Peterloo Massacre

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The Peterloo Massacre took place at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, Lancashire, England on Monday 16 August 1819. On this day, cavalry charged into a crowd of around 60,000 people who had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.

What was the Peterloo massacre?

On 16 August 1819, up to 60,000 working class people from the towns and villages of what is now Greater Manchester marched to St Peter’s Field in central Manchester to demand political representation at a time when only wealthy landowners could vote. Their peaceful protest turned bloody when Manchester magistrates ordered a private militia paid for by rich locals to storm the crowd with sabres. An estimated 18 people died and more than 650 were injured in the chaos.

Why don’t we know exactly how many people died?

Most historians agree that 14 people were definitely killed in the massacre – 15 if you include the unborn child of Elizabeth Gaunt, killed in the womb after Gaunt was beaten by constables in custody. A further three named people are believed to have either been stabbed or trampled to death, but their fate remains unconfirmed.

Nearly 700 men, women and children received extremely serious injuries. All in the name of liberty and freedom from poverty.

The Massacre occurred during a period of immense political tension and mass protests. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote, and hunger
was rife with the disastrous corn laws making bread unaffordable.

PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY

On the morning of 16th August the crowd began to gather, conducting themselves, according to contemporary accounts, with dignity and discipline, the majority dressed in their Sunday best.

The huge open area around what’s now St Peter’s Square, Manchester, played host to an outrage against over 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters; an event which became known as The Peterloo Massacre.

St Peter’s Field is no longer a field, but a built-up area of central Manchester, around St Peter’s Square. A red plaque on Peter Street marks the spot, on the side of what is now the Radisson Blu hotel.

Peterloo, a 2018 Film4 production with Rory Kinnear. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

The key speaker was to be famed orator Henry Hunt, the platform consisted of a simple cart, located in the front of what’s now the Manchester Central Conference Centre, and the space was filled with banners – REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION and, touchingly, LOVE.

Many of the banner poles were topped with the red cap of liberty – a powerful symbol at the time.

What did the protesters want?

They wanted political reform. At that point, only the richest landowners could vote and large swathes of the country were not adequately represented in Westminster. Manchester and Salford, which then had a population of 150,000, had no dedicated MP, yet Oxford and Cambridge Universities had their own representation in parliament dating back to 1603. So did Old Sarum, a field in Salisbury, which had no resident electorate. At the time of Peterloo, the extension of the vote to all men, let alone women, was actively opposed by many who thought it should be restricted to those of influence and means.

Why did they want to vote?

The years leading up to Peterloo had been tough for working-class people and they wanted a voice in parliament to put their needs and wants on the political agenda, inspired by the French Revolution. Machines had begun to take away jobs in the lucrative cotton industry and periodic trade slumps closed factories at short notice, putting workers out on the street. The Napoleonic wars, which ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo, had taken a heavy toll on the nation’s finances, and 350,000 ex-servicemen returned home needing jobs and food. Yet those in power seemed more interested in lining their own pockets than helping the poor.

THE MASSACRE

Engraving of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile, 1 October 1819. Photograph: Classic Image/Alamy

As 600 Hussars, several hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables waited in reserve, the local Yeomanry were given the task of arresting the speakers. The Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Birley and Major Thomas
Trafford, were essentially a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners.

On horseback, armed with sabres and clubs, many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. (In one instance,
spotting a reporter from the radical Manchester Observer, a Yeomanry officer called out “There’s Saxton, damn him, run him through.”)

Heading for the hustings, they charged when the crowd linked arms to try and stop the arrests, and proceeded to strike down banners and people with
their swords. Rumours from the period have persistently stated the Yeomanry were drunk.

The panic was interpreted as the crowd attacking the yeomanry, and the Hussars (Led by Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange) were ordered in.

As with the Tiananmen Square Massacre, there were unlikely heroes amoung the military. An unnamed cavalry officer attempted to strike up the swords
of the Yeomanry, crying – “For shame, gentlemen: what are you about? The people cannot get away!” But the majority joined in with the attack.

The term ‘Peterloo’, was intended to mock the soldiers who attacked unarmed civilians by echoing the term ‘Waterloo’ – the soldiers from that battle being seen by many as genuine heroes.

AFTERMATH

By 2pm the carnage was over, and the field left full of abandoned banners and dead bodies. Journalists present at the event were arrested, others
who went on to report the event were subsequently jailed. The businessman John Edward Taylor went on to help set up the Guardian newspaper as a reaction to what he’d seen.

The speakers and organizers were put on trial, at first under the charge of High treason – a charge that was reluctantly dropped by the prosecution. The Hussars and Magistrates received a message of congratulations from the Prince Regent, and were cleared of any wrong-doing by the official inquiry.

LEGACY

Historians acknowledge that Peterloo was hugely influential in ordinary people winning the right to vote, led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from
which grew the Trade Unions, and also resulted in the establishment of the Manchester Guardian newspaper.

According to Nick Mansfield, director of the People’s History Museum in Manchester, “Peterloo is a critical event not only because of the number of people
killed and injured, but because ultimately it changed public opinion to influence the extension of the right to vote and give us the democracy we enjoy
today. It was critical to our freedoms
.”


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