From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
|Part of the history of Manchester|
|A coloured print of the Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile|
|Location||St Peter’s Field, Manchester, Lancashire, England|
|Coordinates||53°28′41″N 2°14′49″WCoordinates: 53°28′41″N 2°14′49″W|
|Date||16 August 1819|
|Assailants||Manchester and Salford YeomanryCheshire YeomanryManchester Special ConstabularyBritish Army Regulars|
The Peterloo Massacre took place at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, Lancashire, England on Monday 16 August 1819. Eighteen people died when cavalry charged into a crowd of around 60,000 people who had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 there was an acute economic slump, accompanied by chronic unemployment and harvest failure, and worsened by the Corn Laws, which kept the price of bread high. At that time only around 11% of adult males had the vote, very few of them in the industrial north, which was worst hit. Reformers identified parliamentary reform as the solution and a mass campaign to petition parliament for manhood suffrage gained three-quarters of a million signatures in 1817 but was flatly rejected by the House of Commons. When a second slump occurred in early 1819, radical reformers sought to mobilise huge crowds to force the government to back down. The movement was particularly strong in the north-west of England, where the Manchester Patriotic Union organised a mass rally in August 1819, addressed by well-known radical orator Henry Hunt.
Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest Hunt and several others on the platform with him. The Yeomanry charged into the crowd, knocking down a woman and killing a child, and finally apprehended Hunt. Cheshire Magistrates’ chairman William Hulton then summoned the 15th Hussars to disperse the crowd. They charged with sabres drawn, and between nine and seventeen people were killed and four to seven hundred injured in the ensuing confusion. The event was first labelled the “Peterloo massacre” by the radical Manchester Observer newspaper in a bitterly ironic reference to the bloody Battle of Waterloo which had taken place four years earlier.
Historian Robert Poole has called the Peterloo Massacre ‘the bloodiest political event of the 19th century in English soil’, and ‘a political earthquake in the northern powerhouse of the industrial revolution’. The London and national papers shared the horror felt in the Manchester region, but Peterloo’s immediate effect was to cause the government to pass the Six Acts, which were aimed at suppressing any meetings for the purpose of radical reform. It also led indirectly to the foundation of the Manchester Guardian newspaper. In a survey conducted by The Guardian in 2006, Peterloo came second to the Putney Debates as the event from radical British history that most deserved a proper monument or a memorial.
For some time, Peterloo was commemorated only by a blue plaque, criticised as being inadequate and referring only to the “dispersal by the military” of an assembly. In 2007, the City Council replaced the blue plaque with a red plaque with less euphemistic wording, explicitly referring to “a peaceful rally” being “attacked by armed cavalry” and mentioning “15 deaths and over 600 injuries”. In 2019, on the 200th anniversary of the massacre, Manchester City Council inaugurated a new Peterloo Memorial by the artist Jeremy Deller, featuring eleven concentric circles of local stone engraved with the names of the dead and the places from which the victims came.
Main article: Unreformed House of Commons
In 1819, Lancashire was represented by two county members of parliament (MPs) and a further twelve borough members sitting for the towns of Clitheroe, Newton, Wigan, Lancaster, Liverpool, and Preston, with a total of 17,000 voters in a county population of nearly a million. Thanks to deals by Whig and Tory parties to carve up the seats between them, most had not seen a contested election within living memory. Nationally the so-called rotten boroughs had a hugely disproportionate influence on the membership of the Parliament of the United Kingdom compared to the size of their populations: Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs, as did Dunwich in Suffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea. The major urban centres of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Stockport had no MPs of their own, and only a few hundred county voters. By comparison, more than half of all MPs were returned by a total of just 154 owners of rotten or closed boroughs. In 1816, Thomas Oldfield‘s The Representative History of Great Britain and Ireland; being a History of the House of Commons, and of the Counties, Cities, and Boroughs of the United Kingdom from the earliest Period claimed that of the 515 MPs for England and Wales 351 were returned by the patronage of 177 individuals and a further 16 by the direct patronage of the government: all 45 Scottish MPs owed their seats to patronage. These inequalities in political representation led to calls for reform.
