Henry Hunt, the son of Thomas Hunt, a gentleman farmer, was born in Upavon, on 6th November 1773. After ten years education at the local grammar school, Henry joined his father in looking after the family estates. When Thomas Hunt died in 1797, Henry became the owner of 3,000 acres in Wiltshire as well as a large estate in Somerset. Henry married and during the next few years his wife gave birth to three children.
In 1800 Henry Hunt became involved in a dispute with Lord Bruce, a colonel in the Wiltshire Yeomanry over the killing of some pheasants. Lord Bruce took Hunt to court over the matter. Hunt was found guilty and sentenced to six weeks imprisonment. During his court case, Hunt met Henry Clifford, a radical lawyer who was involved in the campaign for adult suffrage. Clifford introduced Hunt to several of his political friends, including Francis Place, Thomas Hardy and Horne Tooke.
Hunt now became involved in radical politics. This brought him into conflict with local landowners and in 1810 Hunt moved to a new 20,000 acre estates at Worth, near East Grinstead. While living at Rowfant House, Hunt became more active in politics. Hunt had by now achieved a reputation as a magnificent orator and was constantly being asked to speak at public meetings. In 1816 Henry 'Orator' Hunt spoke at large reform meetings at Birmingham (80,000), Blackburn (40,000), Nottingham (20,000), Stockport (20,000) and Macclesfield (10,000).
Samuel Bamford met him at one of these meeetings: "Henry Hunt was a gentlemanly in his manner and attire, six feet and better in height, and extremely well formed. He was dressed in a blue lapelled coat, light waistcoat and kerseys, and topped boots. He wore his own hair; it was in moderate quantity and a little grey. His lips were delicately thin and receding. His eyes were blue or light grey - not very clear nor quick, but rather heavy; except as I afterwards had opportunities for observing, when he was excited in speaking; at which times they seemed to distend and protrude; and if he worked himself furious, as he sometimes would, they became blood-streaked, and almost started from their sockets. His voice was bellowing; his face swollen and flushed; his griped hand beat as if it were to pulverise; and his whole manner gave token of a painful energy."
In 1818 Henry Hunt was selected as the radical candidate for the Westminster constituency. In his campaign Hunt advocated annual parliaments, universal suffrage, the secret ballot and the repeal of the Corn Laws. Although popular with the large crowds that attended his meetings, he was deeply disliked by the majority of the electorate and Hunt won only 84 votes.
On 16th August 1819, Henry 'Orator' Hunt and Richard Carlile spoke at a meeting of 80,000 people on parliamentary reform at St. Peter's Fields in Manchester. The local magistrates ordered the yeomanry (part-time cavalry) to break up the meeting. Just as Henry Hunt was about to speak, the yeomanry charged the crowd and in the process killed eleven people. Afterwards, this event became known as the Peterloo Massacre. Henry Hunt, Samuel Bradford and eight other leaders of the movement were arrested and charged with holding an "unlawful and seditious assembling for the purpose of exciting discontent". Hunt was found guilty and sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment in Ilchester Gaol. While in prison Hunt wrote his Memoirs where he attempted to explain why he had become a radical reformer.
After he was released in October 1822, Hunt returned to his campaign for adult suffrage. With the help of his friend, William Cobbett, Henry Hunt formed the Radical Reform Association. In 1826 he unsuccessfully stood for Somerset but it 1830 he was selected as the radical candidate for Preston, one of the few towns in England that had given the vote to all males who paid taxes.
As well as campaigning for parliamentary reform, Hunt addressed the other issues that concerned the working class people living in a town which employed over 10,000 people in the textile insustry. This included their desire for a ten hour day and an end to child labour. Henry Hunt complained about the way his campaign was reported in 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."
When the election was held Henry Hunt successfully defeated Edward Stanley, the chief secretary for Ireland in the Whig government by 3,750 votes to 3,392. After his victory, Hunt and an estimated crowd of 16,000 people, marched to Manchester and held a meeting at the site of the Peterloo Massacre.
In the House of Commons, Hunt spoke often on the subject of radical reform. However, Hunt was opposed the 1832 Reform Act as it did not grant the vote to working class males. Instead he proposed what he called the Preston-type of universal suffrage, "a franchise which excluded all paupers and criminals but otherwise recognized the principle of an equality of political rights that all who paid taxes should have the vote." Some radicals disagreed with Hunt and argued that he should support any attempt to extend the franchise.
Hunt's decision not to support the 1832 Reform Act upset some radicals in Preston and in the 1833 General Election, Henry Hunt 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."