In late July 1819, a notice was published in Manchester which informed the inhabitants of a meeting to be held at St Peter’s Fields on August 9th. The stated purpose of this meeting was ‘to take into consideration, the most speedy and effectual mode of obtaining Radical Reform in the Commons House of Parliament’
and also ‘to consider the propriety of the ‘Unrepresented Inhabitants of Manchester’ electing a Person to represent them in Parliament.’ The local magistrates, fearing disorder, swiftly posted their own notice to ban the meeting, warning‘all Persons to abstain, AT THEIR PERIL, from attending such ILLEGAL MEETING.’ The Radical Reformers were not, however, to be put off easily, and upon receiving advice that the only illegal aspect of the meeting was the intention to elect a representative, they abandoned the meeting and proposed another on August 16th, this time with the simple intention to ‘consider the propriety of adoption the most LEGAL and EFFECTUAL means of obtaining a REFORM in the Commons House of Parliament.’ This time, there was no counter-notice. However, Henry Hunt, the famous radical speaker who was to chair the meeting, warned that ‘OUR ENEMIES will seek every opportunity… to excite a RIOT, that they may have a pretence for SPILLING OUR BLOOD’ and insisted that, despite this, those attending should arrive unarmed and do their utmost to maintain the public peace.
The movement for a reform of Parliament had been growing among working people in Manchester and other manufacturing areas since the end of the wars with France in 1815. People were disappointed that the end of the war had not brought prosperity, and instead they still suffered from high taxes, rising food prices, and unemployment. At first, this poverty had led to anger and riots, but, as the radical Lancashire weaver Samuel Bamford wrote in his memoirs, ‘the writings of William Cobbett [the radical journalist] became the great authority… Their influence was speedily visible; he directed his readers to the true cause of their sufferings – misgovernment; and to its proper corrective – parliamentary reform.’ He went on to describe how, under this influence, rioting declined and those sympathetic to reform began to organise into local clubs, sharing the message with those less literate and encouraging a rational approach to improving their situation. Broadly speaking, the radicals wanted less wastage of public money by both government and the Church of England, fairer taxation, and to end restrictions on trade. They felt that the best way to achieve these objectives was to ensure that workers’ interests were represented in Parliament, and that this could be achieved by giving all working men the vote. Although only a minority of radicals wanted the vote for women too, women were involved in the radical societies from early on, just as they had previously been involved in riots, strikes and other protests. In 1819 they also set up their own female-only societies. These societies made speeches about the difficulties of being a good wife and mother while hampered by poverty, which they blamed on the government, and they vowed to bring up their children as good reformers. They were heavily criticised in the press by the opponents of reform, with one paper declaring –without any evidence- that‘the females are women well known to be the most abandoned of their sex’.
Nonetheless, a number of women and children were present at the meeting at St. Peter’s Fields on August 16th. As many as 100,000 spectators may have been present to see Henry Hunt take the chair. Of course, some of these were merely curious onlookers, but most were supporters of Parliamentary reform who had come from Manchester and the surrounding area specifically to take part in the meeting – some from as far away as Blackburn, about 30miles away. Around half past one, Hunt arrived, took the stage, and began to speak to the assembled crowd. Almost immediately, a group of soldiers rode into the crowd and towards the hustings, where Hunt and the other speakers were arrested. A few months later, these men, along with other local radical leaders including Samuel Bamford, and a woman named Elizabeth Gaunt, who had been found in Hunt’s carriage, were put on trial for treason. The problem with trying to determine why this happened is that the majority of the first-hand accounts are biased towards either the radicals assembled at the meeting, or the soldiers and the magistrates who gave them the orders to disperse it. They therefore vary widely between those who claim that a peaceful meeting was savagely broken up and those who argue that the authorities did the only thing they could to prevent revolutionary conspirators taking violent action.
The radicals described the event as a bloody massacre. They had paid attention to Hunt’s warning and taken care to appear peaceful and respectable to the authorities, as Samuel Bamford described in his memoirs :
‘It was deemed expedient that this meeting should be as morally effective as possible, and, that it should exhibit a spectacle such as had never before been witnessed in England. We had frequently been taunted by the press, with our ragged, dirty appearance… for once, at least, these reflections should not be deserved…we would disarm our opponents by a display of cleanliness, sobriety, and decorum, such as we never before exhibited. In short, we would deserve their respect by shewing that we respected ourselves’.
