On the Sixteenth of August, 1819, a crowd of some 80,000 gathered on St. Peter’s field in Manchester. Their main purpose — besides enjoying the uncommonly good weather — was to demand reform of the rigid parliamentary rules that disenfranchised most citizens of northern England. The crowd, which included not only workers in Manchester’s textile industry but also a large contingent of middle class citizens, was about to hear famed orator Henry Hunt’s address, when a regiment of sabre-wielding drunken cavalry charged onto the field, cutting down people at random. By the time the crowd has dispersed at least 15 people lay dead. Many more were wounded, some of whom may have died later.
The British victory at Waterloo, which had put an end to Napoleon’s career, having occurred just four years before, the St. Peter’s square incident soon became known as The Battle of Peterloo or the Peterloo Massacre. While there were no immediate changes to parliamentary rules, Peterloo did motivate the creation of a progressive newspaper, The Manchester Guardian, now known simply as The Guardian.
It was not known until recently that one of the dead, a constable who wandered the field after the cavalry had dispersed, was in fact killed by a 12-year-old youth, Jack Riordan, who escaped detection by adopting the name William Tanner.
Riordan/Tanner subsequently lived a life crowded with incidents both erotic and intellectual. We know this because his journals, written in 1905 , were recently discovered in Vancouver. In them, Tanner relates his scientific triumphs (his discovery, long before Mendel, Darwin or Einstein, of Mendelian genetics, Darwinian evolution and Einsteinian relativity). But most of his energies were sapped by his insatiable libido and he spent most of his life on the run, fleeing from furious betrayed husbands or pistol-waving deceived lovers. As Tanner himself puts in: “You don’t stop to discuss sexual ethics with an armed lover after she’s discovered you’ve been bouncing her maid on the side. I suppose there’s a lesson in that, somewhere.”
One of those lovers — she with the pistols, in fact — was Lord Byron’s mathematically talented daughter, Lady Ada Byron (later Countess Lovelace), now known for her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytic Engine, the world’s first programmable computer. Tanner’s account of the Analytic Engine differs from the accepted story: it was Tanner, not Babbage who came up with the design of the Analytic Engine.
The first part of Tanner’s diaries, The Lost Journals of William Tanner, will be published electronically on March 1, 2015.