Manchester Observer

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Manchester Observer
Founder(s) John Knight, John Saxton, James Wroe
Editor James Wroe
Founded 1818
Political alignment Non-conformist Liberal
Language English
Ceased publication 1821
Headquarters Manchester

The Manchester Observer was a short-lived Non-conformist Liberal newspaper based in Manchester, England. Its radical agenda invitation to Henry "Orator" Hunt to speak at a public meeting in Manchester led to the Peterloo Massacre, and the shutdown of the newspaper.[1]


By 1819, Lancashire was represented by two Members of Parliament (MPs). Voting was restricted to the adult male owners of freehold land valued at 40 shillings or more – the equivalent of about £80 as of 2008[2] – and votes could only be cast at the county town of Lancaster, by a public spoken declaration at the hustings. Constituency boundaries were out of date, and the so-called "rotten boroughs" had a hugely disproportionate influence on the membership of the Parliament of the United Kingdom compared to the size of their populations: Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs,[3] as did Dunwich in Suffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea.[4] The major urban centres of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Stockport, with a combined population of almost one million, were represented by either the two county MPs for Lancashire, or the two for Cheshire in the case of Stockport. By comparison, more than half of all MPs were elected by a total of just 154 voters.[3] These inequalities in political representation led to calls for reform.


The newspaper was formed by a group of radicals that included John Knight, John Saxton and James Wroe. It pioneered a popularist form of articles, with an editorialship agenda aimed at the growing literate working-class. Within twelve months it was selling 4,000 copies per week to its local audience.[1][5]

Its style resulted in sales outside its core geography, and by late 1819 it was being sold in most of the booming industrialised cities - Birmingham, Leeds, London, Salford - that were calling for non-conformist reform of the Houses of Parliament. Hunt stated:[1][5]

The articles within the non-conformist agenda, combined with a racy-popularist style, often resulted in the main journalists of T. J. Evans, John Saxton and John Wroe, constantly being sued for libel. When found guilty, particularly for writing articles critical of Parliament's structure, they were often jailed. This however only managed to raise circulation.[1][5]

But, despite its popularity, association with its radical agenda was seen as bad for sales by traditionalist conformist-Tory business people, and hence advertising revenue was low.[1] Resultantly, with often only one of its 24 columns filled by adverts, the Observer was always in financial difficulties.[1][5]

Peterloo Massacre[edit]

Main article: Peterloo Massacre

At the start of 1819, Joseph Johnson, John Knight and James Wroe all of the Manchester Observer formed the Patriotic Union Society (PUS). All the leading radicals and reformists in Manchester joined the organisation, including members of the Little Circle. The objective of the PUS was to obtain parliamentary reform.[1]

PUS decided to invite Henry "Orator" Hunt and Major John Cartwright to speak at a public meeting in Manchester, about the national agenda of Parliamentary reform, and the local agenda to gain two MPs for Manchester and one for Salford. To avoid the police or courts banning the meeting, PUS stated on all its materials as did the Observer in articles and editorial that it was "a meeting of the county of Lancashire, than of Manchester alone."[1][5]

Following the massacre, Wroe as then editor of the Observer was the first journalist to describe the incident at the Peterloo Massacre, taking his headline from the Battle of Waterloo that had taken place only four years before.[1][5] Wroe subsequently wrote pamphlets entitled "The Peterloo Massacre: A Faithful Narrative of the Events". Priced at 2d each, they sold out each print run for 14 weeks, having a large national circulation.[1][5]


The Liverpool government went after the journalists, presses and publication that was the Manchester Observer.[1][5]

Wroe was arrested and charged with producing a seditious publication. Found guilty he was sentenced to twelve months in prison, plus a £100 fine.[1][5] Outstanding libelous court cases were suddenly rushed through the courts, and even a continual change of editors was not sufficient a defence against a series of police raids, often just on the suspicion of the newspaper writing a radical article. The result was that the Observer was almost continually shutdown form late 1819 onwards.[1][5]

In 1821, the 11 members of the first Little Circle excluding William Cowdroy Jnr of the Manchester Gazette decided to advance their liberalist agenda. They helped then cotton merchant John Edward Taylor form the Manchester Guardian, which he edited for the rest of his life and they all wrote for.[1]

With the arrival of the liberalist and non-conformist Guardian which proved commercially successful, the Observer decided to cease publication. In its last edition, the editor wrote:[5]


Stanley Harrison (31 Oct 1974). Poor Men's Guardians: Survey of the Democratic and Working-class Press. Lawrence & W; 1st Edition. ISBN 0-85315-308-6. 

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Stanley Harrison (31 Oct 1974). Poor Men's Guardians: Survey of the Democratic and Working-class Press. Lawrence & W; 1st Edition. ISBN 0-85315-308-6. 
  2. ^ "Currency converter". The National Archives. Retrieved 8 April 2008. 
  3. ^ a b Reid (1989), p. 28.
  4. ^ "The Great reform Act". BBC News. 19 May 1998. Retrieved 26 March 2008. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Manchester Observer". 2012-02-13.