Posted on 13 April 2021
The gathering and protest that became known as the Peterloo Massacre took place in Manchester, England, on 16 August, 1819.
The Napoleonic Wars
Unrest had been growing among the working class people in the manufacturing areas of northern England since the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815).
Post war, these people had hoped their lives would improve. However, they were faced with high taxes, rising food prices and unemployment. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote and hunger was rife with the disastrous corn laws, introduced in 1815, that had raised the price of food.
In Manchester, people sympathetic to reform, began to organize into local clubs. They wanted less waste of public money by both the Government and the Church of England. They also called for fair taxation and an end to restrictions on trade.
In order to do that, they knew they needed to have a voice with workers’ interests represented in Parliament. At the time, Manchester did not have representation in the House of Commons. The people knew they needed to change that.
On the morning of 16 August, 1819, a crowd of 60,000 began to gather in St. Peter’s Field. According to contemporary accounts the crowd behaved with dignity and discipline – the majority of them dressed in their Sunday best.
The key speaker was to be famed orator Henry Hunt. His platform consisted of a simple cart, located in the front of what’s now the Manchester Central Conference Centre. The space was filled with banners such as:
– REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION, LOVE –
Many of the banner poles were topped with the red cap of liberty – a powerful symbol at the time.
Local magistrates watching from a window near the field panicked at the sight of the assembly. They read out the Riot Act, effectively ordering what little of the crowd could hear them to disperse. Arrests were attempted by the local Yeomanry – the police of their day. However, the crowd began linking arms preventing the arrests from taking place.
400 cavalry men were marched in and ordered to break up the crowd, supported by several hundred infantrymen and an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns.
On horseback, armed with sabres and clubs – rather than peacefully bring the protest to an end, the cavalry charged at the mass of people.
Inevitable violence occurred as the cavalry attacked the peaceful protesters. A known 18 people, including four women and a child, died from saber cuts and trampling. Quite possibly more died but remain unknown. Nearly 700 men, women and children received serious injuries.
The first death of the Peterloo Massacre was two-year-old William Fildes. He was flung from his mother’s arms and hit the ground when a soldier, running through a nearby street to catch up with his men, collided into parent and child.
A nearby Quaker Meeting House helped tend to the injured and provided a place of refuge in the aftermath. Panel 60 (opens in a new window) of the Quaker Tapestry celebrates Friends attending to the Peterloo victims, but as to exactly what involvement they had on the day remains unclear.
What is clear, is that the events of the Peterloo Massacre led local businessman John Edward Taylor to produce the Guardian newspaper as a response to what he’d witnessed. A Quaker by convincement, he wrote:
The Friends’ Meeting House nearby provided a refuge for the injured and those fleeing from the cavalry. The wooden floor was soaked with the blood of the injured and dying and could not be washed away.
John Edward Taylor
Historians acknowledge that Peterloo was hugely influential in ordinary people winning the right to vote, led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from which grew the Trade Unions. The massacre also resulted in the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper.
The term ‘Peterloo’, was intended to mock the soldiers who attacked unarmed civilians by echoing the word ‘Waterloo’ – the soldiers from that battle being seen by many as genuine heroes.
In 2018, a commemorative plaque was unveiled for the 199th anniversary naming the 18 known people who died.
In 2019, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, a memorial was created by artist Jeremy Deller, near the site of the original protest. The monument is made up of 11 concentric steps featuring the names of the 18 people who died in the Peterloo massacre and the towns from which they had travelled to attend the protest.
The idea behind the design is that people can walk to the top of the monument, which is a speakers’ podium.
Images from www.theguardian.com