The Reverend William Hay, Vicar of Rochdale

In 1761 William Robert Hay was born into a wealthy family in Cintra Portugal, his father being Envoy Extraordinary to the Court of Portugal 1759 and his mother the daughter of the Earl of Oxford. Hay was educated at Westminster School after which he attended Christ Church Oxford between 1780 and 1783. Called to the bar to practice law in 1788, he married the daughter of a Manchester surgeon, Mary Wagstaffe in 1793. Turning to holy orders Hay was ordained as Deacon (1797) and the Priest (1798) to Chester and took on a small curacy in Hollinwood near Oldham.

Crucially in 1802 he was elected Chair to the Salford Quarter Sessions and Commissioner of the Peace in Lancashire, Cheshire and the West Riding of Yorkshire and became Deputy Lieutenant of Lancashire. During this time Hay distinguished himself by his firmness as a magistrate during the Luddite riots of 1812 and 1813 although it was felt that he was far too eager to suppress the protesters. In a letter to Hay from W Ogden in a Manchester newspaper in 1819 it was claimed that ‘as a magistrate you have taken an active part in committing to prison a large number of not only innocent, but worthy young men. Where is your judgement ?’ 

National fame and notoriety for William Hay was yet to come.  As possibly the most active and influential magistrate in the country, in 1819 Hay was called to Manchester on the 18th August to oversee what was expected to be a seditious gathering seeking reform of parliamentary representation. An earlier circular from the Home Office recommended vigilance of local magistrates and the training of militia prior to the assembly of the protesters, 6000 of whom marched 6-abreast with bands and colours flying into the centre of Manchester, making up an assembly some felt to be 20000, others between 60000 and 80000 strong at what became known as Peterloo.

William Hay and the other magistrates felt that, even though the crowd appeared peaceful there was a danger to public safety and proclaimed the meeting illegal. As Chairman of the Quarter Sessions and responsible for the reading of the Riot Act, Hay did so and although an hour should legally elapse before dispersing a crowd, an immediate attempt was made to clear the way and arrest those making speeches. This was done first by the Manchester Yeomanry advancing at a walk but then on the orders of the Magistrates the Hussars deployed at a trot, and on a trumpet blast, a charge. There was panic and a stampede in which 700 were badly injured and 18 killed. Archbishop Alison felt that the conduct of the magistrates was ill-judged and their measures inexpedient although others such as Canon Parkinson in the Manchester Courier (14/12/1839) felt that Manchester owed a vote of thanks ‘to Mr Hay’s firmness and coolness.’

One month after the Peterloo massacre, William Hay was nominated for a living as Vicar of Rochdale, one of the most lucrative in the country at that time, being worth £1838 per year ! Many reformers were annoyed at Hay’s promotion and efforts were made to challenge it. Hay never seems to have been known much in Rochdale as a clergyman but more as a lawyer and politician. He was often indiscrete however, and on one occasion gave enormous offence when drinking at a public dinner at the Wellington Hotel by toasting ‘the health of my good friends, Hunt and Co’ who were the speakers arrested speakers at Peterloo. Clement Royds, who was later to be High Sheriff of the county, never forgot the indecency of that remark.      

Reputed to have been a man of 18 stones it was said that it took 14 yards of Saddleworth cloth to make a suit of clothes for him. He was not generally seen in and around Rochdale and in fact didn’t like the town. If Samuel Bamford’s poem ‘The Pernicious Parson’ is anything to go by, the feeling was mutual !