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Hobhouse to magistrate: Prelude to Peterloo

Henry Hobhouse, Permanent Undersecretary to the Home Office, writes to James Norris, Lancashire magistrate, providing advice on the legality of breaking up a public meeting, 26 July 1819.

Performed by James Parsons.

Archives Alive: Peterloo

The Archives Alive: Peterloo project is a collaboration between Royal Holloway, University of London, and The National Archives, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This series of short films forms part of a wide programme of activity marking the 200th anniversary of the massacre – an important milestone in the history of the struggle for rights and representation – and its aftermath. Find out more on The National Archives’ blog.

Transcription

Letter to James Norris, Lancashire Magistrate from Henry Hobhouse, Permanent Undersecretary, Home Office – 26th July 1819

My Dear Sir,

The power to disperse the men by force will depend on the legality or illegality of their meeting. If they drill with a view of fitting themselves to act against the King’s Troops, it is an overt act of treason. If they drill with no illegal view, it is no offense at all.

The magistrates must not ascribe to it that character which he suspects to belong to it, but that which he can establish by evidence. And Lord Sidmouth presumes that the illegal purpose will scarcely in any case be proved to you by evidence as he can not advise you, in any ordinary case to [presume] the illegality without proof, he fears that there will be few cases, in which you will venture to use force.

This advice will of cause not be understood to apply to an extreme case, where a magistrate may feel it incumbent upon him to act even without evidence, and to rely upon Parliament for an indemnity. 

It is desirable that you should keep this delicate subject as much as possible to yourself.

Your most faithfully.

Hobhouse

Catalogue reference: HO 79/3, pages 457-459

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