Main article: Post-Napoleonic depression
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, a brief boom in textile manufacture was followed by periods of chronic economic depression, particularly among textile weavers and spinners (the textile trade was concentrated in Lancashire). Weavers who could have expected to earn 15 shillings for a six-day week in 1803, saw their wages cut to 5 shillings or even 4s 6d by 1818. The industrialists, who were cutting wages without offering relief, blamed market forces generated by the aftershocks of the Napoleonic Wars. Exacerbating matters were the Corn Laws, the first of which was passed in 1815, imposing a tariff on foreign grain in an effort to protect English grain producers. The cost of food rose as people were forced to buy the more expensive and lower quality British grain, and periods of famine and chronic unemployment ensued, increasing the desire for political reform both in Lancashire and in the country at large.
Radical mass meetings in Manchester
In the winter of 1816–17 massed reform petitions were rejected by the House of Commons, the largest of them from Manchester with over 30,000 signatures. On 10 March 1817 a crowd of 5,000 gathered in St Peter’s Fields to send off some of their number to march to London to petition the Prince Regent to force parliament into reform—the so-called ‘blanket march’, after the blankets which the protesters carried with them to sleep in on the way. After the magistrates read the Riot Act, the crowd was dispersed without injury by the King’s Dragoon Guards. The ringleaders were detained for several months without charge under the emergency powers then in force which suspended habeas corpus, the right to be either charged or released. In September 1818 three former leading Blanketeers were again arrested for allegedly urging striking weavers in Stockport to demand their political rights ‘sword in hand’, and were convicted of sedition and conspiracy at Chester Assizes in April 1819.
By the beginning of 1819 pressure generated by poor economic conditions was at its peak and had enhanced the appeal of political radicalism among the cotton loom weavers of south Lancashire. In January 1819, a crowd of about 10,000 gathered at St Peter’s Fields to hear the radical orator Henry Hunt and called on the Prince Regent to choose ministers who would repeal the Corn Laws. The meeting, conducted in the presence of the cavalry, passed off without incident, apart from the collapse of the hustings.
A series of mass meetings in the Manchester region, Birmingham, and London over the next few months alarmed the government. “Your country [i.e. county] will not be tranquillised until blood shall have been shed, either by the law or the sword”, the Home Secretary wrote to the Lancashire magistrates in March. Over the next few months the government worked to find a legal justification for the magistrates to send in troops to disperse a meeting when riot was expected but not actually begun. In July 1819, the magistrates wrote to Lord Sidmouth warning they thought a “general rising” was imminent, the “deep distress of the manufacturing classes” was being worked on by the “unbounded liberty of the press” and “the harangues of a few desperate demagogues” at weekly meetings. “Possessing no power to prevent the meetings” the magistrates admitted they were at a loss as to how to stem the doctrines being disseminated.:1–3 The Home Office assured them privately that in “an extreme case a magistrate may feel it incumbent upon him to act even without evidence, and to rely on Parliament for an indemnity.”
Against this background, a “great assembly” was organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union formed by radicals from the Manchester Observer. Johnson, the union’s secretary, wrote to Henry Hunt asking him to chair a meeting in Manchester on 2 August 1819. Johnson wrote:
Nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face [in the streets of Manchester and the surrounding towns], the state of this district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection. Oh, that you in London were prepared for it.
Unknown to Johnson and Hunt, the letter was intercepted by government spies and copied before being sent to its destination, confirming the government’s belief that an armed rising was planned.Samuel Bamford led a group from his native Middleton to St Peter’s Field. Following his imprisonment for “inciting a riot”, Bamford emerged as a prominent voice for radical reform.
The mass public meeting planned for 2 August was delayed until 9 August. The Manchester Observer reported it was called “to take into consideration the most speedy and effectual mode of obtaining Radical reform in the Common House of Parliament” and “to consider the propriety of the ‘Unrepresented Inhabitants of Manchester’ electing a person to represent them in Parliament”. The government’s legal advice was that to elect a representative without a royal writ for an election was a criminal offence, and the magistrates decided to declare the meeting illegal.
On 3 August however the Home Office conveyed to the magistrates the view of the Attorney-General that it was not the intention to elect an MP that was illegal, but the execution of that intention. It advised against any attempt to forcibly prevent the 9 August meeting unless there was an actual riot:
even if they should utter sedition or proceed to the election of a representative Lord Sidmouth is of opinion that it will be the wisest course to abstain from any endeavour to disperse the mob, unless they should proceed to acts of felony or riot. We have the strongest reason to believe that Hunt means to preside and to deprecate disorder.
The radicals’ own legal advice however urged caution, and so the meeting was accordingly cancelled and rearranged for 16 August, with its declared aim solely “to consider the propriety of adopting the most LEGAL and EFFECTUAL means of obtaining a reform in the Common House of Parliament”.
Samuel Bamford, a local radical who led the Middleton contingent, wrote that “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.” Instructions were given to the various committees forming the contingents that “Cleanliness, Sobriety, Order and Peace” and a “prohibition of all weapons of offence or defence” were to be observed throughout the demonstration. Each contingent was drilled and rehearsed in the fields of the townships around Manchester adding to the concerns of the authorities. A royal proclamation forbidding the practice of drilling had been posted in Manchester on 3 August but on 9 August an informant reported to Rochdale magistrates that at Tandle Hill the previous day, 700 men were “drilling in companies” and “going through the usual evolutions of a regiment” and an onlooker had said the men “were fit to contend with any regular troops, only they wanted arms”. The magistrates were convinced that the situation was indeed an emergency which would justify pre-emptive action, as the Home Office had previously explained, and set about lining up dozens of local loyalist gentlemen to swear the necessary oaths that they believed the town to be in danger.
sent to St Peter’s Field
Use a cursor to explore this imagemap.
St Peter’s Field was a croft (an open piece of land) alongside Mount Street which was being cleared to enable the last section of Peter Street to be constructed. Piles of timber lay at the end of the field nearest to the Friends Meeting House, but the remainder of the field was clear. Thomas Worrell, Manchester’s Assistant Surveyor of Paving, arrived to inspect the field at 7:00 am. His job was to remove anything that might be used as a weapon, and he duly had “about a quarter of a load” of stones carted away.
Monday, 16 August 1819, was a hot summer’s day, with a cloudless blue sky. The fine weather almost certainly increased the size of the crowd significantly; marching from the outer townships in the cold and rain would have been a much less attractive prospect.
The Manchester magistrates met at 9:00 am, to breakfast at the Star Inn on Deansgate and to consider what action they should take on Henry Hunt’s arrival at the meeting. By 10:30 am they had come to no conclusions, and moved to a house on the southeastern corner of St Peter’s Field, from where they planned to observe the meeting. They were concerned that it would end in a riot, or even a rebellion, and had arranged for a substantial number of regular troops and militia yeomanry to be deployed. The military presence comprised 600 men of the 15th Hussars; several hundred infantrymen; a Royal Horse Artillery unit with two six-pounder guns; 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry; 400 special constables; and 120 cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. The Manchester & Salford Yeomanry were relatively inexperienced militia recruited from among local shopkeepers and tradesmen, the most numerous of which were publicans. Recently mocked by the Manchester Observer as “generally speaking, the fawning dependents of the great, with a few fools and a greater proportion of coxcombs, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals, they were subsequently variously described as “younger members of the Tory party in arms”, and as “hot-headed young men, who had volunteered into that service from their intense hatred of Radicalism.” Socialist writer Mark Krantz has described them as “the local business mafia on horseback”. R J White described them as “exclusively cheesemongers, ironmongers and newly enriched manufacturers, (who) the people of Manchester … thought … a joke.”
The British Army in the north was under the overall command of General Sir John Byng. When he had initially learned that the meeting was scheduled for 2 August he wrote to the Home Office stating that he hoped the Manchester magistrates would show firmness on the day:
I will be prepared to go there, and will have in that neighbourhood, that is within an easy day’s march, 8 squadron of cavalry, 18 companies of infantry and the guns. I am sure I can add to the Yeomanry if requisite. I hope therefore the civil authorities will not be deterred from doing their duty.
He then excused himself from attendance, however, as the meeting on 9th clashed with the horse races at York, a fashionable event at which Byng had entries in two races. He wrote to the Home Office, saying that although he would still be prepared to be in command in Manchester on the day of the meeting if it was thought really necessary, he had absolute confidence in his deputy commander, Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange. The postponement to 16 August made it possible for Byng to attend after the races but he chose not to, having had enough of dealing with the Manchester magistrates. He had dealt firmly and bloodlessly with the blanketeers two years before; L’Estrange was to exhibit no such qualities of command.
The crowd that gathered in St Peter’s Field arrived in disciplined and organised contingents. Contingents were sent from all around the region, the largest and “best dressed” of which was a group of 10,000 who had travelled from Oldham Green, comprising people from Oldham, Royton (which included a sizeable female section), Crompton, Lees, Saddleworth and Mossley. Other sizeable contingents marched from Middleton and Rochdale (6,000 strong) and Stockport (1,500–5,000 strong). Reports of the size of the crowd at the meeting vary substantially. Contemporaries estimated it from 30,000 to as many as 150,000; modern estimates have been 50,000–80,000. Recent work however has lowered this. A reasonably reliable count of the numbers on the various marches indicates a total of around 20,000 who came in from outside Manchester, but the number who attended informally from Manchester and Salford is much harder to estimate. Bush argues from the casualty figures that two-thirds were from Manchester and Salford, suggesting a total crowd of 50,000, but Poole revises this to a half, bringing the total down to 40,000. Steele’s estimate of the capacity of the ground suggests 30,000 which, if correct, lowers the attendance but raises the casualty rate.
The assembly was intended by its organisers and participants to be a peaceful meeting; Henry Hunt had exhorted everyone attending to come “armed with no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience”, and many were wearing their “Sunday best” clothes. Samuel Bamford recounts the following incident, which occurred as the Middleton contingent reached the outskirts of Manchester:
On the bank of an open field on our left I perceived a gentleman observing us attentively. He beckoned me, and I went to him. He was one of my late employers. He took my hand, and rather concernedly, but kindly, said he hoped no harm was intended by all those people who were coming in. I said “I would pledge my life for their entire peaceableness.” I asked him to notice them, “did they look like persons wishing to outrage the law? were they not, on the contrary, evidently heads of decent working families? or members of such families?” “No, no,” I said, “my dear sir, and old respected master, if any wrong or violence take place, they will be committed by men of a different stamp from these.” He said he was very glad to hear me say so; he was happy he had seen me, and gratified by the manner in which I had expressed myself. I asked, did he think we should be interrupted at the meeting? he said he did not believe we should; “then,” I replied, “all will be well”; and shaking hands, with mutual good wishes, I left him, and took my station as before.
Although William Robert Hay, chairman of the Salford Hundred Quarter Sessions, claimed that “The active part of the meeting may be said to have come in wholly from the country”, others such as John Shuttleworth, a local cotton dealer, estimated that most were from Manchester, a view that would subsequently be supported by the casualty lists. Of the casualties whose residence was recorded, sixty-one per cent lived within a three-mile radius of the centre of Manchester. Some groups carried banners with texts like “No Corn Laws”, “Annual Parliaments”, “Universal suffrage” and “Vote By Ballot”. The first female reform societies were established in the textile areas in 1819 and women from the Manchester Female Reform Society, dressed in white, accompanied Hunt to the platform. The society’s president Mary Fildes rode in Hunt’s carriage carrying its flag. The only banner known to have survived is in Middleton Public Library; it was carried by Thomas Redford, who was injured by a yeomanry sabre. Made of green silk embossed with gold lettering, one side of the banner is inscribed “Liberty and Fraternity” and the other “Unity and Strength.” It is the world’s oldest political banner.A print published on 27 August 1819 depicting Hunt’s arrest by the constables
At about noon, several hundred special constables were led onto the field. They formed two lines in the crowd a few yards apart, in an attempt to form a corridor through the crowd between the house where the magistrates were watching and the hustings, two wagons lashed together. Believing that this might be intended as the route by which the magistrates would later send their representatives to arrest the speakers, some members of the crowd pushed the wagons away from the constables, and pressed around the hustings to form a human barrier.
