At the end of last year, Manchester City Council fixed a new plaque on the Free Trade Hall, now a hotel, to commemorate the infamous Peterloo massacre of 1819. The previous plaque merely noted that the crowd had been dispersed by the military. The new plaque records more fully what happened and gives the death toll estimated from the latest research. It reads:
On August 16 1819 a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries.
The connection with Dulwich is in the person of Thomas Scholes Withington who played a significant part in the tragic events and later, between about 1832 and his death in 1838, lived at Bell House, College Road. In 1816 he had been elected as a constable for the manor of Manchester, and in October 1817 he was elected Borough Reeve, the chief officer of the town and equivalent to the mayor elsewhere, a post he held for a year. At the time of the massacre, he was the horseman who took the request from the chairman of magistrates to the commander of the local cavalry for assistance in keeping the peace.
The magistrates were concerned about the large crowd that had gathered to hear Henry Hunt speak in St. Peter’s Fields and decided to arrest the speaker and break up the meeting. The local volunteer forces of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were also called upon to help disperse the crowd, and all the military groups made the fatal mistake of charging from three different directions leaving the crowd nowhere to escape, with the inevitable casualties. Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt was the best known radical of the period who argued for constitutional reforms including universal (manhood) suffrage and annual parliaments and used public meetings to rally support. Although he insisted on peaceful protest and no incitement to riot, he was found guilty of seditious assembly and sentenced to 2_ years imprisonment.
According to Violet Horton, one of his descendants, Thomas Withington was offered but refused a knighthood. However he accepted a silver cup, which passed to his son, Arthur, who emigrated to America. He was also known as “Three Bottle Reeve” from his ability to drink that amount every evening, but it has not been possible to corroborate these stories. In 1821, he married Elizabeth Harding the daughter of a wealthy silk mercer from Derbyshire, and their first four children were born in Everton, near Liverpool. Their next two children were born in Grasmere in Westmorland and their youngest daughter was born in Dulwich in 1834.
By then, the family appears to have joined Elizabeth’s father Anthony Harding in Bell House. He had carried on his business at 82 Pall Mall and secured a royal warrant as “silk mercer by appointment” to Queen Victoria but was about sixty when he took his first lease on the property in 1832. Elizabeth was certainly there by 1833, because a neighbour, Joseph Romilly, records in his diary for 2 April, “ Called with Lucy [his sister] on Mrs. Withington at Bell Housexcivilly received”.
Thomas died young in 1838 aged 47 (did he drink too much?) before his father-in- law who was 89 when he died in 1851. It was a large household at the time of the 1841 census with six female servants, a man servant, the children’s governess, the coachman with wife and child and two others who were perhaps just visiting at the time. His wife survived until 1853, having seen one of her daughters married to the Reverend Stephen Poyntz Denning (son of the Curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery). The lease was surrendered by her executors in 1857 ending the connection with the family.