Peterloo 1819-2019: Stalybridge Band forced to flee from massacre

Local history groups take a look back at the history of the Stalybridge Band which was all set to play on that fateful day at Peterloo...

Tameside History Forum and Tameside History on Your Doorstep have been busy planning a whole series of events to mark this year’s 200th anniversary of Peterloo. One of those events will be a performance by Stalybridge Band at the Civic Hall in Stalybridge on August 17. 

Stalybridge Band was first formed in 1809, and maybe the oldest civilian brass band in the country. The band had 21 players by 1816, and a new sky blue uniform.

In January 1819, they were engaged to play for Orator Hunt, the radical reform leader at a meeting in Manchester. He re-engaged them to play at a reform meeting to be held at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester on August 16 that year. 

It was on that fateful day of course that a vast crowd assembled, crammed within the three acres and fearing public unrest, the yeomanry charged resulting in what ultimately became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

In those days, for any band to play at a demonstration for Hunt was to make it an object of admiration for the Radicals, but they were disliked by the Tories.

The band took a coach to Manchester at a fare of three shillings there and back, and when they passed through Ashton there were many sneering remarks made by the Tories. It was said “that the band will not come back as merry and light-hearted as it went.” 

Upon arriving at Manchester, they were ordered to Smedley’s Cottage, Collyhurst, for the honour of heading up Henry Hunt for the meeting. Hunt exclaimed: “Gentlemen of Stalybridge Band, you will require refreshment, and you must now retire to get it.” 

This was well received, and they went to the Union Rooms in George Leigh St in Ancoats, where they were duly regaled with something to drink.

John Nield rushed in and announced “D----  it lads, yoa mun be sharp, they’re playing the very devil wi’ um on th’ fiedt”. 

But apparently the band did not relish the prospect of leaving the promised sirloin feast, so stayed put.

Shortly afterwards, John Cottrell rushed in, and proclaimed: “Lads, yoa mun be off, as they're smashing bands and cutting down folks, and if they catch yoa, they'll smash yoar instruments and they'll smash yoa, or put yoa in th' New Bailey".

A council of war was held upon the receipt of this intelligence. Some wanted an immediate retreat, while others objected on the grounds that rounds of roast beef were waiting to be ‘attacked.’ But the former won the day and the order was given for retreat.

Instruments were gathered up and the band sneaked out of the back door and proceeded through the back streets until they reached the canal. 

They considered calling at the George and Dragon, Pin Mill Brow, but at the time a man rushed up, and holding up his hat, swore that “They’ll sarve you the same as they sarve me, if they can catch you.”

The crown of his hat had been cut off as clean as could be by the sword of one of the dragoons. 

The band pursued their retreat with greater energy and speed. When they came to a Cow Lane, they saw two dragoons approaching. The drum went over the hedge, followed by the drummer and the rest of the band. The dragoons contented themselves by swearing at the band and promising what they would do to them if they were caught. 

It was later learned that the soldiers were taking despatches to a nearby platoon who were concealed in a hollow.

The band rushed on until they came to a hut by the canal, where they debated how the retreat was to be conducted. It was agreed that the safest plan was to keep by the canal until they reached Ashton Moss. After sixpenny worth of ‘buttermilk’ was disributed to keep up their spirits, the retreat proceeded in an orderly fashion. 

Another sixpenny worth of ‘buttermilk’ was disributed at the Moss, and they proceeded to Taunton. They purposefully avoided Ashton, after the jeering they had received earlier in the day.

There they each drank a gill of ale, then they went on through Hurst-brook, Botany, past Heyes' colliery and the coke ovens until they arrived at Currier Slacks, Cockbrook. 

They reformed into an organised band to enter Stalybridge. They entered without music, inspite of a later tale that said they played “See the conquering hero come”. 

The retreat was considered a success and reflected greatly on the generals who had conducted it. All the band and their instruments arrived home safe. 

They lost the 10 shillings per man they should have received for their engagement, and their ride home in the coach, but they gained an increase in popularity and were regarded as patriots who had suffered in defence of popular liberty. 

That very night, the band met at the Spreadeagle Inn, and regaled themselves with a crown bowl of punch.

The Stalybridge Band still play today, and will be performing at the Civic Hall, Stalybridge, to commemorate the Peterloo Massacre on Saturday, August 17. 

For further details contact

Another musical presentation telling the  story of the Peterloo Massacre takes place this month. The Free Radicals will be performing at the Wharf Tavern, Stalybridge on Friday  June 28 at 8pm. 

Tickets, priced at £5, are on sale at Tameside Local Studies and Archive Centre, Cotton St, Ashton (at the rear of the former Ashton library). The centre is open from 10am until 5pm, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 10am to 1pm on Saturdays.

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