Peterloo: a very modern massacre

By Guest, 14 August 2019 - 2:36pm

Austerity, authoritarianism, public protest and ‘fake news’… Janette Martin explores the causes and effects of Peterloo, a tragedy that resonates just as strongly 200 years later

At least 15 people were killed when the yeomanry charged the crowd at Manchester's St Peter's Fields (Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images)

On 16 August 1819 Samuel Bamford (1788–1872), a poet and weaver living in the town of Middleton, walked six miles to St Peter’s Field, an undeveloped piece of land near the centre of Manchester.

He led a contingent of friends, family and fellow radicals to join a vast meeting.

It was intended to be a peaceful one, and about 60,000 men, women and children were in attendance.

Passages in the Life of a Radical, his 1841 autobiography, vividly recalls how this vast gathering descended into butchery and terror.

Read the full version of this article and many more fascinating history features in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine August 2019, on sale now

The people had assembled to listen to the charismatic radical politician Henry Hunt (1773–1835), who promised to explain how parliamentary reform and repealing the much-hated Corn Laws (which kept the cost of bread artificially high) would improve their lives.

The reformers wanted universal male suffrage to ensure their interests were represented at Parliament.

There was a party atmosphere: families dressed in Sunday best had walked many miles, singing songs, carrying flags and banners, and accompanied by bands playing popular tunes.

They came from the villages and towns that later would make up the Greater Manchester area, from Bury, Chadderton, Failsworth, Middleton, Oldham, Rochdale, Stalybridge, Stockport and even Delph on the Yorkshire border.

Not everyone was there for politics.

Many came out of curiosity, attracted by the novelty of a mass demonstration and a celebrity speaker.

None of them expected the horror in store.

A few minutes into the meeting the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, as instructed by the magistrates present, rode into the crowds, brutally cutting a path towards the hustings where they arrested Hunt and other speakers.

That hot August afternoon at least 15 people lost their lives (a further three sustained fatal injuries).

Up to 600 more were injured by mounted yeomanry wielding sabres, or were trampled underfoot by the cavalry horses and a panicking crowd.

The shocking event was dubbed ‘Peterloo’ in a satirical reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier.

Peterloo massacre Manchester
A report on the 'dreadful effects' of the Peterloo massacre (Credit: Alamy)

An act born of terror

While it’s hard to explain the heavy-handed approach of the authorities and the viciousness of this attack on unarmed civilians, it should be remembered that it was only two decades since the end of the French Revolution.

The Government was terrified by the spectre of mob rule and an English uprising.

Peterloo, for the Loyalist supporters of king and country, was about teaching the Radicals a lesson or two – a necessary bloodletting to crush the emerging reform movement.

To understand why the Massacre happened, it is helpful to look at the bigger picture. Manchester underwent rapid changes during the first decades of the 19th century.

It was the ‘shock city’ of the Industrial Revolution, with colossal mills plus unprecedented population and urban growth. Its success was built on the cotton trade, and the introduction of the factory system.

Yet not all of the elements of cotton production were mechanised in this period.

There was still a vast contingent of impoverished handloom weavers eking out a living in their own homes.

Such workers tended to live in the villages and towns on the outskirts of the city, and they were strongly represented in the groups that marched to Peterloo.

Industrialisation had generated prosperity for the northern textile areas, yet these riches were not widely shared and alongside great wealth sat overcrowded slums and dire poverty.

Poor harvests and a weak demand for cotton in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars caused wage cuts and unemployment.

To add to their woes the people were governed by a repressive authoritarian government and their monarch, the dissolute Prince Regent, was deeply unpopular.

In 1819 only 5 percent of the population were entitled to vote – in short, a few rich men.

In this context it is easy to see why many in Manchester and its hinterlands were restless and attracted to the promises of radicalism.

Peterloo poster fake news
Poster issued by magistrates the day after the massacre, suggesting the meeting was held 'with seditious and treasonable purposes'

Anger and condemnation

As news of the Massacre spread there was widespread anger and condemnation from all classes.

The spectacle of unarmed civilians being cut down by cavalry was chilling.

The fact that women and children were among the victims fuelled resentment still further.

Even those hostile to reform were horrified.

Rev Deacon of Leicester spoke for many when he exclaimed: “Where is our morality if we justify the indiscriminate sabreing of men, women and children?”

The magistrates who sent in the military tried to avoid any blame.

But John Tyas, a journalist from The Times, had been sitting next to Hunt.

He was no friend of radicalism, but what he saw that day appalled him.

His temper was not improved by being rounded up and arrested with the other men on the hustings, and thrown into gaol overnight.

Three days later he published his damning account.

In response, the Manchester authorities spread a counter-narrative: it was not a massacre, but a riot whipped up by seditious troublemakers.

In their version the crowd was a mob of hot-headed revolutionaries who carried threatening banners, pikes and red caps of liberty, and threw rocks and stones.

But the magistrates and the yeomanry had nothing to fear.

While there was much public anger, no one was ever held accountable for what happened at Peterloo.

Indeed, the state was quick to vindicate the magistrates and the military and civil powers.

In a letter of 21 August 1819 Lord Sidmouth, the home secretary, conveyed the Prince Regent’s praise to the Manchester authorities thanking them for their “prompt, decisive and efficient measures for preserving the public tranquillity”.

The Government retaliated with the Six Acts, which effectively closed down the reform movement by clamping down on public meetings and ‘seditious’ newspapers.

Yet, in the longer term, reaction against the tyrannical response to Peterloo confirmed the rights of free speech, assembly and peaceful protest in British politics.

The memory of Peterloo lingered, and the State was careful not to repeat their mistake again.

The most famous literary response to the tragedy is probably a poetic call for action penned by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The poignant last stanza of The Masque of Anarchy (written in 1819, but not published until 1832) is still quoted today: “Rise, like lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number!”

For years Peterloo was largely forgotten by the people of Manchester.

It was an awkward and uncomfortable episode in the city’s history.

The Victorian city dignitaries refused to include Peterloo in the Manchester Town Hall murals, and in the 1970s attempts to rename St Peter’s Street ‘Peterloo Street’ were blocked by local businesses including the Midland Hotel.

However, the long campaign for a prominent and permanent marker will finally bear fruit exactly 200 years after the Massacre.

On 16 August a memorial by Jeremy Deller, who won the Turner Prize in 2004, will be unveiled near the site.

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