07 September 2019

The Peterloo massacre in Manchester, 1819

Since the 1815 Napol­eonic wars, town and village labourers strug­gled with life in Britain. Bad harvests and high food prices left them starving, but they were most disgruntled because workingclass men were not rep­res­ented in Parl­iament. The growth of industrial towns continued and there were radical riots in 1816 and 1817. And again in 1819, a year of industrial depres­s­ion and very high food prices. But only 5% of adults were allowed to vote across Britain. Manchester, industrial heart of the cotton trade with 200,000 people, had no member of parliament.

Post-war, in­c­reasing numbers of disenfranchised workers in in­dust­rialising areas became inv­olved in the movement for reform. Under the influence of farmer-campaigner Henry Orator Hunt and journal­ist William Cobbett, they began to campaign for universal male suffrage. They argued that extending the vote to working men would lead to bet­ter use of public money, fairer taxes and an end to trade rest­ric­tions which damaged industry & caused unempl­oyment.

I read Jacquelin Riding’s excellent work on the Manchester Mass­acre of August 1819, but I wasn’t sure what the “British peoples’ time-honoured libert­ies” were and how the story of the Peterloo mass­acre was a "defining moment in the history of British democracy".

In Aug 1819, c75,000 people gathered at St Peter's Fields Manch­est­er, the peak of the peaceful political rallies. The people attend­ed from Manchester itself, from Liverpool or adjoin­ing coun­ties. Despite the cause’s ser­ious­ness, there was a party atmosphere as groups of people dressed in their Sunday best marched towards Manchester. The procession was accompanied by bands play­ing music and dancing. No one was armed and behaviour was peace­ful. They heard speech­es, by the charismatic Hunt etc, prot­est­ing against working conditions and demanding parliam­entary reform.

Britons Strike Home! 
Illustration by George Cruikshank, 1819.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The nervous magistr­ates were al­armed by the size & mood of the crowd, believing the crowd had revolutionary intentions. To them, the organised marching, banners and music were more like those of an army troop drilling its recruits. They ordered the Manchester Yeom­anry, a force of volunteer soldiers, to be ready. Henry Hunt had spoken only a few sentences when he saw the mounted Manchester Yeo­manry galloping into the crowd.

The people panicked as the sold­iers charged and were crushed. As the mood grew angrier, the local magist­rates ordered the reading of the Riot Act. When this failed to calm things down, the yeoman­ry were ordered to charge. The volunteer soldiers used sabres on the crowd, so survivors hid themselves in a Quaker Meet­ing House, alongside the field.

Then the chairman of the magistrates ordered 600 Hussars and the Cheshire Volunteers to clear the fields with 6-pounder guns; in 10 min­utes only the corpses remained. c500 people were injured and c20 killed, including many women. Hunt and the other leaders were arrested, tried and convicted, Hunt being prisoned for two years.

The names of the injured were printed, along with details of their wounds, so that sympathisers could donate charity. But these lists probably underestimated the real numbers; many were afraid to risk further official reprisals. The 1819 Manchester massacre was comp­ared to the 1815 Battle of Wat­­erloo and was named after that earl­ier tragedy. Al­though there was no such city, the name “Peterloo” came to symbolise Tory tyrannical response to reformers.

The Massacre of Peterloo! or a Specimen of English Liberty by JL Marks.
The Guardian

There was great public sympathy for the plight of the protesters. Times Newspaper account caused a wide-spread outrage that unit­ed reformers with the radical supporters of un­iv­ersal suffrage. A HUGE petition with signatures was raised, stating the petitioners’ belief that the Aug meeting had been peaceful, until the arrival of the soldiers.

Mass meetings for parl­iam­entary reform and for the repeal of the Corn Laws were planned in Stock­port and Manchester in 1819. There were meetings all over the N.E counties where 50,000 miners marched into Newcastle from nearby districts. In Oct & Nov, workers across the country stocked wea­pons to defend them­sel­ves, then gathered in Newcastle, Wolverhampton, Wigan, Bolton and Blackburn.

