The Peterloo Massacre
- 16th August 1819 -
The end of the Napoleonic War brought economic hardship to many in the UK. This was especially so in the North-West area of England, home to many of the cotton mills, weavers, spinners and the cloth industry. The weekly wages of weavers had dropped from 15 shillings to less than 5s. Along with the introduction of the first Corn Law in 1815, the combined effect led to famine, real poverty and unemployment. The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, who came to power after the assassination of Spencer Percival, was faced with major social, political and economic issues.
The Corn Laws were brought in to protect domestic markets from cheaper imports. The effect however was to drive up prices including bread that was very expensive. British corn was not only more expensive but of inferior quality. There was also unrest about the political system where the only people who could vote were adult males who owned freehold land which had a rental value of over 40 shillings a year. This was about 2% of the population. The distribution of MPs was also very antiquated. The large population areas of the North-West were represented only by two county MPs from Lancashire who neither knew, understood or really cared about what was going on in Manchester, Blackburn and such places.
With this background in place a group who became known as the ‘Blanketeers’ decided to march to London from Manchester to petition the Prince Regent for Parliamentary reform. The radical local newspaper in Manchester – the Manchester Observer - had encouraged them and they gathered in St. Peter’s Fields – a croft within the city, alongside Mount Street. However the Dragoon Guards were quickly mobilized and dispersed them.
By 1819 dissatisfaction reached new levels and another meeting was organised for the same place. The people of Manchester wanted to elect their own MP who understood their needs and issues. The meeting was set for August 2nd but this was postponed until the 9th to give time for the political leaders to think about the ideas put forward. Henry Hobhouse, on advice from the Attorney General, told the Manchester Magistrates that as the meeting was not to elect a new MP it was not illegal. The speaker, Henry Hunt, who was a radical and influential orator on working class reform, said that the purpose of the meeting was “To consider the propriety of adopting the most legal and effectual means of obtaining reform in the Common House of Parliament.” Not to be put off the magistrates banned the meeting anyway on August 4th. Hunt though was determined and set the meeting for August 16th at St Peter’s Fields.
On that day Thomas Worrell, the assistant surveyor of pavements, arrived at 9am to remove any obstacle that could be used as a weapon. The magistrates met for breakfast at the Star Inn to decide what to do. The meeting was still undecided at 10.30am so they moved to a position overlooking the south-east corner of St. Peter’s Fields. The crowds started to arrive around noon with Hunt not due to arrive until 1pm. It is said that 60,000 were present when he arrived to take his place on the platform, which was a simple cart. There were banners everywhere supporting universal suffrage, equal representation and for love. The poles on which these were written were topped with red flags standing for liberty.
The magistrates lost their nerve and read the ‘Riot Act’ to those present. The only problem was that no one could hear it. This act, brought into force in 1714, authorised the local authorities to declare any group of twelve or more unlawfully assembled and that they must disperse or face punitive action. It was not repealed until 1967. 600 Hussars, several hundred infantrymen and an artillery unit comprising of two six-pounder guns were waiting for the signal. As re-enforcements four hundred men of the Cheshire Cavalry and four hundred special constables were also ready. The local yeomanry, led by Major Thomas Trafford, was sent in to arrest the speakers. These men were, in effect, paramilitaries from the local mill and shop owners, and had grievances to settle. On horseback and with sabres and clubs they charged the crowd who linked arms to stop them and protect themselves. However they were cut down or struck. One yeoman was overheard to say, on spotting a radical reporter from the Manchester Observer that he should be ‘run through’. Some observers were to say later that they thought the Yeomen were drunk and had no control. In self-defense the crowd started attacking them and Lieutenant-Colonel Guy L’Estrange was ordered in with the Hussars.
Samuel Bamford was present and later wrote down his eyewitness account of the events. He was arrested after he massacre, and imprisoned for a year.
"In about half an hour after our arrival the sounds of music and reiterated shouts proclaimed the near approach of Mr Hunt and his party; and in a minute or two they were seen coming from Deansgate, preceded by a band of music and several flags.
Their approach was hailed by one universal shout from probably 80,000 persons. They threaded their way slowly past us and through the crowd, which Hunt eyed, I thought, with almost as much of astonishment as satisfaction. This spectacle could not be otherwise in his view than solemnly impressive.
Such a mass of human beings he had not beheld till then. His responsibility must weigh on his mind. The task was great, and not without its peril. The meeting was indeed a tremendous one.
Mr Hunt, stepping towards the front of the stage, took off his white hat, and addressed the people.
We had got to nearly the outside of the crowd, when a noise and strange murmur arose towards the church. Some persons said it was the Blackburn people coming, and I stood on tiptoe and looked in the direction whence the noise proceeded, and saw a party of cavalry in blue and white uniform come trotting, sword in hand, round the corner of a garden wall, and to the front of a row of new houses, where they reined up in a line.
"The soldiers are here," I said; "we must go back and see what this means." "Oh," someone made reply, "they are only come to be ready if there should be any disturbance in the meeting." "Well, let us go back," I said, and we forced our way towards the colours.
On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people..."
"Stand fast," I said, "they are riding upon us; stand fast".
The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.
Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heart-rending, and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment: but here their appeals were in vain.
In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down through sultry and motionless air. The curtains and blinds of the windows within view were all closed.
The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody.
Several mounds of human being still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more.
All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.
*Source: Passages in the Life of a Radical, 1864
By 2pm it was all over. Journalists present were arrested and those who then reported it later were jailed. John Edward Taylor, born near Yeovil in Somerset, witnessed the massacre but was unimpressed with the tactics of the leaders. Along with other non-conformist businessmen, after the radical Manchester Observer was closed, he set up the Manchester Guardian in 1821 with the purpose to "zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty ... warmly advocate the cause of Reform ... endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy and ... support, without reference to the party from which they emanate, all serviceable measures". This newspaper survives today under the simpler title of ‘The Guardian’.
The name ‘Peterloo’ is a term used to mock the soldiers who took part by drawing a less than favourable comparison with the soldiers who had fought at Waterloo four years earlier and were seen as genuine heroes. The event was to prove very influential in the rise of Chartism, the movement that emerged in the 1830s with the intention of gaining political rights and influence for the working classes and was based on a charter with six main aims. This in turn led to the establishment of the Trade Union movement. Other historians have also compared it to the demonstration at Tiananmen Square in China in 1989. Whatever your view this event set in motion, or accelerated, a chain of events that was to change the way this country was to represent people of all walks of life – and this was to spread around the world.