The Manchester Observer was formed in January 1818 by a group of radicals that included John Knight, James Wroe and John Saxton. Within twelve months the newspaper was selling 4,000 copies a week. It has been argued that the newspaper pioneered popular journalism with its racy style aimed at an literate working-class.
Although the newspaper started as a local paper, by 1819 it was sold in most of the large towns and cities in Britain. Henry Hunt called the Manchester Observer "the only newspaper in England that I know, fairly and honestly devoted to such reform as would give the people their whole rights."
Despite its sales figures, the Manchester Observer was always in financial difficulties. The owners had problems persuading local businesses to advertise their goods in the newspaper. Most weeks, advertisements made up only one of its twenty-four columns.
Journalists working for the newspaper were constantly being sued for libel. Several of their journalists, including John Wroe, John Saxton and T. J. Evans had been sent to prison for articles they had written criticizing the government.
In March 1819, three of the men involved in the Manchester Observer, Joseph Johnson, John Knight and James Wroe formed the Patriotic Union Society. All the leading radicals in Manchester joined the organisation. Johnson was appointed secretary of the Society and Wroe became treasurer. The main objective of the Patriotic Union Society was to obtain parliamentary reform and during the summer of 1819 it decided to invite Henry Orator Hunt to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The men were told that this was to be "a meeting of the county of Lancashire, than of Manchester alone. I think by good management the largest assembly may be procured that was ever seen in this country."
James Wroe, the editor of the Manchester Observer, was at the St. Peter's Field and described the attack on the crowd in the next edition of the newspaper and is believed to be the first person to describe the incident as the Peterloo Massacre. Wroe also produced a series of pamphlets entitled The Peterloo Massacre: A Faithful Narrative of the Events. The pamphlets, which appeared for fourteen consecutive weeks from 28th August, price twopence, had a large circulation, and played an important role in the propaganda war against the authorities. The government wanted revenge and James Wroe was arrested and charged with producing a seditious publication. He was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months in prison, plus a £100 fine.
With the arrival of the Manchester Guardian in 1821 the Manchester Observer decided to cease publication. In its last edition, the editor wrote: "I would respectfully suggest that the Manchester Guardian, combining principles of complete independence, and zealous attachment to the cause of reform, with active and spirited management, is a journal in every way worthy of your confidence and support.".
(1) The Manchester Observer (21st August, 1819)
The morning of the 16th was hailed with exultation by the many thousands, whose feelings were powerfully excited on the occasion. At an early period numbers came pressing in from various and distant parts of the country, to witness the greatest and most gratifying assemblage of Britons, that was ever recorded in the annuals of our history. From Bolton, Oldham, Stockport, Middleton, and all the circumjacent country; from the more distant towns of Leeds, Sheffield, etc. came thousands of willing votaries to the shrine of sacred liberty; and at the period when the Patriotic Mr. Hunt and his friends had taken their station on the hustings, it is supposed that no less than 150,000 people were congregated in the area near St. Peter's Church.
Mr. Hunt ascended the hustings about half-past one o'clock, and after a few preliminary arrangements, proceeded to address the immense multitude, recommending peace and order for their government. Whilst thus engaged, and without the shadow of disorder occurring or likely to occur, we were surprised, though not alarmed, at perceiving a column of infantry take possession of an opening in the assembly.
Our fears were raised to horror, by the appearance of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, who came galloping into the area, and proceeded to form in line ready for action; nor were they long delayed from their hellish purpose - the special constables were called in from their previous stations - the bugle sounded the charge - and a scene of murder and carnage ensued which posterity will hesitate to believe, and which will hand down the authors and abettors of this foul and bloody tragedy to the astonished world. Men, women, and children, without distinction of age or sex became the victims of these monsters.
The people in the crowd were so compact and stood to firm that they could not reach the hustings without halting. Few, if any of the meeting, even yet, supposed that this martial display was intended for anything more than securing Hunt, Johnson, Knight and Moorhouse, for whom they had warrants. Mr. Hunt was called upon to deliver himself up, which he offered to do to a Magistrate, but not to the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry. A gentleman in the commission presented himself, and Mr. Hunt acknowledge his authority, and departed for the rendezvous of the Magistrates; where Mr. Johnson and Mr. Saxton were taken, and from thence conducted, along with Mr. Hunt to the New Bayley prison; Mr. Knight escaped, but was afterwards arrested at his own house and Mr. Moorhouse was soon after taken into custody at the Flying Horse Inn.
It is impossible for us to ascertain the extent of loss in lives and limbs which has been thus wantonly and inhumanly occasioned - people flew in every direction to avoid these hair-brained assassins, who were supported by detachments from the 15th Hussars. The latter, however, did not deal out death and wounds with the same liberal hand as our townsmen.