immediate consequences, while similarly diverse, feature many instances of personal tragedy .
Sources: West Somerset Free Press, 21 November 1868; Dundee Courier, 21 November 1868; Bristol Mercury, 28 November 1868; Bristol Daily Post, 4 December 1868. Retrieved 2018, via British Newspaper Archive. Newspaper Images © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)