Hugh Birley

Hugh Birley

Hugh Hornby Birley, was born in Blackburn, Lancashire on 10th March, 1778. Birley owned a large textile factory in Oxford Road, Manchester. He developed a reputation an industrialist with reactionary political opinions. Birley was a captain in the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Calvary. The Yeomanry was made up of local businessmen, and were used to deal with social unrest. For example, Birley had used the Yeomanry to disperse weavers marching from Manchester to Ashton-under-Lyne.

During an industrial dispute at his factory in 1818, Birley was involved in a violent confrontation with his workers. This involved a group of men attacking Birley's factory with stones. According to local liberals such as Archibald Prentice and John Edward Taylor, Birley and the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry had a deep hatred of reformers.

When William Hulton heard about the planned meeting at St. Peter's Field on 16th August, 1819, he asked Thomas Trafford, commander of the Manchester and Salford, to bring his 120 men to help maintain order. Hulton and his fellow magistrates were based at a house in Mount Street overlooked St. Peter's Field. At about 12.30 Hulton came to the conclusion that "the town was in great danger". Hulton therefore decided to instruct Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, to arrest the four leaders of the meeting Henry Hunt, John Knight, Joseph Johnson and Joseph Moorhouse. Nadin replied that this could not be done without the help of the military. Hulton then wrote two letters and sent them to Lieutenant Colonel L'Estrange, the commander of the military forces in Manchester and Major Trafford, the commander of the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry.

Major Thomas Trafford, who was positioned only a few yards away at Pickford's Yard, was the first to receive the order to arrest the men. Major Trafford chose Captain Hugh Birley, his second-in-command, to carry out the order. Local eyewitnesses claimed that most of the sixty men who Birley led into St. Peter's Field were drunk. Birley later insisted that the troop's erratic behaviour was caused by the horses being afraid of the crowd.

Journalists such as John Tyas, Archibald Prentice and John Edward Taylor argued that Birley used unnecessary force in his attempts to arrest the leaders of the meeting and had been responsible for the deaths of several people killed in the crowd. It was claimed that Birley's men tried to kill John Saxton and Mary Fields on the platform and several well-known radicals in the crowd. Afterwards, Hugh Birley was one of the main people blamed for the Peterloo Massacre.

When the government refused to hold a public inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre, Thomas Redford, who had been badly wounded by a member of the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry, brought a personal action for assault against Hugh Birley, and three other members of his troop. The court case took place at Lancaster in April 1822. Thomas Redford produced several witnesses that gave damaging evidence against Birley and his men. However, after five days, the jury decided to accept Birley's defence that the assault on Redford had "been properly committed in the dispersal of an unlawful assembly."

Hugh Birley continued to live in Manchester after the Peterloo Massacre. Although deeply hated by the reformers, Burley was held in high esteem by conservatives and eventually became Manchester's first President of the Chamber of Commerce. In the early 1820s Birley went into partnership with Charles Macintosh, who patented the idea of water-proofing.

Hugh Hornby Birley died on 31st July, 1845.

Primary Sources

(1) Hugh Birley wrote a letter to The Times complaining about the way John Tyas had reported the behaviour of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry on 16th August 1819.

Mr. Tyas accuses the Yeomanry of cutting, to get at the flags, after Hunt and Johnson had been taken into custody - of losing their command of temper after brickbats had been hurled at them. There is ample evidence to prove that this attack had begun before the hustings were surrounded. The temper of the Yeomanry and of all the troops employed in the dispersion of the meeting is sufficiently marked by the fact, that, not withstanding the fury with which they were assailed - not withstanding that a Yeoman was struck from his horse senseless, and to all appearances, lifeless - not more than one death can be ascribed to a sabre wound.

(2) Robert Mutrie was a member of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry that arrested Henry Orator Hunt at St. Peter's Field. On the 19th August, 1819, Mutrie wrote a letter to his friend, Archibald Moore.

The crowd had pelted us with stones for an hour or two. Captain Booth gave the word and we then charged the crowd. My horse grew quite mad and carried me over the backs of many poor devils. I think the Reformers will not call another meeting.

(3) Archibald Prentice, The Manchester Times (10th July, 1830)

The Duke of Wellington visited the fortified factory owned by ex-Major Birley, whose deeds of valour on the bloody 16th of August, have immortalised his name. The factory is situated on the banks of the nasty, inky stream, called the river Medlock. What induced the Duke and his retinue to visit this place in preference to factories of far greater importance in the town has puzzled the heads of many of the good people of Manchester, but ultimately they came to a conclusion that the preference was given to the Major solely because "he was famed for deeds of arms". It is to be regretted that, out of all the factories in Manchester, he should visit one whose owner is stained with the recollections of the 16th of August, 1819, when the Yeomanry under his command cut down the people when peaceably and legally assembled.