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The Peterloo massacre in Manchester, 1819

Since the 1815 Napol­eonic wars, town and village labourers strug­gled with life in Britain. Bad harvests and high food prices left them starving, but they were most disgruntled because workingclass men were not rep­res­ented in Parl­iament. The growth of industrial towns continued and there were radical riots in 1816 and 1817. And again in 1819, a year of industrial depres­s­ion and very high food prices. But only 5% of adults were allowed to vote across Britain. Manchester, industrial heart of the cotton trade with 200,000 people, had no member of parliament.

Post-war, in­c­reasing numbers of disenfranchised workers in in­dust­rialising areas became inv­olved in the movement for reform. Under the influence of farmer-campaigner Henry Orator Hunt and journal­ist William Cobbett, they began to campaign for universal male suffrage. They argued that extending the vote to working men would lead to bet­ter use of public money, fairer taxes and an end to trade rest­ric­tions which damaged industry & caused unempl­oyment.

I read Jacquelin Riding’s excellent work on the Manchester Mass­acre of August 1819, but I wasn’t sure what the “British peoples’ time-honoured libert­ies” were and how the story of the Peterloo mass­acre was a "defining moment in the history of British democracy".

In Aug 1819, c75,000 people gathered at St Peter's Fields Manch­est­er, the peak of the peaceful political rallies. The people attend­ed from Manchester itself, from Liverpool or adjoin­ing coun­ties. Despite the cause’s ser­ious­ness, there was a party atmosphere as groups of people dressed in their Sunday best marched towards Manchester. The procession was accompanied by bands play­ing music and dancing. No one was armed and behaviour was peace­ful. They heard speech­es, by the charismatic Hunt etc, prot­est­ing against working conditions and demanding parliam­entary reform.

Britons Strike Home! 
Illustration by George Cruikshank, 1819.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The nervous magistr­ates were al­armed by the size & mood of the crowd, believing the crowd had revolutionary intentions. To them, the organised marching, banners and music were more like those of an army troop drilling its recruits. They ordered the Manchester Yeom­anry, a force of volunteer soldiers, to be ready. Henry Hunt had spoken only a few sentences when he saw the mounted Manchester Yeo­manry galloping into the crowd.

The people panicked as the sold­iers charged and were crushed. As the mood grew angrier, the local magist­rates ordered the reading of the Riot Act. When this failed to calm things down, the yeoman­ry were ordered to charge. The volunteer soldiers used sabres on the crowd, so survivors hid themselves in a Quaker Meet­ing House, alongside the field.

Then the chairman of the magistrates ordered 600 Hussars and the Cheshire Volunteers to clear the fields with 6-pounder guns; in 10 min­utes only the corpses remained. c500 people were injured and c20 killed, including many women. Hunt and the other leaders were arrested, tried and convicted, Hunt being prisoned for two years.

The names of the injured were printed, along with details of their wounds, so that sympathisers could donate charity. But these lists probably underestimated the real numbers; many were afraid to risk further official reprisals. The 1819 Manchester massacre was comp­ared to the 1815 Battle of Wat­­erloo and was named after that earl­ier tragedy. Al­though there was no such city, the name “Peterloo” came to symbolise Tory tyrannical response to reformers.

The Massacre of Peterloo! or a Specimen of English Liberty by JL Marks.
The Guardian

There was great public sympathy for the plight of the protesters. Times Newspaper account caused a wide-spread outrage that unit­ed reformers with the radical supporters of un­iv­ersal suffrage. A HUGE petition with signatures was raised, stating the petitioners’ belief that the Aug meeting had been peaceful, until the arrival of the soldiers.

Mass meetings for parl­iam­entary reform and for the repeal of the Corn Laws were planned in Stock­port and Manchester in 1819. There were meetings all over the N.E counties where 50,000 miners marched into Newcastle from nearby districts. In Oct & Nov, workers across the country stocked wea­pons to defend them­sel­ves, then gathered in Newcastle, Wolverhampton, Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn.

Yet the Government sanctioned the magistrates’ and yeomanry act­ions, and the quick passing of the repressive 6 Acts in Dec 1819:

1. Training Prevention
2. Seizure of Arms
3. Seditious Meetings
These 3 bills were designed to prevent intimidation and violence.

4. Blasphemous and Seditious Libels
5. Newspaper Stamp Duties
These 2 bills were intended to curb press agitation, a legal but nasty crackdown on the public and press freedom.

6. Misdemeanours Bill re­stricted the right of appeal of those ch­arged with such offen­ces, giving the government powers to deal harshly with even slight expressions of discontent. The gov­ernment did not intend to give in to radical demands for parliamentary reform as was made very clear by the Prince Regent at the opening of Parliament in Nov 1819.

Ironically, the attempt to silence government critics encour­aged journalists to develop inventive new ways of conveying the reform message. Writers and journalists sum­med up the reformers’ grievances with very popular works, ref­lecting both the anger ov­er Peterloo and the cleverness of satire.

What was the impact of the massacre in the short and longer term? Habeas Corpus was revived early in 1818 and the Seditious Meet­ings Act lapsed in July. However economic distress returned in late 1818 and radicalism revived in 1819, reaching its peak in the Pet­er­loo Massacre. Some radicals considered plans for a rising in London in Oct 1817, and in Feb 1818 plotted to assassinate mem­bers of the government. The rest of the radical group mollified their tactics and continued their mission in ass­ociation with Henry Hunt, making significant progress in Lancashire.

The use of violence re Peterloo was officially endors­ed by the au­thorities. So the leading Whigs were unanimous in their den­un­ciat­ion of brut­al­ity, but how closely should they have involved the party in a rad­ical protest movement? At a York­shire county meet­ing in Oct, the county adopted the resolutions that Whig Earl Fitz­wil­liam drafted: the right to public assembly and con­demn­ation of unlawful interference with it. This spurred further Whig meet­ings in 9 other counties but they failed. The dismiss­al of Fitz­wil­­liam as Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire in Oct angered all Whigs and their leader en­couraged attendance for a robust parliam­entary campaign. The Tory government’s reaction DID strengthen Whig belief in essential parliamentary reform.

Peterloo had high­lighted the tenuous nature of authority in indus­t­rialising Britain and led, in the 1820s, to a fundamental review on maintaining law and order. Nonetheless in Apr 1822, a case was brought against members of the Manchester Yeomanry in Lanc­as­ter. Because the court rul­ed that their actions had been jus­t­ified in disp­ers­ing an illegal gath­er­ing, they were all acquitted. 

Peterloo remained a key moment in Britain’s suffrage history. So it was more ob­vious than ever that the government could only counter dissent with repress­ion. This eventually led to the Great Reform Act of 1832, in which 67 new constituencies were created, including two for Manchester. The male vote was modestly extended.

White metal medal 1819, struck after the event.
Front: yeomanry riding into the crowd, one man holding up a cap of liberty on a pole.
Reverse: The wicked have drawn out the sword/They have cut down/The poor and needy/And such as be of/Upright conversation (Psalms)

Looking at History was wonderful. Historians acknowledged that Peterloo was hugely inf­l­uential in ord­inary people winning the right to vote and led to the rise of the Chartist Movement and thence the Trade Unions. To examine Peterloo’s continuing significance is for democracy today, look no further than Syria and Turkmenistan and perhaps, eventually, Hongkong.

The Peterloo Bicentenary will be in Manchester in Aug 2019 till Feb 2020.


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