They had even met on evenings and Sundays on local moors to practice walking in time with each other, so that they might arrive at the field in an organised fashion and with the other members of their group. Bamford’s description of the procession from his hometown of Middleton gave the impression of an important but enjoyable day out, with men, women and children together, and people dancing alongside the march Others testified at his trial that Bamford had made those in the Middleton party who had brought sticks, even to walk with, leave them behind to ensure the appearance of the group was totally peaceful. At the various trials, a number of objective as well as radical observers recalled that the assembled crowd had been entirely peaceful until the Manchester Yeomanry rode in. After this, there was chaos as the soldiers galloped into the crowd, slashing at those who stood in their way, sometimes deliberately. For example, the records of the charity set up for relief of sufferers state that William Cheetham asked one soldier to allow people
room to disperse, and the man moved back a little, only to cut him with his sabre and the threaten to cut off his head. The Yeomanry made particular efforts to chase down those with banners and prominent radical leaders, and it seems that they also targeted the female reformers in particular. Mary Fildes, one of the leaders of the Manchester Female Society, was beaten around the face as she tried to escape from the hustings, and she may have been the subject of an anti-reformist song which celebrated the authorities’ deeds and included the line, Hunt’s ‘mistress sent to hospital her face for to renew / For she got it closely shaven on the plains of Peter-loo.’Somewhere between 10 and 20 people were killed in the struggle, and hundreds were wounded, if not by the soldiers than by the crush of a panicked crowds desperately trying to escape. The fact that the sabres had been recently sharpened suggested that the whole brutal performance had been coldly premeditated.
For the most part the authorities played down the injuries which were received by the crowd at Peterloo. Only under intense questioning would the magistrate William Hulton admit to seeing a badly injured woman brought into the magistrates’ house, and even then he refused to testify as to whether or not she was pregnant at the time. In 1822, Thomas Redford, who claimed to have been injured at Peterloo, brought a court case against the soldiers involved, whose defence consisted firstly of the argument that they had not caused injury, and then gave thirteen reasons why they would have been justified even if they had. These were mostly related to the argument that the supposedly peaceful reform meeting was a cover for a revolutionary conspiracy. One Special Constable gave his version of events to the Home Office as follows:
’till half past one o’clock, successive bodies of the Reformers arrived upon the ground. All of them marched like soldiers in column, & had a flag with some seditious or inflammatory inscription on it, some had two flags, others a flag & a cap of liberty. On one flag, which was black, “Equal Representation or Death” was inscribed. The staff of another terminated in a Pike-head, or dagger, painted and I distinctly counted Sixteen flags & five Caps of Liberty, as towards the time of Hunt’s arrival they were exultingly displayed in a line stretching across the field from the hustings to Peter Street. Nearly all the columns appeared to have come from places at a distance, & many of them marched to military music….
Some time before Hunt came upon the ground, such was the impression produced upon my mind by these most alarming & disgusting exhibitions, that with many others I returned to the Magistrates room to depose the sense of danger. I could not but most strongly feel to the public safety; a sentiment which has engendered no change to the present moment.’
It was not just that those arriving at St Peter’s Square had done so in the style of a military regiment, with military music. The drillings on the moors had also been in the manner of armies practicing their manoeuvres, and when men of a loyal disposition had gone along to watch, they had been branded as spies by the drillers and beaten and threatened. The marchers carried Caps of Liberty, a French revolutionary emblem, and much was also made of the slogans on their banners, which included ‘Death or Liberty’ and, for one group of female reformers, ‘Let us die like men and not be sold as slaves.’ For the authorities and the soldiers, the women at the meeting had gone beyond the bounds of acceptable female behaviour and had therefore lost their entitlement to special treatment. They were also an ominous echo of the French Revolution, when women had been key players in the storming of the palace of Versailles. There were, argued the authorities, other hints and violence and revolution. Some spectators testified to hearing the radicals claim they would be in possession of the town by evening, while others testified that Hunt spoke about the enemies of the crowd and ordered that, ‘If they attempt to molest you, you will knock them down, and keep them down.’ The magistrates claimed they felt it was unsafe to attempt to deliver the warrant without military assistance, and that, having read the riot act (which few people on either side seem to have heard) they felt that the soldiers needed to be used as a matter of urgency. They stated that the radicals had brought sticks and stones with them, which they used to pelt the soldiers who were trying to disperse the crowd, and one soldier testified that his horse’s belly was cut open by a member of the crowd.
