James Wroe

James Wroe was born in Bradford in 1788. Wroe was a woolcomber and after moving to Manchester became involved in local politics. In 1818 Wroe helped John Knight, Joseph Johnson and John Saxton to start the radical newspaper, the Manchester Observer. James Wroe became the newspaper's first editor and within twelve months it was selling 4,000 copies a week. Although it started as a local paper, by 1819 it was sold in most of the large towns and cities in Britain. Henry Hunt called the Manchester Observer "the only newspaper in England that I know, fairly and honestly devoted to such reform as would give the people their whole rights."

In March 1819, Joseph Johnson, John Knight and James Wroe formed the Patriotic Union Society. All the leading radicals in Manchester joined the organisation. Johnson was appointed secretary of the Society and Wroe became treasurer. The main objective of the Patriotic Union Society was to obtain parliamentary reform and during the summer of 1819 it decided to invite Major Cartwright and Henry Orator Hunt to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The men were told that this was to be "a meeting of the county of Lancashire, than of Manchester alone. I think by good management the largest assembly may be procured that was ever seen in this country." Cartwright was unable to attend but Hunt agreed and the meeting was arranged to take place at St. Peter's Field on 16th August.

Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile
Print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile

James Wroe was at the St. Peter's Field and described the attack on the crowd in the next edition of the Manchester Observer and is believed to be the first person to describe the incident as the Peterloo Massacre. Wroe also produced a series of pamphlets entitled The Peterloo Massacre: A Faithful Narrative of the Events. The pamphlets, which appeared for fourteen consecutive weeks from 28th August, price twopence, had a large circulation, and played an important role in the propaganda war against the authorities. The government wanted revenge and Wroe was arrested and charged with producing a seditious publication. He was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months in prison, plus a £100 fine.

Wroe continued to be active in politics after the Peterloo Massacre. He edited the Manchester Observer until government fines forced him to give it up in February 1820. Wroe became a bookseller in Great Ancoats Street where he sold radical books and newspapers. In 1838 he was chosen as one of Manchester's delegates to the first Chartist National Convention.

James Wroe died in August 1844.

Primary Sources

(1) The Manchester Observer (21st August, 1819)

The morning of the 16th was hailed with exultation by the many thousands, whose feelings were powerfully excited on the occasion. At an early period numbers came pressing in from various and distant parts of the country, to witness the greatest and most gratifying assemblage of Britons, that was ever recorded in the annuals of our history. From Bolton, Oldham, Stockport, Middleton, and all the circumjacent country; from the more distant towns of Leeds, Sheffield, etc. came thousands of willing votaries to the shrine of sacred liberty; and at the period when the Patriotic Mr. Hunt and his friends had taken their station on the hustings, it is supposed that no less than 150,000 people were congregated in the area near St. Peter's Church.

Mr. Hunt ascended the hustings about half-past one o'clock, and after a few preliminary arrangements, proceeded to address the immense multitude, recommending peace and order for their government. Whilst thus engaged, and without the shadow of disorder occurring or likely to occur, we were surprised, though not alarmed, at perceiving a column of infantry take possession of an opening in the assembly.

Our fears were raised to horror, by the appearance of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, who came galloping into the area, and proceeded to form in line ready for action; nor were they long delayed from their hellish purpose - the special constables were called in from their previous stations - the bugle sounded the charge - and a scene of murder and carnage ensued which posterity will hesitate to believe, and which will hand down the authors and abettors of this foul and bloody tragedy to the astonished world. Men, women, and children, without distinction of age or sex became the victims of these monsters.

It is impossible for us to ascertain the extent of loss in lives and limbs which has been thus wantonly and inhumanly occasioned - people flew in every direction to avoid these hair-brained assassins, who were supported by detachments from the 15th Hussars. The latter, however, did not deal out death and wounds with the same liberal hand as our townsmen.

(2) Advert for The Peterloo Massacre: A Faithful Narrative of the Events (August, 1819)

Just published No. 4, price twopence, of Peterloo Massacre, containing a full, true, and faithful account of inhuman murders, woundings, and other monstrous cruelties exercised by infernals (miscalled soldiers) upon an unarmed and distressed people, who were constitutionally assembled to consider of the best, most legal, and most efficient means of alleviating their present unparalleled sufferings, when they were broken in upon by bands of armed ruffians, who murdered many, and cut and maimed hundreds more in a horrid manner.