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Case Study: The Peterloo Massacre – 1819

The 16 August 1819 was a bright, sunny day.

Thousands of men, women and children travelled to St Peter’s Field in Manchester to attend a mass meeting in support of parliamentary reform.

They came in from across Lancashire, with large contingents making their way from Oldham, Rochdale and Stockport. 

They were dressed in their Sunday best and each contingent made its way to St Peter’s Field in an organised procession, determined to show their detractors that they were not a “mob-like rabble”.

There was a carnival atmosphere, with marching bands and people dancing and singing along to the music. They carried flags and banners with slogans such as ‘Universal Suffrage’ and ‘No Corn Laws’. Others proclaimed ‘Liberty and Fraternity’ and ‘Unity and Strength’.

Many were coming to the meeting especially to hear the Radical reformer Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt.

At this time less than 3% of the population could vote. Furthermore, most of these new industrial towns, like Manchester, had no MP to represent them.

The Peterloo Massacre
Image depicting the Peterloo Massacre

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had entered a period of economic depression with falling wages and high unemployment.

There had been a steep rise in the price of bread, and taxes had been increased on goods such as tea and sugar to pay the large national debt.

Radical reformers such as Hunt campaigned for parliamentary reform, arguing that the lives of the working classes would only improve once they had a say in how the country was governed.

It was to be a peaceful meeting.

Henry Hunt, fearing the authorities might try and provoke them, had told them to bring “no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience”.

The Radical weaver Samuel Bamford, who led the Middleton contingent, wrote that no weapons of any kind were allowed and those at the front of the procession carried laurel branches “as a token of amity and peace.”

Also present were women from the Female Reform Societies. Often subjected to abuse and ridicule for speaking out, many of these women had dressed in white as a symbol of their virtue.

They saw the ruling elite as the cause of their misery and poverty and urged women to support suffrage for working men.

Mary Fildes was the leader of the Manchester Female Reform Society. Dressed in white, Fildes carried the Society’s flag as she rode in the open top carriage with Hunt and the other speakers through the streets of Manchester to St Peter’s Field.

At this time there was discontent throughout the country and the Government feared that an armed uprising by the labouring classes would lead to revolution, as has happened in France.

Class prejudice and the fear of rebellion had led the local authorities to assemble a significant military presence. Infantry, cavalry and even a detachment of artillery had been brought in, some 1500 men.

Also present where the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. They were a volunteer cavalry force of shopkeepers and tradesmen who had no sympathy for the reformers assembled on St Peter’s Field.

Witnesses claimed that the men of the Yeomanry were drunk. It later emerged that their sabres had been sharpened just prior to the meeting.

From the house on Mount Street the magistrates, headed by William Hulton, watched the proceedings. Sometime around noon three to four hundred special constables were sent in to the crowd to form a corridor from the house to the wagons which formed the hustings.

Upwards of sixty thousand people had crowded onto St Peter’s Field. Henry Hunt, wearing his trademark white top hat, arrived to a rapturous reception. He and the other speakers took their place on the hustings shortly after 1pm.

The Situation Changes

Hunt had barely begun speaking before the magistrates took action.

Arrest warrants were issued for the speakers. The Deputy Constable Joseph Nadin claimed he could not arrest them without assistance, so Hulton dispatched two letters calling for military support.

First to arrive were the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. In their rush to get there two year old William Fildes was killed, thrown from his mother’s arms after she was knocked down by one of the troopers as they galloped along Cooper Street.

The crowd cheered on seeing the Yeomanry, believing they were only trying to intimidate them. Henry Hunt called out “Stand firm my friends! You see they are in disorder already. This is a trick. Give them three cheers.”

But then with their sabres drawn they charged into the densely packed crowd and began “cutting the people”, including some of the special constables, as they tried to get to the hustings.

As Henry Hunt was being led away by Nadin, the undisciplined Yeomanry began attacking the banners and flags. With shouts of “Have at their flags!” they started slashing and hacking their way through the crowds of people.

Panic stricken, people were now running in all directions and the Manchester Yeomanry set about attacking them as they fled. In the rush to escape many were crushed or knocked down. Although the majority of wounds would come from sabre cuts, blows from truncheons or from being trampled by horses.

Eyewitnesses claimed that the women in the crowd had been deliberately targeted and a disproportionate number of women did become casualties.  These included Margaret Downes who died of sabre wounds and Martha Partington who died after being thrown into a cellar.

However the magistrate William Hulton, blinded by prejudice, believed it was the crowd who were attacking the Yeomanry and is reputed to have said “Good God, sir! Do you not see they are attacking the yeomanry? Disperse the crowd!”

On his orders the cavalry of the15th Hussars charged into the crowd.

With the main exits partially blocked by armed infantry, the 60,000 people who had assembled on St Peter’s Field struggled to leave.  Many tried to take refuge amongst the surrounding buildings but found themselves pursed by the cavalry.

By 2pm the crowd had dispersed. Samuel Bamford wrote “over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes…trampled, torn, and bloody… Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered”.

The Cost

Eleven people were killed at St Peter’s Field, with more dying later from their wounds or during the riots which followed. Over 600 people were injured, but many hid their injuries for fear of reprisals from the authorities or their employers.

Former soldier James Lees who died on the 9 September from sabre cuts to his head told a relative that “at Waterloo there was man to man, but here it was downright murder.”

Due to the presence of several journalists news of the massacre quickly spread. James Wroe wrote an account in the Manchester Observer and is generally credited as the first person to put the name ‘Peterloo’ in print. It was in reference to the recent Battle of Waterloo and he used it to mock the authorities for attacking unarmed civilians.

There was widespread public condemnation of the massacre, even from the establishment newspaper The Times.

A charitable organisation was set up to raise money for the victims and their families, and the event was commemorated on items such as mugs and handkerchiefs.

The Government however, publicly supported the magistrates. The Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth conveyed the Prince Regent’s congratulations for their “prompt, decisive and efficient measures” in preserving “the public tranquillity.”

In the wake of the massacre the Government tried to suppress the reform movement by imprisoning many of its leaders and bringing in repressive legislation.

The struggle for parliamentary reform would continue into the 20th Century. For later reformers, Peterloo would remain a symbol of the peoples fight for their political rights and liberties against a repressive and unrepresentative government.