Henry Hunt, the powerful radical, by Ken Hughes M.A. (Aug 2013)

In the early 19th century, Henry Hunt became well-known as a powerful radical speaker. His oratory skills were increasingly poignant at a time when plutocratic and aristocratic values underpinned the mechanism of a corrupt political society. It was supported further by rotten boroughs and handshakes based on tradition, connection and pedigree. Men like Henry Hunt were campaigning heavily for a fairer political system. Hunt wanted votes for the common man.  Hunt's demogue actions and rousing speeched were a natural progression of newspaper gossip, the Georgian coffee shop culture and tavern politics. His actions also complemented these underlying radical elements.

In Hunt's ‘desire for democracy to the masses' he addressed crowds in their thousands. In 1816 he spoke at large reform meetings at Birmingham (80,000), Blackburn(40,000), Nottingham (20,000) and Macclesfield (10,000). Hunt made it real on his soap box. On 16th August 1819, Henry 'Orator' Hunt spoke at a meeting of 80,000 people on parliamentary reform at St. Peter's Fields in Manchester. In what later became known as the Peterloo Massacre, eleven people died after the local yeomanry was ordered to break up the meeting. Hunt and nine others were imprisoned for holding an unlawful and seditious assembling. Hunt later became an MP but did not support the 1832 Reform Act arguing that it did not go far enough; this lost him a lot of support. Hunt also campaigned for better working conditions in the factories but argued that his work on this and his numerous visits to factory floors went unreported and unsupported.

At the time, Hunt’s powerful fire-and-brimstone radical rhetoric was seen as a challenge to the political and social status quo. He was a hero of those unrepresented and a symbol of quashing political laissez-faire in favour of working-class political activism. Through modern eyes Hunt is seen as a champion of equality and a political voice for the working class. Considering the social values and assumption of the time, one can sympathise with his opponents who saw him as a trouble maker and antagonist.

Historians should compare the Henry Hunt during his anger at Peterloo to the meeker Henry Hunt during his time as an MP. This demonstrates his personal motivation was fuelled by the attention-giving crowds. His provocative Smithfield Parliament and his aggressive ad captandum speeches show Hunt as an attention-seeking bully. Hunt was a trouble-maker when it came to campaigning for universal suffrage. He clashed with landowners, played to the crowds at Birmingham, Blackburn and Manchester and was seen as a threat by the authorities. Fellow radical Samuel Bamford explained that Hunt really knew how to work the crowd and enjoyed the attention. Bamford said ‘He seemed to know almost every man of them, and his confidence in, and entire mastery over them, made him quite at ease. When they shouted "Hunt! Hunt! huzza!" his gratification was expressed by a stern smile’.[1]

Although popular with the large crowds that attended his meetings, he was deeply disliked by the majority of the electorate.[2]  Historians could compare his campaigning for universal suffrage to his campaigning for better factory conditions. He demonstrated genuine socialist values in his concerns for the working classes in factories which he pursued without the razzmatazz of the radical spotlight.

Edward Royle argues that Henry Hunt's more extreme actions seem more relevant when put into historical context. He points out that shortly before Hunt's anger-fuelled appearance at Manchester, Francis Burdett's motion for parliamentary reform had been defeated and there had been a serious depression in trade. Between 1809 and 1818 Burdett had proposed a scheme of parliamentary reform, and returning to the matter in 1817 and 1818 he called for universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot and annual parliaments. Meanwhile, the post-Peterloo era witnessed the Cato Street cospiracy (1820) and the attempted rising of the Bonnymuir weavers (1820) [3]. It was a time of extreme radicalism when challenging authority, as well as the extreme or poor behaviour of individual patricians, with anger and protest was seen as the only way forward. 

[1] S. Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical, (London 1843).

[2]  ‘Henry Orator Hunt’, Spartacus-educational.com.

[3]  E. Royal, Radical Politics Religion and Unbelief, 1790-1900  (Cambridge, 1984).