Because of his rousing speeches at mass meetings held in Spa Fields in London in 1816-17, he became known as the ‘Orator,’ a term of disparagement accorded by his enemies. He embraced a programme that included annual parliaments and universal suffrage, promoted openly and with none of the conspiratorial element of the old Jacobin clubs. The tactic he most favored was that of ‘mass pressure,’ which he felt, if given enough weight, could achieve reform without insurrection.
Although his efforts at mass politics had the effect of radicalizing large sections of the community unrepresented in Parliament, there were clear limits as to how far this could be taken. Invited by the Patriotic Union Society, formed by the Manchester Observer, to be one of the scheduled speakers at a rally in Manchester on 16 August 1819, it became the Peterloo Massacre. Arrested and convicted, the incident cost him more than two years in prison.
The debacle at Peterloo, caused by an overreaction of the local Manchester authorities, added greatly to his prestige, but it advanced the cause not one step. Moral force was not sufficient in itself, and physical force entailed too great a risk. Although urged to do so after Peterloo, Hunt refused to give his approval to schemes for a full-scale insurrection. Thereby all momentum was lost, as more desperate souls turned to worn out cloak-and-dagger schemes, which surfaced in the Cato Street Conspiracy.
While in prison for his part in Peterloo, Hunt turned to writing, to putting his message across through a variety of forms, including an autobiography. After his release he attempted to recover some of his lost fortune by beginning new business ventures in London, which included the production and marketing of a roasted corn Breakfast Powder, the “most salubrious and nourishing Beverage that can be substituted for the use of Tea and Coffee, which are always exciting, and frequently the most irritating to the Stomach and Bowels.” He also made shoe-blacking bottles, which carried the slogan “Equal Laws, Equal Rights, Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and the Ballot.” Synthetic coal, intended specifically for the French market, was another of his schemes. After the July Revolution in 1830 he sent samples to Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette and other political heroes, along with fraternal greetings.
In his opposition to the Reform Bill Orator Hunt revived the Great Northern Union, a pressure group he set up some years before, intended to unite the northern industrial workers behind a platform of full democratic reform; and it is in this specifically that the germs of Chartism can be detected. Worn out by his struggles he died in 1835.
A monument to Hunt was erected in 1842 by “the working people,” in Every Street, Manchester, in Scholefield’s Chapel Yard. A “spiral” march was held on the anniversary of Peterloo, from Piccadilly around the town past the Peterloo site, down to Deansgate and through Ancoats to the monument. The monument’s stonework deteriorated and it was demolished in 1888.
Note! The Peterloo Massacre plays a central role in my Regency era novella, “His Irish Eve,” which is paired with “His American Heartsong” in His: Two Regency Novellas (available from all major booksellers).