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Peterloo: murder to behead the workers’ movement

This article is over 19 years, 4 months old
In the first in a series on key moments in British labour history Keith Flett looks at the Peterloo massacre of 1819
Issue 1931

Peterloo, a demonstration for the vote and democratic rights which took place at St Peter’s Field Manchester on Monday 16 August 1819, is a landmark event in British working class history.

The murder by troops of 11 protesters, with 400 injured, ensures it will be forever remembered.

St Peter’s Field, where the protesters gathered on that sunny morning, is where the old Free Trade Hall now stands in central Manchester.

Even reading one of the standard accounts of what took place today, such as that by the middle class reformer Samuel Bamford, it is striking how much violence was used by the authorities to disperse the protesters and arrest the leading speaker Henry “Orator” Hunt. It was not simply a skirmish or a riot. It really was a massacre, with people cut down in their hundreds.

Yet neither the demonstration itself nor the authorities’ reaction to it was an accident.

The Napoleonic Wars, which ended in 1815, had seen the repression of working class dissent and the breaking of a number of conspiratorial attempts to force change, often provoked by government agents provocateurs.

By 1818 this was beginning to change. A vigorous radical press was being published, and a deliberate switch of strategy to open public meetings was underway.

The challenge of the reformers proved awkward for the government because the demands – for the right to organise politically, for the freedom of the press and freedom of assembly – were supposed, in theory, to exist. The fear was what would happen if those rights were exercised by a growing working class movement.

Trade unions, still illegal in 1819, played a central role in organising meetings around the country for democratic rights, and soldiers demobbed from the Napoleonic campaigns were influential in the meetings.

In 1832 the ruling class would feel just strong enough to buy off such a movement for democratic rights with a Reform Act. But in 1819 it decided to confront it instead. And that is why Peterloo took place.

The awareness of a decisive battle was there on the part of the working class reformers too. For some weeks before Peterloo organised groups from the communities surrounding Manchester had met in the early morning or late at night to drill and prepare themselves for the demonstration.

They were “armed” with no more than sticks and staves, and their preparations were for

self defence rather than for a challenge to the state.

Henry Hunt had even intervened to make sure that this was the case.

What alarmed the authorities was not that they would face an armed group of men and women – for women were at Peterloo in large numbers – but that the working class were organising in an open and disciplined manner.

One eyewitness said that the demonstrators “mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives”.

At first it had been thought that the troops around St Peter’s Field were there simply as a precaution, but they rode into the densely packed crowd with their sabres drawn, slashing at protesters as they went.

Their stated aim was to arrest Henry Hunt, Bamford and other speakers, which they did.

St Peter’s Field was reported to have been cleared of people in around ten minutes, save for mounds of the dead and injured left groaning on the ground, while the Manchester yeomanry spent their time cleaning the blood off their sabres.

The yeomanry were a particular kind of cavalry. They were drawn from the Manchester manufacturers.

In effect, as historian EP Thompson has noted, they were “merchants, publicans and shopkeepers on horseback”, and their attack on those who sought reform was one of class hatred.

In the circumstances it might be thought that the government would distance itself from the massacre. Not at all.

Within a fortnight the home secretary, Sidmouth, and the prince regent had congratulated the military and the Manchester magistrates, who had given the yeomanry their orders, on their “prompt, decisive and efficient measures for the preservation of the public peace”.

If those who authorised and organised the massacre were rewarded, those who led the demonstration had to go to jail.

Henry Hunt got two and half a years and Samuel Bamford a year. By the end of 1819 the government had passed the “Six Acts”, which effectively made it illegal to hold public meetings and muzzled the press.

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