Hunt’s carriage arrived at the meeting shortly after 1:00 pm, and he made his way to the hustings. Alongside Hunt on the speakers’ stand were John Knight, a cotton manufacturer and reformer, Joseph Johnson, the organiser of the meeting, John Thacker Saxton, managing editor of the Manchester Observer, the publisher Richard Carlile, and George Swift, reformer and shoemaker. There were also a number of reporters, including John Tyas of The Times, John Smith of the Liverpool Mercury and Edward Baines Jr, the son of the editor of the Leeds Mercury. By this time St Peter’s Field, an area of 14,000 square yards (11,700 m2), was packed with tens of thousands of men, women and children. The crowd around the speakers was so dense that “their hats seemed to touch”; large groups of curious spectators gathered on the outskirts of the crowd.
When I wrote these two letters, I considered at that moment that the lives and properties of all the persons in Manchester were in the greatest possible danger. I took this into consideration, that the meeting was part of a great scheme, carrying on throughout the country.
— William Hulton
William Hulton, the chairman of the magistrates watching from the house on the edge of St Peter’s Field, saw the enthusiastic reception that Hunt received on his arrival at the assembly, and it encouraged him to action. He issued an arrest warrant for Henry Hunt, Joseph Johnson, John Knight, and James Moorhouse. On being handed the warrant the Constable, Jonathan Andrews, offered his opinion that the press of the crowd surrounding the hustings would make military assistance necessary for its execution. Hulton then wrote two letters, one to Major Thomas Trafford, the commanding officer of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, and the other to the overall military commander in Manchester, Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange. The contents of both notes were similar:
Sir, as chairman of the select committee of magistrates, I request you to proceed immediately to no. 6 Mount Street, where the magistrates are assembled. They consider the Civil Power wholly inadequate to preserve the peace. I have the honour, & c. Wm. Hulton.— Letter sent by William Hulton to Major Trafford of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry
The notes were handed to two horsemen who were standing by. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were stationed just a short distance away in Portland Street, and so received their note first. They immediately drew their swords and galloped towards St Peter’s Field. One trooper, in a frantic attempt to catch up, knocked down Ann Fildes in Cooper Street, causing the death of her son when he was thrown from her arms; two-year-old William Fildes was the first casualty of Peterloo.
Sixty cavalrymen of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, a local factory owner, arrived at the house from where the magistrates were watching; some reports allege that they were drunk. Andrews, the Chief Constable, instructed Birley that he had an arrest warrant which he needed assistance to execute. Birley was asked to take his cavalry to the hustings to allow the speakers to be removed; it was by then about 1:40 pm.A map of St Peter’s Field and surrounding area on 16 August 1819
The route towards the hustings between the special constables was narrow, and as the inexperienced horses were thrust further and further into the crowd they reared and plunged as people tried to get out of their way. The arrest warrant had been given to the Deputy Constable, Joseph Nadin, who followed behind the yeomanry. As the cavalry pushed towards the speakers’ stand they became stuck in the crowd, and in panic started to hack about them with their sabres. On his arrival at the stand Nadin arrested Hunt, Johnson and a number of others including John Tyas, the reporter from The Times. Their mission to execute the arrest warrant having been achieved, the yeomanry set about destroying the banners and flags on the stand. According to Tyas, the yeomanry then attempted to reach flags in the crowd “cutting most indiscriminately to the right and to the left to get at them” – only then (said Tyas) were brickbats thrown at the military: “From this point the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry lost all command of temper”. From his vantage point William Hulton perceived the unfolding events as an assault on the yeomanry, and on L’Estrange’s arrival at 1:50 pm, at the head of his hussars, he ordered them into the field to disperse the crowd with the words: “Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry; disperse the meeting!” The 15th Hussars formed themselves into a line stretching across the eastern end of St Peter’s Field, and charged into the crowd. At about the same time the Cheshire Yeomanry charged from the southern edge of the field. At first the crowd had some difficulty in dispersing, as the main exit route into Peter Street was blocked by the 88th Regiment of Foot, standing with bayonets fixed. One officer of the 15th Hussars was heard trying to restrain the by now out of control Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, who were “cutting at every one they could reach”: “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!”
