Today is the 199th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, an epochal event in the development of British democracy.
On August 16th, 1819, St Peter’s Fields, a large open space in the centre of Manchester, was the scene of an atrocity in which mounted soldiers attacked a crowd of over 60,000 peaceful suffrage protesters. Eighteen people, including four women and a child, died from sabre cuts and trampling, and nearly seven hundred more received grievous injuries – all in the name of political emancipation.
Peterloo occurred during a period of immense social tension and mass protests caused by political repression, economic depression and widespread poverty in aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. Fewer than one in fifty people had the vote, and hunger was widespread, with bad harvests, and the disastrous Corn Laws, making the people’s staple food barely affordable.
On the morning of August 16th, crowds began to congregate, coming in from the outlying districts of Manchester, and the surrounding towns; all conducting themselves, according to contemporary accounts, with dignity and discipline, the majority of them dressed in their Sunday best.
The main address was to be given by the inspirational speaker Henry “Orator” Hunt, from a hustings platform consisting of a large agricultural cart, and the Fields were filled with banners – REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION and, ironically, LOVE. Many of the banner poles were topped with the red cap of liberty – a powerful symbol from revolutionary France (it was only 26 years since the Terror).
Watching the ever-increasing assembly from a window overlooking the Fields, a local magistrate who had been charged with keeping the peace became uneasy, and after a brief consultation, decided to have the crowd disperse by the officially sanctioned method of reading the Riot Act aloud. Above the hubbub preceding the event, the words could scarcely be heard; but that gave legal cover for what happened subsequently.
In neighbouring streets, an extensive military force had been assembled, in anticipation of disorder: unbelievably, there were six hundred mounted Hussars; two hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns; four hundred men of the local Cheshire cavalry; and additionally, four hundred rapidly sworn-in special constables.
With all these troops held in reserve, the local Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Birley and Major Thomas Trafford, a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners, was given the task of moving and arresting the speakers. Many of them had been drinking while they waited, on an unusually warm summer day. On horseback, armed with sabres and clubs, many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. (In one instance, on spotting a reporter from the radical “Manchester Observer”, a Yeomanry officer was heard to cry “There’s Saxton, damn him – run him through!”)
As the Yeomanry approached the hustings, people in the crowd linked arms to try and prevent the arrests. An order was given to advance regardless, and the first rank of the Yeomanry drew their swords, and proceeded to cut down banners and slash at protestors below them with their razor-edged swords.
The surge of panicked people trying to get out of the way was interpreted from a distance as the crowd attacking the Yeomanry, and the Hussars (experienced professional soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange) were ordered in. Their vanguard cut a swathe through the crowd from the far side of the Fields.
Despite this, there were unlikely heroes among 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!”; while the Cheshire cavalry did not move forward. The Hussars, though, disciplined and relentless, rapidly cut through the crowd and joined up with the Yeomanry, in some cases striking down fleeing protesters.
In only a few minutes, by 2 pm, the carnage was over, leaving St Peter’s Fields piled with abandoned banners and the bodies of the dead and wounded – and the whole of Manchester reeling in shock. The term ‘Peterloo’ was rapidly coined, to mock the soldiers who had attacked unarmed civilians – contrasting their cowardice with the valour of troops at Waterloo, four years earlier.
On the orders of the magistrates, journalists who had been present at the event were arrested; others who went on to report the event were subsequently jailed. As a direct reaction to what he’d seen at St Peter’s Fields, the businessman John Edward Taylor went on to raise a subscription to set up the Manchester Guardian newspaper.
In the weeks that followed, most of the speakers and organizers of the rally were arraigned in court – a charge of High Treason only reluctantly being dropped by the prosecution after a public outcry. The Hussars, and the magistrates, by contrast, received a message of congratulation from the Prince Regent, and all the authorities policing the event were cleared of any wrongdoing by the subsequent official inquiry.
The indignant reaction to Peterloo was hugely influential in prompting a long-lived national debate about who should have the right to vote. After the Great Reform Act of 1832, the late 1830s saw the rise of the mass Chartist movement, with its Six Demands, which pressured governments for nearly twenty years. All those demands bar one (annual Parliaments) were later enacted, in the franchise reforms of 1867 and 1884, and successive Representation of the People Acts in the 20th Century.