‘Innocence Charged with Guilt’: The Criminalisation of Protest from Peterloo to Millbank

  • Nadine El-Enany


The British state has a long history of attempting to control what can be said and done by way of political protest. Until the late 1700s and early 1800s, its method of limiting free speech, in particular that against the state or Church, entailed prosecutions under libel law, in particular the law of seditious libel. By the late eighteenth century it was becoming increasingly unacceptable to limit what could be said in the form of political dissent, and yet the state needed to find a way of retaining its hold on power in the face of political opposition, particularly the sort which manifested itself in the congregation of large crowds of people at rallies or on marches, which caused great apprehension to the local authorities (Lobban, 1990). Prosecutions for expressions of political opinion were becoming increasingly difficult by the early nineteenth century, which was nevertheless a time of political upheaval. The content of what people published and what they said at public meetings and rallies frequently fell outside the scope of libel laws and thus the state had to find another way to deal with dissent, which it believed remained a threat to the authorities and the apportionment of power in society. It was the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819, and in particular the trials which followed, which paved the way for the use of public order offences against protesters.


Public Order Protest Activity Political Upheaval Police Violence Student Protest 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Cocking, C. (2013). Crowd flight during collective disorder — a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology & Offender Profiling, 10(2), 219–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Fenwick, H. (1999). The right to protest, the Human Rights Act and the margin of appreciation. Modern Law Review, 62(4), 491–514.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Lobban, M. (1990). From seditious libel to unlawful assembly: Peterloo and the changing face of political crime cl770–1820. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 10(3), 307–352.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Marlow, J. (1971). The Peterloo Massacre. London: Granada Publishing.Google Scholar
  5. Norrie, A. (2000). Punishment, Responsibility and Justice: A Relational Critique. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Reicher, S., Stott, C, Cronin, P., and Adang, O. (2004). A new approach to crowd psychology and public order policing. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management, 27(4), 558–572.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Reicher, S. (2001). The psychology of crowd dynamics. In M.A. Hogg and R.S. Tindale (Eds.), Blackwell Handbook of Social Psychology: Group Processes. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  8. Thompson, E.P. (1963). The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  9. Vogler, R. (1991). Reading the Riot Act: The Magistracy, the Police and the Army in Civil Disorder. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Wainwright, T, Morris, A., Craig, K., and Greenhall, O. (2012). The Protest Handbook. London: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar
  11. The Law Commission, Offences Related to Public Order, LAW COM. No. 123, (October 1983).Google Scholar
  12. House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, Policing of the G20 Protests, Eighth Report of Session 2008–2009 (London: HMSO, 2009).Google Scholar
  13. House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights, Facilitating Peaceful Protest, Tenth Report of Session 2010–2011 HL Paper 123 HC 684 (2011).Google Scholar
  14. R v. Meadows and King (2013, unreported).Google Scholar
  15. R v. Caird (1970) 54 Cr. App. R 499.Google Scholar
  16. R v. Cunninghame, Graham and Burns (1888) 4 TLR 212.Google Scholar
  17. Beatty v. Gilbanks (1882) 9 QBD 308.Google Scholar
  18. Redford v. Birley (1822) 1 St Tr NS 1071.Google Scholar
  19. R v. Hunt and Others (1820) 3 Barnewall and Alderson 566 106 E.R. 768 1820.Google Scholar
  20. R v. Dewhurst (1820) 1 St Tr NS 529.Google Scholar
  21. R v. Yorke (1795) 25 St Tr, 1079.Google Scholar
  22. Austin and others v. UK ECHR Application nos. 39692/09, 40713/09 and 41008/09 Grand Chamber 15 March 2012.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Nadine El-Enany 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nadine El-Enany

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations