On Monday 16 August 1819, volunteer cavalry from the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry charged a crowd of around 60,000 peaceful demonstrators at St Peter’s Field in Manchester who gathered to hear a talk on democratic reform led by popular radical speaker and poet Henry Hunt. Radicalism had become increasingly attractive to the disenfranchised working classes and echoed the language of the French Revolution.
Amidst activists and workers raising banners calling for “Liberty and Fraternity”, the crowd was made up of men, women and children, many from the mill towns outside the city who faced unemployment and the high price of bread following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. By the end of the day, an estimated 11 people were dead, with another 700 injured.
The Peterloo Massacre had both immediate and long-term consequences for British politics, shaping the role of the media and radical print journalism in spreading ideas, the visibility of women in the fight for suffrage, and conversations about who controls historical narratives that continue today.
The Six Acts
Home Secretary Lord Sidworth responded to Peterloo by hastily passing the counter-revolutionary Six Acts in late 1819. This legislation began by restricting freedoms of the radical press by increasing taxes on smaller printers and gave writers a tough sentence for anything published deemed ‘seditious’.
The Acts also attempted to limit public meetings to just indoors and at that, only 50 persons of one parish. The yeomanry were granted powers to search people and property for weapons , and speeded-up court proceedings were sped-up to prevent time for bail.
The Tories argued that the laws were necessary to preventing another French Revolution – that the French law and order had been too weak – while the Whigs asserted the need to keep freedom of speech.
Peterloo was unusual for having drawn in reporters from across Britain, with reports of the massacre quickly being published beyond Manchester in London, Leeds and Liverpool, all expressing their horror at the events.
Writing for the Manchester Observer, reporter James Wroe was quick to coin the event the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in a headline, referring ironically back to the bloody, hand-to-hand combat of the Battle of Waterloo during the Napoleonic Wars that had taken place just 4 years earlier.
For its role in shaping the narrative of ‘Peterloo’, the Manchester Observer was harassed by raids as officials searched for anyone writing a radical article, eventually closing in 1820. However, even the closing of the Observer could not stop the flood of radical media.
Thousands of small pamphlets, including those written by James Wroe, costing just 2d. spread accounts of the massacre across Britain over the following weeks, and in 1821 foundation of the Manchester Guardian (since 1959, The Guardian) by a non-conformist Manchester businessman John Edward Taylor who had witnessed the massacre.
The determination of the radical press was also key in shaping the legacy of Peterloo as the government desperately tried to control and reclaim the narrative. The Manchester magistracy painted the massacre as a violent uprising with “treasonous purposes” and used testimony of the cavalry as proof.
Visibility of women
Although women made up a small proportion of attendees at the demonstration, their presence nonetheless became part of Peterloo’s legacy. Many women accompanied their husbands to St Peter’s Field decked out in their weekend finery – after all, the event was supposed to be peaceful.
Yet others were there representing an ever-growing women’s suffrage movement forming alongside that of their male counterparts, actively engaging in discussion around political reform. The active presence of women at Peterloo did not go unnoticed by the magistracy and yeomanry defending their interests.
Mary Fildes, who later went on to become part of the emerging Chartist Movement, stood up on stage beside Hunt as President of the Manchester Female Reform Society. During the attacks she was slashed across the front by a sabre. Other women at Peterloo were also the targets of particular violence. Martha Partington was thrown into a cell and killed on the spot.
The brutality towards these women highlights the threat that Peterloo represented to the status quo. Not only were tens of thousands there to partition for male suffrage, but women stood outside the bounds of their traditional gender roles at home and were engaging in politics: a true threat to order.
Peterloo was not successful in gaining the majority the vote; instead, the government cracked down on any seemingly threatening opposition behaviour. However, politicians had witnessed the widespread discontent and mounting pressure of the urban working class who cried for reform, which only grew as news of the massacre spread. The parliamentary age had come.
The ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, passed through Parliament by the Whig government led by the Prime Minister and Earl Charles Grey, widened the requirements of suffrage for men in Britain. While the Reform Act still only meant 1 in 5 men could vote, the reforms opened the doors to further enfranchisement.
The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 would follow, expanding voters significantly until 1918 when the Representation of the People Act provided the universal male suffrage reformers had called for almost exactly a century before.
Not only had the Reform Act led to further male voting rights, but it explicitly defined the voter as male and thus provided the women’s suffrage movement with a target and momentum until universal female suffrage was achieved in 1928.
Reclaiming the narrative
Marking the site of the massacre at St Peter’s Square in Manchester city centre, a blue plaque describing the “dispersal” of the crowd was put up by the Labour government in 1971 after Conservatives refused to mark Peterloo during the 150th anniversary.
The plaque was criticised for not providing a full account of events, so in 2007, Manchester City Council put up a new red plaque remembering the victims of the armed cavalry’s attack. The revision of the plaques represents the continuing legacy of memory battles and the reluctance of the establishment to fully acknowledge the violence of Peterloo: a watershed moment for British democracy.