Two hundred years ago, on Monday 16 August 1819, a peaceful gathering in Manchester escalated into an indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians.
How did this event, known as the ‘Peterloo Massacre’, spin so quickly and wildly out of control?
Rotten boroughs and political corruption
In the early 19th century, parliamentary elections were fraught with corruption and elitism – it was far from democratic. Voting was restricted to adult male landowners, and all votes were cast by a public spoken declaration at hustings. There were no secret ballots.
Constituency boundaries had not been reassessed for hundreds of years, allowing ‘rotten boroughs’ to became commonplace. Most notorious was the tiny constituency of Old Sarum in Wiltshire, which held two MPs due to the importance of Salisbury in the medieval period. Candidates needed under ten supporters to gain a majority.
Another borough of controversy was Dunwich in Suffolk – a village which had almost disappeared into the sea.
In contrast, new industrial cities became grossly underrepresented. Manchester had a population of 400,000 and no MP to represent its concerns.
Constituencies could also be bought and sold, meaning wealthy industrialists or old aristocrats could buy political influence. Some MPs gained their seats through patronage. This blatant misuse of power provoked calls for reform.
Economic problems after the Napoleonic wars
The Napoleonic wars were brought to a close in 1815, when Britain tasted its final success at the Battle of Waterloo. Back at home, a brief boom in textile production was cut short by chronic economic depression.
Lancashire was hit hard. As a centre of the textile trade, its weavers and spinners struggled to put bread on the table. Weavers who earnt 15 shillings for a six-day week in 1803 saw their wages cut to 4 or 5 shillings by 1818. No relief was offered to the workers, as industrialists blamed the markets suffering after the Napoleonic Wars.
To make things worse, prices of food were also shooting up, as the Corn Laws imposed tariffs on foreign grains in an effort to protect the English grain producers. Continuing unemployment and periods of famine were common. With no platform to air these grievances, the calls for political reform gathered momentum.
The Manchester Patriotic Union
In 1819, meetings were organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union to offer a platform for radical speakers. In January 1819, a crowd of 10,000 gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester. Henry Hunt, the famous radical orator, called upon the Prince Regent to select ministers to repeal the disastrous Corn Laws.
The Manchester authorities grew nervous. In July 1819, correspondence between the town magistrates and Lord Sidmouth reveal they believed the ‘deep distress of the manufacturing classes’ was soon to provoke a ‘general rising’, admitting they were ‘possessing no power to prevent the meetings’.
By August 1819, the situation in Manchester was as bleak as ever. The founder of the Manchester Observer and a prominent figure in the Union, Joseph Johnson, described the city in a letter:
‘Nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face, the state of this district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection. Oh, that you in London were prepared for it.’
Unbeknown to its author, this letter was intercepted by government spies and interpreted as a planned rebellion. The 15th Hussars were sent to Manchester to quell the suspected uprising.
A peaceful gathering
Indeed, there was no such uprising planned. Propelled by the success of the January meeting, and riled by government inactivity, the Manchester Patriotic Union organised a ‘great assembly’.
It was intending:
‘to take into consideration the most speedy and effectual mode of obtaining Radical reform in the Common House of Parliament’
‘to consider the propriety of the ‘Unrepresented Inhabitants of Manchester’ electing a person to represent them in Parliament’.
Importantly, this was a peaceful gathering to hear the orator Henry Hunt. Women and children were expected to attend, and instructions were given to arrive.
‘armed with no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience’.
Many wore their Sunday best and carried banners reading ‘No Corn Laws’, ‘Annual Parliaments’, ‘Universal suffrage’ and ‘Vote By Ballot’.
Each village met at an assigned meeting point, after which they went to a larger gathering in their local town, to finally culminate in Manchester. The crowd that gathered on Monday 16 August 1819 was enormous, with modern assessments suggesting 60,000–80,000 people were present, about six percent of the Lancashire population.
The crowd was so dense that ‘their hats seemed to touch’, and the rest of Manchester was reported to be a ghost town.
Watching from the edge of St Peter’s Field, the chairmen of the magistrates, William Hulton, feared the enthusiastic reception of Henry Hunt and issued an arrest warrant for the organisers of the meeting. Considering the density of the crowd, it was considered that cavalry assistance would be needed.
Bloodshed and slaughter
What happened next is somewhat unclear. It seems the inexperienced horses of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, thrust further and further into the crowd, began to rear and panic.
The cavalry became stuck in the crowd, and began wildly hacking around with their sabres,
‘cutting most indiscriminately to the right and to the left to get at them’.
In response, brickbats were thrown by the crowd, provoking William Hulton to exclaim,
‘Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry; disperse the meeting!’
Upon this order, several cavalry groups charged into the crowd. As they tried to flee, the main exit route into Peter Street was blocked by the 88th Regiment of the Foot who stood with bayonets fixed. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry seemed to be ‘cutting at every one they could reach’, making one officer of the 15th Hussars cry out
‘For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!’
Within 10 minutes the crowd had dispersed. After rioting on the streets and troops firing straight into crowds, peace was not restored until the following morning. 15 were dead and over 600 were injured.
The Manchester Observer coined the name ‘Peterloo Massacre’, an ironic portmanteau combining St Peter’s Fields and the Battle of Waterloo, fought four years earlier. One of the casualties, an Oldham cloth-worker John Lees, had even fought at Waterloo. Before his death he is recorded to have lamented,
‘At Waterloo there was man to man but there it was downright murder’
An important legacy
The national reaction was one of horror. Many commemorative items such as medals, plates and handkerchiefs were produced to raise money for the injured. The medals carried a Biblical text, reading,
‘The wicked have drawn out the sword, they have cast down the poor and needy and such as be of upright conversation’
The importance of Peterloo was reflected in the immediate reaction of journalists. For the first time, journalists from London, Leeds and Liverpool travelled to Manchester for first hand reports. Despite national sympathy, the government response was an immediate crackdown on reform.
Despite this, the ‘Peterloo massacre’ has been considered one of the most important radical events in British history. The reports of women and children wearing their Sunday best, brutally slashed by the sabres of a cavalry charge, shocked the nation and laid the foundations for the Great Reform Act of 1832.