Yet the Government sanctioned the magistrates’ and yeomanry act­ions, and the quick passing of the repressive 6 Acts in Dec 1819:

1. Training Prevention
2. Seizure of Arms
3. Seditious Meetings
These 3 bills were designed to prevent intimidation and violence.

4. Blasphemous and Seditious Libels
5. Newspaper Stamp Duties
These 2 bills were intended to curb press agitation, a legal but nasty crackdown on the public and press freedom.

6. Misdemeanours Bill re­stricted the right of appeal of those ch­arged with such offen­ces, giving the government powers to deal harshly with even slight expressions of discontent. The gov­ernment did not intend to give in to radical demands for parliamentary reform as was made very clear by the Prince Regent at the opening of Parliament in Nov 1819.

Ironically, the attempt to silence government critics encour­aged journalists to develop inventive new ways of conveying the reform message. Writers and journalists sum­med up the reformers’ grievances with very popular works, ref­lecting both the anger ov­er Peterloo and the cleverness of satire.

What was the impact of the massacre in the short and longer term? Habeas Corpus was revived early in 1818 and the Seditious Meet­ings Act lapsed in July. However economic distress returned in late 1818 and radicalism revived in 1819, reaching its peak in the Pet­er­loo Massacre. Some radicals considered plans for a rising in London in Oct 1817, and in Feb 1818 plotted to assassinate mem­bers of the government. The rest of the radical group mollified their tactics and continued their mission in ass­ociation with Henry Hunt, making significant progress in Lancashire.

The use of violence re Peterloo was officially endors­ed by the au­thorities. So the leading Whigs were unanimous in their den­un­ciat­ion of brut­al­ity, but how closely should they have involved the party in a rad­ical protest movement? At a York­shire county meet­ing in Oct, the county adopted the resolutions that Whig Earl Fitz­wil­liam drafted: the right to public assembly and con­demn­ation of unlawful interference with it. This spurred further Whig meet­ings in 9 other counties but they failed. The dismiss­al of Fitz­wil­­liam as Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire in Oct angered all Whigs and their leader en­couraged attendance for a robust parliam­entary campaign. The Tory government’s reaction DID strengthen Whig belief in essential parliamentary reform.

Peterloo had high­lighted the tenuous nature of authority in indus­t­rialising Britain and led, in the 1820s, to a fundamental review on maintaining law and order. Nonetheless in Apr 1822, a case was brought against members of the Manchester Yeomanry in Lanc­as­ter. Because the court rul­ed that their actions had been jus­t­ified in disp­ers­ing an illegal gath­er­ing, they were all acquitted. 

Peterloo remained a key moment in Britain’s suffrage history. So it was more ob­vious than ever that the government could only counter dissent with repress­ion. This eventually led to the Great Reform Act of 1832, in which 67 new constituencies were created, including two for Manchester. The male vote was modestly extended.

White metal medal 1819, struck after the event.
Front: yeomanry riding into the crowd, one man holding up a cap of liberty on a pole.
Reverse: The wicked have drawn out the sword/They have cut down/The poor and needy/And such as be of/Upright conversation (Psalms)

Looking at History was wonderful. Historians acknowledged that Peterloo was hugely inf­l­uential in ord­inary people winning the right to vote and led to the rise of the Chartist Movement and thence the Trade Unions. To examine Peterloo’s continuing significance is for democracy today, look no further than Syria and Turkmenistan and perhaps, eventually, Hongkong.

The Peterloo Bicentenary will be in Manchester in Aug 2019 till Feb 2020.


your old mate said...

Good to see you today, Helen
Tory tyrannical response to reformers!I am not sure that too much has changed today, especially in Hong Kong as you mentioned.

Hels said...

old mate

Hong Kong also started the protest marches in a great mood, with lots of young people and families. I did't expect the pro-Chinese sections of the parliament, police and army to have paid attention to Manchester's crisis of 1819, but most people now fear a Peterloo-type catastrophe on that tiny island.

Fun60 said...

