Henry Hunt was a radical English political reformer and orator. He is probably best known for his presence at the Peterloo Massacre that took place in Manchester in 1819. The Special Collections Research Center has a small collection of Hunt’s letters and papers, many dating from just after the massacre when Hunt was serving a 2-year sentence in Ilchester Goal.
Hunt was born in 1773 in Wiltshire, England. He inherited a prosperous estate, and so entered adulthood as a gentleman farmer and member of the yeoman cavalry. However, over the course of the late 1790s, Hunt’s politics radicalized, and he became a follower of Major John Cartwright and a supporter of reformist MP Francis Burdett. By the early 1800s he had become involved in the causes of annual Parliaments and universal suffrage, and more progressive agricultural and labor policies. Among the papers the Center has are letters to and from Scottish MP Joseph Hume, Charles Pearson, writer and editor Richard Alfred Davenport, and one letter from Hunt to the Marquis de Lafayette.
Image Caption: An 1831 letter from Henry Hunt to “Most venerated Patriot,” General Lafayette.
Hunt made a reputation for himself largely due to his skills as a public speaker; detractors dubbed him “Orator Hunt.” He was invited to speak at the mass meetings at Spa Fields 1816, which devolved into the Spa Fields riots. More significantly, he was the featured speaker at a Manchester rally that took place on August 16, 1819. Hunt was arrested at the rally, and as the cavalry charged though the crowd to get to him, chaos ensued and about 15 people were killed. The gathering had taken place in St. Peter’s Field, and so the event was dubbed the Peterloo Massacre in an ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo.
Hunt was tried in early 1820 for sedition, and was sentenced to a term of 30 months at Ilchester Gaol. During his prison term he tried to launch repeated inquiries into the circumstances of his arrest (documented in some of the letters in this collection) and drafted petitions and speeches, all while writing his memoirs.
Image Caption: A page from a draft of Hunt’s memoirs circa 1821, where he describes a contested election in Bristol in 1812 and rails against “the most Corrupt and profligate system of Election that ever disgraced the Rottenest of Rotten Boroughs.”
After leaving prison, Hunt continued his political activism, and his politics influenced several ill-fated business ventures: a “Breakfast Powder” intended to be a tax-free alternative to coffee, and a boot-blacking business that included the slogan "Equal Laws, Equal Rights, Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and the Ballot" on the bottles.
From 1830-1832 Hunt served a term in Parliament, and managed to get pulled into a different sort of scandal. During his term he advocated not only for the English working classes but also for the poor in Ireland. Perhaps due to his work on Irish issues, or perhaps due to his general reputation, he was contacted in 1831 by Ellen Courtenay, mother of a child by Irish Catholic political hero Daniel O’Connell. Courtenay had been arrested for debt, which she claimed she ran up raising O’Connell’s child. Hunt forwarded a copy of the first of her letters to O’Connell, accompanied by a letter of his own indicating no great admiration for O’Connell’s character and an inclination to believe Courtenay. Several of Courtenay’s letters thank Hunt for his assistance, though it is unclear what he was able to do for her.