Updated: May 15, 2022
‘Stand fast,’ I said, ‘they are riding upon us; stand fast.’ And there was a general cry in our quarter of ‘Stand fast.’
Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical (1840 -1844)
Men, women, and children gathered on August 16, 1819, at St. Peter's Field, situated at the southern edge of Manchester, England. Some sixty thousand strong, they represented the working class of Manchester and the surrounding textile centers of Rochdale, Oldham, Stockport. It was a Monday, the usual day off for textile workers, and the people were dressed in their finest clothes. Colorful banners sported slogans such as "Unity and Strength," "Liberty and Fraternity," and "Suffrage Universal." There were marching bands playing music. One observer remarked: “There were crowds of people in all directions, full of good humor, laughing and shouting and making fun." Noted reformer Samuel Bamford had led a contingent from the village of Middleton. Famed orator, Henry Hunt had traveled north from London to speak to the gathered crowd. Those in attendance hoped to petition for reform of the English parliamentary system.
Manchester, like many north England cities, was growing at a fast pace. Over the past fifty years, its population had quadrupled. The advent of the Industrial Revolution had brought in people from all over England and Ireland for better wages in the new factories. Mechanical looms had displaced the home base workforce of the traditional textile industry. With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the decades of war in Europe ended, and England, as did much of the continent and the United States, slumped into an economic depression. Wages were half of what they had been. A succession of poor harvests brought about higher food prices. (Little did anyone realize at the time, volcanic eruptions in Indonesia had impacted the global climate.) The imposition of taxes on grain products called the Corn Laws did not help matters. Dissatisfaction was rampant, and there began calls for reform. Some wished to make Parliament more responsive and, in turn, create fairer representation.
Despite its growth, Manchester had no representation in the House of Commons. This was true for many areas of northern England. Representation was skewed to the south, where there were several so-called "rotten boroughs." These were areas with such few voters, but they were still able, because of a powerful local family, to send a representative to Commons. On top of this, roughly only 7% of the male population could vote. Local societies began to organize mass meetings. These reformers were influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution and Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, written in 1792.
The Tory government of England acknowledged the need for reform, but at the same time, the French Revolution was a fresh memory, and many feared something similar in Great Britain if they did too much at once. Government resources were limited, though. Local militias and troops were called in to maintain order, and the government used informants to keep officials apprised of any rebellious activity. The four years following the end of the wars were somewhat turbulent, with several small but manageable uprisings. Before the war ended, a group known as the Luddites, fearing their jobs being lost to machines, set about randomly destroying machinery throughout the north and Midlands. In 1817, "Blanketers," so-called because of the blankets they carried to keep warm, made an unsuccessful attempt to march from Manchester to London to petition the king for food. The ringleaders of an uprising in Derbyshire became an example of government reprisals. They were hanged and beheaded. Closer to Parliament, in December of 1816, a meeting at Spa Fields turned violent when a small faction urged those in attendance to storm the Bank of England. The problem the government faced was distinguishing between peaceful groups and the more violent factions. On the one hand, some openly advocated the common ownership of property and the abolition of the aristocracy. But even among the more peaceful groups, speakers often flirted with violent rhetoric to rile the passions of a listening crowd.
Throughout 1819 there were more widespread meetings advocating different reform measures, including one early in the year at St. Peter's Field in Manchester. As soon as reform advocates announced another meeting for August 16th, local Manchester officials, businessmen, and factory owners became nervous, especially after hearing potential crowd sizes. More so after Henry Hunt was booked as one of the speakers. Hunt, known as the "Orator," was a well-known speaker for reform, and he had a reputation, at least among authorities, for being a rabble-rouser. During the summer, he had spoken at several meetings across England. Before the Manchester meeting, he received assurances from the magistrates that the gathering was legal and could proceed. The organizers themselves did all they could to ensure this would be a peaceful meeting. They trained to do their own crowd control, and they implored that people did not do and bring anything that might be misconstrued as being violent.
One could only imagine what the magistrates thought as they watched thousands of people pour into Manchester. Whatever it was, they grew apprehensive that the crowd would be unmanageable. In March, the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, had lent his support in suppressing reform meetings "by the law or by the sword." Even so, government officials had urged caution, but the local authorities became anxious. They called in the recently organized Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, a part-time cavalry militia unit. These were businessmen, owners, and their sons, and they spent most of the morning drinking. Also present was a regular cavalry unit, the 15th Hussars, and several hundred infantry with cannon. The magistrates also imported outside Tories to testify that the town was in possible danger.
Henry Hunt was scheduled to speak at around 1:00 PM. He took to the stage along with reformer Samual Bamford and others. He didn't get far into speech before the Manchester magistrates ordered his arrest. The Riot Act was then read out to the crowd. (The Riot Act of 1714 allowed the government to break up gatherings of 12 or more by reading a warning to disperse within an hour.) No one likely heard the official warning, but the magistrates also didn't wait the required hour. The military was called in to clear a path to the stage for the constables. The inexperienced yeomanry, drunk and itching for action, charged out from the side streets into the crowd. People had packed in around the makeshift stage where Hunt was addressing the crowd. The yeomanry drew their sabers to slash through the mass of people. Panic slowly crept in as there was no room for escape. The Hussars were then called in to free the trapped yeomanry. From that point, confusion took over the field. As one witness recalled, "As the cavalry approached the dense mass of people, they used their utmost efforts to escape but so closely were they pressed… that immediate escape was impossible… a scene of dreadful confusion ensued.”
Those in the crowd tried to escape in the midst of the confusion. In the crush, people were trampled by those seeking to escape both blade and hoof. Some sought refuge in buildings or became trapped on cellar stairs. Others were pressed hard against walls or railings. Several men, women, and children lay on the ground. Within twenty minutes, the military emptied the entire field. Eighteen people died that day or later due to injuries. Several hundred people suffered injuries and wounds.
Local newspaperman James Wroe would dub the incident the "Peterloo Massacre," a pun on the battle of Waterloo. Wroe would be imprisoned, and his newspaper shut down as part of the government reprisal against the reformers. A new reform-minded paper would be stated as the Manchester Guardian - currently just the Guardian. Conservative Tories held up "Peterloo" as an example of law and order triumphing over radical discontents. At the time, democracy was associated with the French Revolution and the rule of the mob. The response of the government was severe. No official inquiry was made into the actions of the Manchester magistrates, and Parliament passed a set of laws, the "Six Acts," that restricted freedom of assembly and the press. Hunt, Bamford, and others were tried and sentenced in York in 1820. They served two years in prison.
Despite this, moderate reformers eventually were able to enact changes. The Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884 gradually expanded the franchise and redistributed seats in Parliament. In 1918, the property requirement for voting would be abolished for men, and women would earn the right to vote. After World War I, when England suffered from some of the same conditions of demobilization, economic depression, and labor troubles as they did after the Napoleonic Wars, trade unions, labor parties, and other working-class movements adopted the memory of "Peterloo." They saw "Peterloo" as part of the larger struggle between labor, employers, and the authorities. Since the mid-twentieth century, historians have shifted the focus of "Peterloo" towards the underlying causes, the role of the magistrates, and how perceptions of class played a part in what occurred on August 16, 1819.
Memories of a Massacre: Katrina Navickas (History Today)
The Peterloo Massacre: Robert Reid
Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre: Jacqueline Riding
Peterloo: The English Uprising: Robert Poole