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Waterloo to Peterloo: The tragic story of John Lees


When author Colin Brown heard that Mike Leigh was directing a new film on the massacre at Peterloo, he wanted to send a copy of his book Scum of the Earth: What Happened to the Real British Heroes of Waterloowhich contains a chapter on the outrage of 1819, to the filmmaker. Leigh’s agent replied with, ‘Mike has read and enjoyed your excellent book as part of his thorough research for making his film.’ Leigh’s resulting Peterloo is a sweeping and moving account of one of the worst atrocities committed on home soil in British history.

One of the 15 victims of the massacre, John Lees, was officially listed as being ‘sabred’ to death. Brown found this intriguing as he knew Lees had fought at Waterloo and wanted to find out whether he had been killed by the soldiers he had fought alongside four years earlier.

The story he uncovered was both shocking and tragic. John Lees had enlisted in the Royal Artillery in 1812 at the age of 15 as a wagon driver. Three years later, he fought at Waterloo where he must have risked his life delivering shot and powder to the guns on the rolling hills of Mont St John outside Brussels which were turned into hell by the battle. And yet he was the son of a wealthy cotton mill owner in Oldham. Why had Lees run off to join the army as a boy? The answer was that he was illegitimate – his father Robert Lees had never married his mother, though he acknowledged the boy as his own, and there were obvious tensions as the boy grew to manhood.

John defied his father by joining the marchers who set off early on 16 August 1819 from Oldham to join a mass rally in Manchester to hear the great orator Henry Hunt call for proper representation in Parliament for the burgeoning cotton towns of the north.

The ladies of the Manchester Female Reform Society, dressed all in white, were to lead the carriage containing Hunt and fellow speakers on to the Field but owing to the density of the crowds, this proved impractical and the women in white had to follow behind. Their leader Mrs Mary Fildes had been lifted into the carriage to sit alongside Hunt, holding the Female Reformers’ colours aloft.

The banners at the hustings included “No Corn Bill” “Hunt and Liberty” and “Equal Representation or Death”. The band struck up ‘See the Conquering Hero Comes’ with a roar from the crowd, and the carriage slowly moved forward with Hunt, his fellow speakers and Mrs Fildes dressed all in white with a straw bonnet. William Harrison, a cotton spinner from Oldham, thought she was the “most beautiful woman I ever saw in my life”.

The Regency period has been called the Age of Elegance but in fact it was a period of riot, protest, and violence. The industrial revolution had led to cottage industries like cotton spinning being replaced by machinery, which led in turn to poverty. Agitators attacked mills, and tried to destroy the machines that had put so many out of work. The hated Corn Laws kept the price of corn – and bread – artificially high to safeguard the farmers who included the rich aristocratic landowners who had seats in the House of Lords.

The government of Lord Liverpool in 1819 feared that revolution – so recently finally put down in France by the Duke of Wellington, the victor of the Battle of Waterloo  – was about to catch fire again but this time in Britain. They answered the supposed threat with repressive measures. Habeas corpus – giving prisoners the right to be brought to court in public and to know the charges against them – was suspended. Journalists on the side of the agitators were proscribed. Large public gatherings were banned.

The magistrates who gathered at St Peter’s Field were prepared to put down a riot when they sat in the windows of a house overlooking the square where 60,000 were assembling. They had constables ready to arrest the ring leaders and a small army to go in if the police needed help: 600 cavalry from the 15th Hussars, 420 members of the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry with another forty volunteers of the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry, a troop of the Royal Artillery with two six-pounders, and 160 troops of the 88th Foot who were ordered to stand with fixed bayonets to block an exit route from the square. It was like a powder keg waiting to blow and the attempt to arrest Hunt was the spark that set it off.

Hunt gave himself up but the magistrates panicked, ordered in the Yeomanry to back up the constables, as the civil power, and Hussars followed. In the ensuing melee, men women and children were ridden down, hacked and slashed with swords and trampled to death. Women wearing white dresses were particular targets because the Yeomanry thought they resembled Marianne, the French revolutionary. One sword-wielding cavalryman gloated: ‘Here’s Waterloo for you…’ The Manchester Observer, forerunner of the Guardian, reported the atrocity under the headline ‘The Peter Loo  Massacre’.

John Lees was battered black and blue and died from his injuries three weeks later. When his body was lifted into his coffin, blood poured from his mouth. John Lees was the only victim to have an inquest and it was curtailed by the authorities to stop a verdict of unlawful killing being returned. Today he is one of the heroes of the labour movement, but his grave in Oldham is now forgotten and unmarked.

There are other forgotten heroes of the Battle of Waterloo – the Irish sergeant who was dubbed ‘the bravest man in the British Army’ for his role in closing the gate at Hougomont and the cavalry corporal, Francis Styles, who died in poverty and went to his grave still insisting he had captured a French eagle which had been claimed by his commanding officer. None are as poignant though as the death of John Lees at Peterloo.

By Colin Brown

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