For days people prepared their banners, practised hymns and marched with bands. In the summer of 1819, Lancashire was filled with excitement.
A campaign for parliamentary reform had called a mass meeting in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, to be addressed by some of the foremost radical speakers of the time.
On Monday 16 August the field was packed with at least 60,000 men, women and children.
As the radical speaker Henry Hunt took to the stage, the mood rapidly changed. Watching from the edge of the field, local magistrates ordered mounted yeomanry to clear the area.
They charged, followed by cavalry hussars. Their sabres flashed and the air became thick with the noise of thundering hooves and the screams of the injured.
At least 18 died from their injuries, including a two year old child and a pregnant woman. Over 600 were injured.
Within moments, recalled the radical Samuel Bamford, most of the crowd had fled.
But “several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered.
Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more.
“All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.”
A cavalryman’s sabre came down on John Lees. Another came up behind the 22 year old factory worker and slashed his right elbow to the bone.
He was then severely beaten by men wielding truncheons. Lees died from his wounds on 7 September.
Major Thomas Dyneley saw the deserted place strewn with the refuse of conflict. “In short,” he said with relish, “the field was as complete as I had ever seen one after an action.”
Lees and Dyneley had both fought at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 with the Royal Horse Artillery.
A friend wrote that Lees said, “At Waterloo there was man to man; but at Manchester it was downright murder.”
Major Dyneley wrote in his report that the “first action of the Battle of Manchester is over, and has I am happy to say ended in the complete discomfiture of the enemy”.
On the day itself, a group of special constables taunted wounded protesters by shouting,
“This is Waterloo for you! This is Waterloo.”
Within days the Manchester Observer newspaper had started calling it Peterloo.
The massacre took place during the severe economic depression that followed two decades of war. The government, spooked by the spectre of revolution, fretted that any reform would bring insurrection.
Manchester was a city, The Times newspaper reported, where thousands of spinners and weavers lived in “squalid wretchedness” and “repulsive depravity”.
Britain in the 1810s was haunted by the fear of Jacobinism from the revolution that had overthrown the monarchy in France. Meanwhile only one in ten men—and no women—could vote, while many towns had no MPs at all.
There was pressure for reforms from some of the middle class as well as workers.
The instincts of Lord Liverpool’s Tory government were always repressive.
In 1817, an attack on the Prince Regent’s carriage prompted the government to suspend the right to appeal unlawful imprisonments. It also clamped down on “seditious” meetings.
In response at one Stockport rally, a speaker wished for a “sword in my hand to cut off the heads of all tyrants”.
Another told the crowd that they must “get all armed for nothing but sword in hand will do at all—Liberty or death!”
But conspiratorial insurrectionism had generally been crushed by infiltration by government spies.
That peaceful petitioning had proved ineffectual meant reformers for political change had to look to mass mobilisation.
That meant that demands for political reform started to coincide and merge with broader demands.
Henry Hunt insisted that a great deal of radical effort remained focused on the election of MPs and the sponsorship of moderate reform bills.
But conflict over tactics between the reformers in London led Hunt and others to look to the provinces, and to mass meetings, to build pressure for change.
A mass meeting held at Palace Yard, Westminster, in September 1818, denounced the Prince Regent.
It asserted the sovereignty of the people and demanded their rightful share for workers in the fruits of their labour.
Rallies were arranged in the Midlands and the north of England in the summer of 1819. The final provincial meeting was set for Manchester.
On the morning of the meeting, the roads into Manchester from the villages and towns were thick with men, women and children dressed in their best clothes and carrying festive decorations.
Their banners bore inscriptions such as “Universal Suffrage” and “Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny”. A few read, “Liberty or Death.”
Organisers took pains to ensure an orderly meeting. At first light, the area of St Peter’s Fields had been cleared of as many objects as possible that could be used as potential weapons.
Samuel Bamford had argued that there “could be no harm whatever in taking a score or two of cudgels, just to keep the specials at a respectful distance from our line”.
But Hunt called people to bring no weapon other than that of a “self-approving conscience”.
It mattered little. The Salford Yeomanry cavalry that first attacked the crowd was made up of drunk volunteers recruited from innkeepers, tailors and butchers who saw themselves as the guardians of order. “Damn you, I’ll reform you,” one of them shouted.
Hunt looked on from the hustings as the yeomanry “charged amongst the people, sabring right and left, in all directions. Sparing neither age, sex, nor rank.”
Once they had cut their way through the crowd, the yeomanry and special constables quickly set upon those on the platform. Women were singled out for particularly brutal treatment. The violence meted out to female reformers had been encouraged before the event.
The New Times stated, “We cannot conceive that any but a hardened and shameless prostitute would have the audacity to appear on the hustings on such an occasion and for such a purpose.”
The full time cavalry of the Hussars, led by Colonel L’Estrange, formed into a line across the eastern end of the field and then charged the crowd. They were joined by the Cheshire Yeomanry, attacking from the south.
The fleeing people trapped between these advancing troops found their escape through Peter Street blocked by the 88th Infantry with bayonets drawn. It took 15 minutes to clear the field.
Peterloo was a deliberate attempt to crush an emerging movement. The organisers were arrested and imprisoned.
The Prince Regent wrote from his yacht to thank the Manchester Magistrates for their “prompt, decisive and efficient measure for the preservation of public tranquillity”.
Following the protests there were numerous mass protests with 100,000 in London and 40,000 in Newcastle. The government responded with six acts of parliament designed to subdue the reform movement.
To some extent it worked. Peterloo entered the popular imagination as proof of our rulers’ violent resistance to challenges to their order.
That meant that the first fully working class movement, the Chartists, grew in the following decades with the experience of Peterloo in its mind. It made significant sections of the movement more radical.
The memory of the massacre was kept alive through radical stories, songs and verse.
The most famous today is Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy which, though written in the weeks after the massacre, wasn’t published until 1830.
Its lines include the famous, “Ye are many, they are few”—one of the slogans of the left to this day.
The poem is not just a recognition of the strength of numbers of multitude. It is a call to arms, for revenge and for justice.
The legacy of Peterloo is not just heritage. As a moment when the emerging working class came into the conflict with the ruling class, it’s a reminder of the depth of the struggle ahead.
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