There was no “Battle of Peterloo”—there was an atrocity. It took place 200 years ago but still inspires an anger that is expressed brilliantly in a new history by Robert Poole.
There was a riot at Peterloo but it was not the crowd that rioted—it was the forces of order.
On 16 August 1819 a crowd of tens of thousands of peaceful, if defiant, men, women and children, was mown down without warning or provocation.
The perpetrators were the Salford and Manchester Yeomanry, special constables armed with truncheons and hussars who used their horses as weapons.
The Yeomanry sharpened their sabres specially for the occasion.
Within a few minutes at least 17 people were killed and 700 seriously injured, among them many women and children.
The casualties were inflicted face to face with the “forces of order” attacking the injured and chasing their victims through streets as they tried to escape.
Peterloo was, Poole rightly insists, an atrocity committed to silence a militant working class movement, sanctioned at the highest level of the British government.
The massacre was not only the bloodiest political event in 19th century Britain, it was also the only one witnessed by national and regional newspapers.
Poole has placed moving eyewitness accounts within a wider explanation of the formation of the blood-spattered British state.
Just four years before Peterloo, the British army emerged victorious from 22 years of war against France.
Some 800,000 men, a fifth of the adult male population, were mobilised from Britain.
The war left a country wracked by hunger and grief, and a British establishment, as Poole says, “at its most established”.
The “Old Corruption” as reformer William Cobbett named it was an iron-fisted imperial power.
Reform leader Henry Hunt declared, “The war was carried on, not to preserve this country from the horrors of the French Revolution.
“It has been from the beginning a war against the principles of liberty.”
The experience of war fuelled demands for reform and for the vote for all taxpayers.
Living conditions in post-war Manchester, the cradle of industrialisation, shocked visitors.
Falling wages, rising prices and insecure work left families on the brink of starvation. The hated Corn Laws, introduced in 1815, banned the import of cheap grain.
Food rioters’ common slogan, “Better to be hanged than starved,” added legitimacy to demands for political reform.
The reform movement demonstrated great ingenuity in negotiating repressive laws and police spy networks. Petitioning was legal and helped create organisation. In March 1817 a teenage weaver, John Bagguley, organised the Blanketeers’ March to London to petition the king for reform.
He declared to the 10,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field, “I am a Republican, a Leveller, and will never give it up till we have established a republican government.” Hundreds of marchers were arrested.
The spring of 1818 saw a wave of strikes across Lancashire. Poole pays tribute to the workers who staged processions and collections that maintained solidarity between very different groups of workers.
Reformers united their campaign with the strikes, welcoming male and many female spinners and weavers into the reform movement.
The strikes won important concessions, but many strike leaders and reformers were arrested. Free market economics were exposed as dependent on political authoritarianism, as Poole points out.
Home secretary Lord Sidmouth rejected attempts by Lancashire reformers to petition the king, in a violation of an ancient right.
Reformers responded by launching a hugely effective mass platform campaign, moving from the politics of petitioning to the politics of confrontation.
Mass meetings attracted around 25,000 people in Birmingham and 50,000 in London’s Smithfield, where Henry Hunt made common cause with the Irish campaign for independence from Britain.
Female reform societies grew in confidence and militancy.
In June, a meeting of delegates from local reform societies in Oldham issued a statement that Poole described as a “potent fusion of economic and political demands”.
It proclaimed, “The labouring part of the people of this country cannot long preserve their existence: and if they must die either by starvation or in defence of their rights, they cannot hesitate to prefer the latter.”
This was the build-up to a plan for a mass gathering in Manchester’s St Peter’s Fields, to be addressed by Hunt. This event would become known as the Peterloo Massacre.
August was the middle of the annual Wakes Holiday. People setting off for the long trek into Manchester from surrounding villages and towns were in festive mood.
Many wore their Sunday best and carried olive branches to demonstrate their peaceful intentions.
They marched in disciplined formation, carrying colourful banners embroidered with slogans such as, “Unity and Strength” and “Liberty and Fraternity,” accompanied by pipes and drums.
Large numbers of women joined the crowd, some in their own contingents.
The female reformers of Oldham carried a banner with the slogan, “Let us die like men, and not be sold like slaves”. The women of Royston demanded “Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage.”
Irish songs were played to greet the green flags born by contingents of Irish weavers.
By midday the huge crowd was anticipating speeches by radicals including Hunt and Mary Fildes from the Manchester Committee of Female Reform.
When Hunt stood up to speak, the 40,000-50,000-strong crowd roared its approval. At this moment magistrates issued a warrant for his arrest.
They were watching events from a first-floor window, aided by a pair of opera glasses.
From his vantage point on the hustings, Hunt could see what others in the crowd could not. He paused in mid-flow as he saw a group of cavalry charging into the densely-packed crowed.
They sliced indiscriminately at men, women and children as they tried to get to the speakers’ platform.
Within minutes, people were sabred, trampled and crushed. Screams echoed across the square.
The Manchester Guardian described how “the women seemed to be the special objects of the rage of these bastard soldiers”.
Mary Fildes was slashed by a sabre after her dress caught on a nail as she tried to escape.
Those returning to the square later found it strewn with shoes, shawls, hats and bonnets, as well as bodies.
The injured were turned away by doctors unless they vowed to stop agitating for reform. Those arrested described their cruel treatment in petitions later submitted to the courts.
Poole gives many moving examples. Heavily pregnant Elizabeth Gaunt was dragged from a carriage and beaten by special constables before being thrown into jail and suffering a miscarriage.
Yet people remained defiant. Samuel Bamford found his wife Jemima, who had seen a woman crushed to death while she was hiding in a cellar.
Together they found their nine year old daughter Anne and set off to march home to Middleton.
Bamford recalled, “I rejoined my comrades, and forming about a thousand of them into file, we marched off to the sound of fife and drum, with our only banner waving, we re-entered the town of Middleton.”
Riots broke out in working class areas of Manchester and protesters tried to reclaim flags captured by the Yeomanry. The turn to lethal violence occurred in the context of establishment fear of a rising reform movement. The authorities organised a cover-up.
At official inquests, the dead were found to have wantonly put themselves in harm’s way.
There was no official death toll, and many died slowly, out of sight and unrecorded.
Workers responded with a wave of huge solidarity protests.
The government responded with the repressive Six Acts, but only succeeded in pushing the movement underground.
It erupted again in the reform riots of 1832, in Chartism and in the women’s suffrage campaign.
At its birth, the English working class movement was creative, militant and inclusive.
Poole’s history is the book those who protested at Peterloo—and those who continue to oppose the same vicious ruling class today—deserve.