Fearing revolution the British state carried out a brutal atrocity against a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration 194 years ago today. Some 60-80000 people had gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, for a rally demanding working class suffrage and an end to the corrupt political system at Westminster. The local magistrates ordered the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry to disperse the crowd. They obeyed their orders with bloodthirsty zeal, killing 15 people and wounding hundreds. One of the dead, John Lees, was an ex-soldier who had survived the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier, earning the massacre its name.
Britain in the early Nineteenth Century was a political tinderbox. A radical tradition, inspired by the French Revolution, had taken root in the 1790s and, in spite of being forced underground by reactionary legislation, continued to inform the nascent working class movement. Through the Corresponding societies, Luddism and trade unionism the working class had been posing an at times revolutionary threat to the status quo. These new working class movements tended to be strongest in the newly industrialised areas of Britain, including Lancashire. It is perhaps telling that the two slogans emblazoned on the only surviving banner from Peterloo read ‘Liberty and Fraternity’ and the other ’Unity and Strength’; one echoing the French Revolution, the other was to become a regular feature of Nineteenth and Twentieth century trade unionism.
The textile industry upon which the economy of Lancashire was built was in crisis by the late 1810s. A brief economic boom following the end of the Napoleonic Wars was followed by a catastrophic depression. Weavers and spinners were particularly badly hit. Unemployment skyrocketed and a series of poor harvests led to inflation and famine. Employers, never slow to turn a crisis to their advantage, slashed wages while remaining intensely hostile to increased taxation to cover poor relief. The average wage for a weaver fell by around two thirds between 1815 and 1819. The Corn Laws, introduced in 1815, put high tariffs on imported cereal crops making it too expensive to bring staple foodstuffs into the country. The result was that wealthy landowners profited at the expense of the working class who found it increasingly difficult to afford the necessities of life. Factory owners complained too, claiming that they were forced to pay higher wages to their workers in order to cover rising food costs, but the evidence of falling wages in this period would seem to suggest this was largely rhetoric. They were supporters of free trade on principal, out to maximise their profits.
It was the movement for electoral reform that gave expression to the widespread discontent with British society. The system was undoubtedly corrupt and undemocratic. The urban centres of Lancashire, with a combined population of around 1 million, were represented in parliament by two MPs; the same number as Old Sarum in Wiltshire which had one voter. Archaic rules varying from one constituency to another governed who was and wasn’t allowed to vote but in almost all cases you had to be rich and own land, in all cases you had to be male. Reform societies were set up all across Britain but especially in the north of England, radical newspapers flourished and there was a series of strikes where radical slogans like ‘bread or blood’ were raised. There was even a failed armed insurrection in Pentrich, Derbyshire, in the summer of 1817. Revolution seemed a real prospect.
A planned series mass meeting across the cities of the north was called for the summer of 1819 to culminate with a celebration and picnic at St Peter’s Field on 9 August. Letters exchanged between moderates involved in the organisation of the demonstration expressed concern that Manchester might be on the brink of insurrection and advised that they should exercise restraint in order to avoid violence breaking out. When these letters were intercepted by the authorities they were interpreted as evidence of a revolutionary conspiracy and the demonstration was banned. The organisers moved the date back by a week in response. The magistrates in Manchester ruled that the demonstration was still illegal and put several army regiments in the city on alert. In total just shy of 2000 soldiers, including an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, were on standby in Manchester that day.
Monday 16 August 1819 was a bright sunny day which probably boosted the numbers marching to St Peter’s Field. They came in their thousands from across Lancashire with significant contingents from all the mill towns of the region. The largest, estimated at 10000, came from Oldham. Every care was taken for the feeder marches to be orderly with demonstrators following the banners of their local reform societies. Groups set up to campaign for women’s suffrage marched in their own blocks with their own banners and were prominent on the day. When the first speaker, the popular reform advocate Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, took to the hustings a mighty roar went up from the crowd. The magistrates thought they were losing control of proceedings and called in the troops. The first on the scene were the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry. A regiment made up of volunteers from the local gentry and factory owners it had been formed two years earlier expressly to counter civil unrest in Northern England. They charged wildly, used the sharp edges of their sabres to cut down those who got in their way and trampled people underfoot. They seem to have deliberately targeted the women’s contingents; 12% of those in attendance were women but they accounted for 168 of the 654 recorded casualties.
Outrage swept the country and 200000 gathered in London to greet Hunt on his return to London. Instead of using this swell of opinion as a springboard for bigger and more militant demonstrations Hunt instead tried to take legal action against the government. The courts were in the governments pocket though and the cases got nowhere. Hunt and three other prominent reformers involved with organising the demonstration were jailed the next year for sedition. The government praised the yeomanry for their decisive action in preventing an uprising. They went on to pass the Six Acts, clamping down on the right to oppose the government through meetings, publications and demonstrations. They could not destroy the movement though. The reform societies continued to organise and their ideological heirs the Chartists took up the fight from the 1830s. Castlereagh, Eldon, Sidmouth and the other grandees of the Tory government, if they are remembered at all, are considered monstrous tyrants while the victims of Peterloo are thought of as martyrs and heroes. History has judged them.