In the immediate aftermath, the Manchester authorities were forced on to the defensive. They fired off rapid justifications to the Home Office, fearing that they might be judged to have exceeded their powers. They were also required to be on the alert for armed retaliation. The reformers probably did not intend to begin a violent revolution on the 16th August, but some of them certainly did afterwards. An informer testified to seeing groups of women on the way to Manchester on the morning of the 17thdeclaring ‘we sent our sweethearts to Manchester yesterday and we are going to look for them , damn it now the revolution is begun and we will never work again.’ Another informer wrote to the magistrates to warn them that weapons were being made and hidden in a small town near Rochdale with the intention of marching on Manchester. Even Samuel Bamford, who was always keen to play down any violent tendencies in his memoirs, wrote of visiting a friend for advice the day after Peterloo, and asking ‘If the people were ever to rise and smite their enemies, was now not the time? …Were there not seasons, and circumstances, under which the common rules of wisdom became folly, prudence became cowardice, and submission became criminal?…If the people took
vengeance into their own hands, where would they begin? where would they end?’ He was, however, talked out of such a position by his friend, James Kay, who persuaded him that continued peaceful protest was the safest and most strategic way to proceed. In the event, the magistrates and soldiers got away with it. The Home Office sanctioned the use of military force, and they even received congratulations from the Prince Regent for their services. The following January, new laws were introduced that banned, among other things, any meeting of 50 or more people without the consent of a magistrate. A number of prominent Peterloo radicals, including Henry Hunt, suffered long and uncomfortable jail terms. Along with those wounded and unable to work, or who had lost a family breadwinner, they suffered huge financial losses alongside physical discomfort.
However, the reformers had the moral high ground. As the news of the massacre spread, people across Britain were outraged by the tales of indiscriminate killing of men, women and children. It briefly united the radicals and the more moderate supporters of a limited reform, leading to discussions of the reform issue in Parliament. Images of the meeting’s dispersal focused on the most defenceless victims, such as George Cruikshank’s Manchester Heroes, which shows children begging for the life of their mother. The poverty of the victims was also emphasised. A plan for a Peterloo survivors’ medal was based on the famous
anti-slavery image of a kneeling slave, asking ‘Am I not a man and a brother?’, although in this case the soldier responds ‘No, you are a poor weaver.’ Likewise, another Cruikshank print, entitled Britons Strike Home shows one soldier urging the others to kill as many of the crowd as possible in order that they might get a reduction of their poor rates. The popularity of commemorative items, a number of which are held in museums around Britain, suggests that sympathy for the Peterloo victims, or at least fascination with the tragedy, was widespread and reached beyond the poorer elements of the community. Such items also linked the radical movement to successful campaigns of the past, such as that for the abolition of slavery, and immortalised it for the future. The memory of Peterloo has continued to inspire those who fight for democracy. Commemorative dinners were held well into the Chartist years, and memorial marches continue to this day. Ed Hall’s trade union banner, recently exhibited at the People’s History Museum, shows an image of Peterloo and lines from The Mask of Anarchy, Percy Shelley’s poem about the massacre:
‘Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number, Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you – Ye are many – they are few.’
These stirring lines remain powerful in struggles against corruption. A recent film about Occupy Wall St carries the title ‘Rise Like Lions’, while in Britain, Len McCluskey quoted Shelley’s lines to a trade union rally. To me, such use of the poem demonstrates the lasting importance of the memory of Peterloo as just part of a long fight by ordinary people to challenge political injustice.
*Images courtesy of Robert Poole, Ryan Hanley, Manchester Archives, the People’s History Museum, and the British Museum.