John Saxton was born in Manchester in 1776. He was initially a worker in the cotton industry but in 1818 helped James Wroe and Joseph Johnson to start the radical newspaper, the Manchester Observer. Within twelve months the Manchester Observer was selling 4,000 copies a week. Although it 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."
John Saxton and his wife Susanna were both active in the campaign for universal suffrage. Susanna Saxton was secretary of the Manchester Female Reformers and a writer of several political pamphlets. Saxton was on the platform with the other journalists at the meeting at St. Peter's Field on 16th August 1819. John Tyas claimed that when the soldiers broke up the meeting they attempted to kill John Saxton. Later Saxton was arrested along with Henry Hunt, Joseph Johnson, Joseph Healey, Samuel Bamford, James Moorhouse, Robert Wild and Robert Jones and charged with an "alleged conspiracy to alter the law by force and threats and for convening and attending an illegal, riotous and tumultuous meeting at Manchester on Monday, 16th August 1819."
Although John Saxton was arrested it is believed that he smuggled out contributions to the reports that appeared in the Manchester Observer about the events at St. Peter's Field. Saxton also contributed to the series of pamphlets on The Peterloo Massacre published by the Manchester Observer and edited by John Edward Taylor. It is believed that either John Saxton or John Wroe who was the first person to use the term "Peterloo" to describe the attack.
The trial took place in March, 1820. John Saxon argued that he was on the platform as a journalist rather than as a speaker. After three days of evidence, five of the men, Hunt, Johnson, Knight, Healey and Bamford were found guilty of the charge of "assembling with unlawful banners at an unlawful meeting for the purpose of exciting discontent". Saxon along with Moorhouse, Jones and Wild were found not guilty and released.
A requisition was issued for a public meeting on 16th August. This notice brought forth a flaming Posting Bill bearing the signatures of nine County Magistrates. The poster, purporting to be issued by the Magistrates of Manchester and Cheshire, cautions "all persons, at their peril to abstain from attending the meeting". Is there an instance where any popular meeting has been otherwise than orderly or constitutional? We know the people well: and we are sure, if they are not provoked and driven to desperation, from the contempt and ill-treatment of their rulers, that their conduct will always prove such as to render abortive the incendiary plots of any set of men.
From Bolton, Oldham, Stockport, Middleton, from the more distant towns of Leeds, Sheffield, etc. came thousands of willing votaries to the shrine of sacred liberty. When 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 proceeded to address the immense multitude. Whilst thus engaged, and without the shadow of disorder occurring or likely to occur, our fears were raised to horror, by the appearance of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, who were galloping into the area, and proceeded to form in line ready for action.
The bugle sounded a charge and a scene of murder and carnage ensued. Men, women, and children, without distinction of age or sex became the victims of these monsters. People flew in every direction to avoid these hair-brained assassins, who were supported by detachments from the Hussars. The latter, however, did not deal out death and wounds with the same liberal hand as our townsmen.
Saxton, of the Manchester Observer, was standing in the cart. Two privates rode up to him. "There", said one of them "is the villain Saxton; do you run him through the body." "No," replied the other, "I had rather not - I leave him to you". The man immediately made a lunge at Saxton, and it was only by slipping aside from the blow that his life was saved. As it is, it cut his coat and waist coat, but fortunately did him no other injury. A man within five yards of us in another direction had his nose completely taken off by a blow of a sabre.