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Henry "Orator" Hunt was born on 6 November 1773 at Upavon, Wiltshire. He was the son of Thomas Hunt , a gentleman farmer who owned estates in both Wiltshire and Somerset. After spending ten years at the local grammar school, Hunt joined his father in looking after the family estates. When Thomas Hunt died in 1797, his son inherited the estates. Hunt married and during the next few years his wife gave birth to three children although eventually he lived in Brighton with his long-term mistress - because that was where the most famous adulterer of the age, the Prince Regent, lived with Mrs Fitzherbert. The difference was that the Prince had married Mrs Fitzherbert and it was his marriage to Princess Caroline that was bigamous.
In 1800 Hunt served a six-week gaol sentence after a dispute with Lord Bruce, a colonel in the Wiltshire Yeomanry, over the killing of some pheasants. Bruce took Hunt to court over the matter and Hunt was found guilty. During the court case, Hunt met a radical lawyer who introduced Hunt to several of his political friends, including Francis Place, Thomas Hardy and Horne Tooke. Consequently Hunt became a radical political reformer who gained the nickname "Orator" Hunt for his demagogic speeches in which he advocated universal suffrage and annual parliaments. He became one of the leading opponents of Lord Liverpool's government in the 18-teens, speaking out against the 'Condition of England Question'. Hunt's involvement in radical politics brought him into conflict with local landowners so in 1810 he moved to a new estate near East Grinstead. While living there, Hunt became more active in politics and was constantly asked to address public meetings: in 1816 alone he spoke at reform meetings in Birmingham, Blackburn, Nottingham, Stockport and Macclesfield. Also in 1816 he got mixed up with the Spenceans. In September 1816 Hunt received a letter from Arthur Thistlewood,
requesting me, when I came to town, to favour him with a call, as he had to communicate to me matters of the highest importance connected with the welfare and happiness of the people, to promote whose interest, he had always observed, that I was always most ready and active ....
Hunt ignored the letter but received another in November from Thomas Preston, asking Hunt to address a meeting on 15 November at Spa Fields which had the intention of petitioning the Prince Regent to reform parliament. Hunt accepted the invitation and then visited his friend William Cobbett who warned Hunt that the meeting could be dangerous. Cobbett omitted to tell Hunt that he, too, had been invited but had declined. The meeting was attended by about 10,000 people and Hunt spoke from the window of a public house; he wore his white top hat, a symbol of radicalism and the 'purity of his cause'. The meeting was peaceful and Hunt and Burdett were elected to take the petition to the Prince Regent. Burdett declined the honour but Hunt made two futile attempts to present the petition to Prince George. On 2 December another meeting was held at Spa Fields to protest at the treatment that Hunt had received. This meeting degenerated into the Spa Fields riot.
In 1820, Francis Place described Hunt thus:
Hunt has been with me. He is a pretty sample of an ignorant, turbulent, mischief-making fellow, a highly dangerous one in troubled times... I told Hunt it was miserable to see the avidity with which ... [he and his political friends] sought to cut each other's throats, and that it would require nothing more in days of turbulence, whenever they should arise, than for those who hate the people to stimulate them to destroy one another, which would be as easy as putting yeast to the dough to make it rise... Hunt says his mode of acting is to dash at good points, and to care for no one; that he will mix with no committee, or any party; he will act by himself; that he does not intend to affront anyone, but cares not who is offended. [Graham Wallas, The Life of Francis Place (Allen & Unwin, 1917), pp.119-120]
In 1818 Henry Hunt was selected as the radical candidate for Westminster. In his campaign Hunt advocated annual parliaments, universal suffrage, the secret ballot and the repeal of the Corn Laws. Although he was popular with the large crowds that attended his meetings, he won only 84 votes. He came to national attention when he addressed a meeting at St. Peter's Fields, Manchester on 16 August 1819. It was attended by about 60,000 people who were demonstrating for parliamentary reform. The Manchester magistrates panicked and in their attempts to arrest Hunt and other leaders, ordered the yeomanry to break up the meeting. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry charged the crowd, killing eleven people. This event became known as the Peterloo Massacre. Hunt was uninjured but his white top hat was staved in by a sword; he and nine other leaders were arrested and charged with holding an "unlawful and seditious assembling for the purpose of exciting discontent".
In 1820 Hunt was tried and imprisoned for two and a half years in Ilchester Gaol. While in prison he wrote A Peep into Prison, an exposé of conditions there. After his release in October 1822 he continued the campaign for adult suffrage. With the help of Cobbett, Hunt formed the Radical Reform Association. In 1826 he stood unsuccessfully for Somerset; in 1830 he was selected as the radical candidate for Preston, an 'open borough' where all adult males in town at the time of an election could vote.
As well as campaigning for parliamentary reform, Hunt concerned himself with other issues that affected the working classes of his constituency where over 10,000 people were employed in the textile industry. This included a demand for a ten hour day and an end to child labour. Hunt said that he was not given fair treatment by the local newspapers:
I have personally visited the factories, and witnessed the sufferings of the overworked children. but, my friends, you never heard of this. No, no, my speeches on the subject were all suppressed by the press.
However, he successfully defeated Edward ("Scorpion") Stanley, the Chief Secretary for Ireland in Grey's Whig government. As an MP, Hunt often spoke on the subject of radical reform but opposed the 1832 Reform Act as it did not grant universal suffrage. Others disagreed with Hunt and said that he should support any attempt to extend the franchise. Hunt 's decision not to support the Reform Act upset some radicals in Preston: the reform movement in which Hunt had played an important part ironically caused him to lose his seat in the 1833 General Election when he was defeated. After the election Henry Hunt told his supporters:
I have done everything in my power to maintain, uphold, and secure your rights, but I have failed upon this occasion. I shall retire into private life with the reflection, that I have never, upon any occasion, flinched from performing my duty to you, and the whole of the working classes of the United Kingdom.
Hunt retired to his home at Alresford, Whitchurch, Hampshire where he died of a stroke on 15 February 1835.
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