Isabella Banks, ‘Orator’ Hunt and the Peterloo Massacre

Dr Janette Martin, curator of our forthcoming Peterloo exhibition, tells us how the collections held at the University of Manchester Library deepen our understanding of Peterloo and its cultural impact on the city of Manchester:

The acclaimed Manchester author, Isabella Banks (1821-1897), was born two years after the Peterloo Massacre (1819) yet the tragic event captured her imagination.  The massacre was dramatised in her best-selling novel The Manchester Man (1870) and a young Henry Hunt featured in her later novel Glory (1877).  Like many female authors of the time, Isabella published under her married name: Mrs George Linnaeus Banks.

Isabella Banks was born above her father’s pharmacy shop in Oldham Street, Manchester.  Her parents were active in local politics. In such a politically charged household she must have heard about Peterloo as a child and most probably spoke to elderly eye-witnesses during her research into the massacre.  Her fictionalised account of 16 August 1819 owes much to Samuel Bamford’s recollections of Peterloo, recorded in his Passages in a Life of a Radical. She also read the verbatim accounts of that day recorded in Henry Hunt’s trial.

As a young woman Isabella was a member of the ladies committee of the Manchester-based pressure group the Anti-Corn Law League.  She was also a life-long advocate for women’s suffrage (incidentally Henry Hunt presented the earliest parliamentary petition for women’s suffrage).  Given her political interests it is not surprising that the life of Jabez Clegg, the chief protagonist in The Manchester Man, is told as a romantic melodrama set against a turbulent backdrop of Manchester’s socio-political history, in which Peterloo and the protests against the Corn Laws are given prominence. She paints a vivid picture of Henry Hunt:

‘Orator’ Hunt, as he was ironically dubbed by those who loved him not, was the very man to move the people as he himself was moved; his energy and fervid eloquence carried his hearers with him, and as he was wont to lash himself to a fury which streaked his pale eyes with blood and forced them forward in their sockets, no wonder the Manchester magnates were afraid of his influence on the multitudes, or that the Prince Regent should issue a proclamation against seditious meetings and writings, or the military drilling of the populace, then carried on with so fervid an orator to inflame them.

Extract from The Manchester Man, p. 154.

Isabella Banks’s fascination with Peterloo, and its hero Henry Hunt, continued into later life.  During the late 1880s she was involved in the campaign to repair a dilapidated Henry Hunt monument. Back in 1842 the Chartists had built a towering obelisk in the graveyard of a dissenting chapel in Ancoats to commemorate their hero Hunt. Chartism, like the ill-fated Peterloo meeting, advocated parliamentary reform as an essential step for improving the lives of working people. The Chartists were particularly numerous and well organised in Manchester (along with many other northern industrial towns and cities).  The Chartists sent three monster petitions to Parliament yet, despite its mass appeal, Chartism had largely fizzled out by the 1850s.  The Hunt memorial was similarly short-lived. While dramatic and eye-catching it cannot have been built to a sturdy design if it fell apart a little over forty years later.

NS Henry Hunt memorial
Northern Star, 20 August 1842. From Nineteenth-Century Serials Edition.

As this prospectus shows, by the 1880s Henry Hunt was no longer seen as a dangerous radical but was celebrated by the Liberal Party as a progressive thinker.  Isabella was part of a wider group who wanted to honour the Peterloo orator with a permanent memorial.

JRL18100083 - prospectus
Prospectus for a new Henry Hunt memorial, Manchester, 1888. Ref. Linnaeus Banks, Box 10. The University of Manchester Library.

From this press-cutting pasted into a copy of the Trial of Henry Hunt we know that the plan to re-erect the Hunt monument failed.  My theory is that the money collected was later used to pay for a plaque of Henry Hunt mounted on the wall of the Manchester Reform Club in 1908. Fittingly it was C. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, who gave the address at the opening ceremony.

ancoats monument cutting A

cutting on ancoats memorial B
Press cutting (undated) on the 1880s campaign to save the Hunt Memorial. University of Manchester Library.

In 1896, the year before Isabella Banks died, a well-illustrated edition of The Manchester Man was published with forty-six plates and three maps. These included engravings of Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford and a fictionalised scene from Peterloo in which a mounted yeomanry officer slashes Jabez Clegg with a sabre as he tries to protect a woman and an old man.  Within our Linnaeus Banks collection is a handwritten note which records Isabella’s fear that one of her cousins behaved brutally, attacking the fleeing crowds on Oldham Street.

The Manchester Man was republished in 1991 and again in 1998. Its influence on Manchester is enduring. The recently closed Jabez Clegg, one of Manchester’s most iconic pubs, took its name from the hero of the book.  Locals still use the term ‘Manchester man’ to celebrate a self-made man and fittingly a quotation from the book is on the grave of Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records.

JRL18100084 note on Hunt
Handwritten note. Ref. Linnaeus Banks, Box 10. University of Manchester Library.

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