On the other hand, Lieutenant Jolliffe of the 15th Hussars said “It was then for the first time that I saw the Manchester troop of Yeomanry; they were scattered singly or in small groups over the greater part of the Field, literally hemmed up and powerless either to make an impression or to escape; in fact, they were in the power of those whom they were designed to overawe and it required only a glance to discover their helpless position, and the necessity of our being brought to their rescue”  Further Jolliffe asserted that “… nine out of ten of the sabre wounds were caused by the Hussars … however, the far greater amount of injuries were from the pressure of the routed multitude.” 
Within 10 minutes the crowd had been dispersed, at the cost of 11 dead and more than 600 injured. Only the wounded, their helpers, and the dead were left behind; a woman living nearby said she saw “a very great deal of blood.” For some time afterwards there was rioting in the streets, most seriously at New Cross, where troops fired on a crowd attacking a shop belonging to someone rumoured to have taken one of the women reformers’ flags as a souvenir. Peace was not restored in Manchester until the next morning, and in Stockport and Macclesfield rioting continued on the 17th. There was also a major riot in Oldham that day, during which one person was shot and wounded.
Caricature by George Cruikshank depicting the charge upon the rally
The exact number of those killed and injured at Peterloo has never been established with certainty, for there was no official count or inquiry and many injured people fled to safety without reporting their injuries or seeking treatment. The Manchester Relief Committee, a body set up to provide relief for the victims of Peterloo, gave the number of injured as 420, while Radical sources listed 500. The true number is difficult to estimate, as many of the wounded hid their injuries for fear of retribution by the authorities. Three of William Marsh’s six children worked in the factory belonging to Captain Hugh Birley of the Manchester Yeomanry, and lost their jobs because their father had attended the meeting. James Lees was admitted to Manchester Infirmary with two severe sabre wounds to the head, but was refused treatment and sent home after refusing to agree with the surgeon’s insistence that “he had had enough of Manchester meetings.”
A particular feature of the meeting at Peterloo was the number of women present. Female reform societies had been formed in North West England during June and July 1819, the first in Britain. Many of the women were dressed distinctively in white, and some formed all-female contingents, carrying their own flags. Of the 654 recorded casualties, at least 168 were women, four of whom died either at St Peter’s Field or later as a result of their wounds. It has been estimated that less than 12 per cent of the crowd was made up of women, suggesting that they were at significantly greater risk of injury than men by a factor of almost 3:1. Richard Carlile claimed that the women were especially targeted, a view apparently supported by the large number who suffered from wounds caused by weapons. A recently unearthed set of 70 victims’ petitions in the parliamentary archives reveals some shocking tales of ferocity, including the accounts of the female reformers Mary Fildes, who carried the flag on the platform, and Elizabeth Gaunt, who suffered a miscarriage following ill-treatment during eleven days’ detention without trial.
Eleven of the fatalities listed occurred on St Peter’s Field. Others, such as John Lees of Oldham, died later of their wounds, and some like Joshua Whitworth were killed in the rioting that followed the crowd’s dispersal from the field. Bush puts the fatalities at 18 and Poole supports this figure, albeit a slightly different 18 based on new information. It is these 18 whose names are carved on the 2019 memorial, including the unborn child of Elizabeth Gaunt.