The Peterloo Massacre of 1819

By L W Maher

Jacqueline Riding, The Story of the Manchester Massacre: Peterloo Foreword by Mike Leigh (An Apollo Book – Head of Zeus, 2018)

On 16 August 1819, a very large number of men, women and children, estimated to be more than 60,000, assembled at St Peter’s Field in Manchester. There were farm labourers, weavers, factory workers, plumbers, musicians, glaziers, and miscellaneous other toilers. They had come to Manchester on foot or on horseback or by carriage from towns in Lancashire and elsewhere.

As the Industrial Revolution had accelerated, the residents of market towns had settled in Manchester and comparable cities in search of work. They were destined to become “wage slaves” and to live in urban squalor. That grim social transformation was well advanced when revolutionary fervour swelled in Europe and led to popular unrest and violent upheaval.

In Britain, the plight of the emerging working class deteriorated after the allied victory over Napoleon’s forces in the Battle of Waterloo. This was in large measure a consequence of the rapid expansion of international trade and commerce and, more particularly, the passage of the Corn Laws which, in turn, increased the rumblings of the masses at the bottom of the socio-economic heap – in today’s slang, “the deplorables”.

Their political lords and masters who were well accustomed to invoking the repressive criminal law of offences against the State to suppress the slightest outbreak of democratic tendencies, now faced a new threat – the so-called “Monster” public meeting.

The purpose was to assemble as large a crowd as possible in an orderly way and to give voice to a popular demand the logic and manifest justice of which would be enough to achieve the necessary legislative change. 

Insofar as there was a one person without whom the fateful assembly at St Peter’s Field 200 years ago may not have occurred, that role could rightly be claimed by Henry Hunt (1773-1835). Hunt was a landowner and social reformer. With the encouragement of a group of like-minded supporters he had, literally, made a name for himself – “Hunt the Orator” – in addressing very large public assemblies in London in 1816.

This use of the large scale peaceful public meeting was a turning point in the long, arduous popular struggle for parliamentary democracy. Hunt and his associates were astute in realising that by painstaking organisational effort to guard against the breakdown of public order, the “deplorables” could transmit their powerful message that there was a mass movement for democratic government which could not be silenced. It was said that Hunt’s method was persuasion accompanied by the raised clenched fist! 

On St Peter’s Field, the specific demand was for the abolition of the system of “rotten Boroughs” and the right of all persons to elect their local members of the House of Commons. This was anathema to the ruling class. Hunt’s “Monster” meeting was delayed for a week, but the officials administering the law against unlawful assemblies over-reacted, and were responsible for sending members of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Calvary onto St Peter’s Field to trample on and disperse the crowd. And when, after a relatively short time, the Yeomanry had ceased using their swords to slash and cut their way through the throng, 15 of the assembled toiling class were dead or dying and 650 were injured. 

Why the “Peterloo” and not the “St Peter’s Field” massacre? Tragically, among the men present either to hear Hunt or to trample upon them were soldiers who had fought as comrades-in-arms at Waterloo. 

It is remarkable that the Peterloo Massacre has not attracted much more attention than it has given that it was a singular event in the prolonged struggle for representative democracy. In the short term it led directly to the Reform Act 1832, but as far-reaching as that democratic advance was at the time, neither Hunt nor anyone else could have predicted that the struggle for universal suffrage would not be fully accomplished in Britain until women got the vote in 1924. Here in the Antipodes, the forces of resistance had to give way earlier.  

Even without its captivating dedication––“For Lancashire Witches, past present and future”) and her account of the role of the Manchester Female Reform Society, Riding’s marvellous book is a singular achievement in illuminating the origins and dreadful consequences of the use of State violence in a period of a few hours. She has a magical way with words.Her accomplishments as a writer go well beyond those displayed in her very evocative account of the last days of the Waterloo boy-soldier, John Lees who was terribly wounded at St Peter’s Field. Ironically, among the many reasons for celebrating Riding’s book is that it deals in passing with the political satire of the time which was rightly full of hatred, contempt and ridicule.

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