I was brought up in Manchester but it was many, many years before I knew anything about Peterloo. It seemed to have been a forgotten part of our history. The 200 year anniversary of the atrocities of that day have reminded people of the sacrifices that took place in the fight for suffrage.

Hels said...


nations only "forget" the parts of their history that are embarrassing or irrelevant to modern generations. For example we rightly know absolutely everything about WW1 but nothing whatsoever about the British/French/USA/Japanese invasion into North Russia in 1918-9. The foreign troops massacred thousands of Russian soldiers, ex soldiers and civilians who had been their strongest allies before the Russian Civil War!!! And now the Allies were on the side of the White Movement *sigh*.

In Manchester I think unemployment and starvation were the most critical issues, but it would never be resolved if only the rich had votes and the poor were disenfranchised. And look how long that took to sort out!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is always a bad sign of underlying conditions when a government starts attacking its own people. The Kent State shootings absolutely electrified the country at the time, yet I wonder if many young people today in the U.S. could explain the issues (or even have heard of the shootings!).

Universal and accessible voting rights are of the highest importance--for proof, just look at any time such rights have been limited or removed, even recently in the U.S.

Andrew said...

Good read. The Tories seem to have a long history of shooting themselves in the feet.

Hels said...


Yes indeed. Kent State was an event that put horror in the hearts of every university student in the world. Although I knew student protesters were mistrusted by the American and Australian governments in 1970, the idea of National Guardsmen opening fire on 18-20 year olds on their own campus was beyond thinking about.

Hels said...


Puns are the finest form of human wit :)

The second highest form of wit, at least in this country, is irony.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I wasn’t familiar with this story. I’m not surprised the upper crust didn’t want to allow the peasants to vote!

There is a reference to the voting issue in Blackadder 3, where Edmund Blackadder says, “Look at Manchester. Population 200,000, electoral roll 3.”

Hels said...


exactly so. Blackadder was spot on!

If working families got the vote, they would be concerned with full employment, proper wages, free schooling for all families, a fair distribution of taxes etc. The moneyed classes would have been horrified by these priorities.

bazza said...

Last year Mike Leigh's film Peterloo was released in the UK to very mixed critical response.
He is a virulently anti-Israel member of the Labour Party and actually hid the fact that he himself is Jewish until about ten years ago!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s justly jocular Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Many thanks. I didn't realise the film Peterloo came to Australia last year, so I read the reviews just now and they seem to have been largely positive - just too long and too much film time spent on discussions in closed offices. I wouldn't have gone myself because of the violence, but I would have sent my beloved to review the film for me.

Re Mike Leigh's beliefs. Christian and Islamic anti-Semitism are frightening enough, but Jewish anti-Semitism is truly foul.

mem said...

Interesting post . Apparently allot of these radicals were transported to Australia where they were soon employed as ticket of leave men and were able to write and keep in touch witth their American fellow travelers .These men formed the basis of our Own Australian ideas on universal suffrage so Peterloo had an direct effect on Australian democracy.

Hels said...


It is complex *nod*. I would love it if these men really did create our own Australian ideas of universal suffrage, based on Peterloo. But I fear that it had a limited direct effect on Australian democracy because
a] most people outside Manchester had never heard of Peterloo and
b] Australian male suffrage in the 1850s was very excited by the democratic spirit of our own Eureka Rebellion. Yes there were democratic urges coming from overseas, but we Australians were mainly ahead of the curve.

mem said...

I saw or heard a piece by Michael Cathcart on the influence of the Chartists on The growth of Democratic awareness in australia. I think it wasn't so much Peterloo but rather the type and caliber of the convicts sent to Australia

Jenny Woolf said...

I must say that Peterloo has crossed my mind recently. There have been appalling shenanigans going on in our Parliament as I daresay you know, with the Tory PM unlawfully closing down Parliament in order to force through something with the aid of his cabinet that MPs don't want. There has been plenty of protest marching and a huge amount of anger from millions of ordinary people against this, but very little marching in support of the PM. Interesting times here.

Hels said...


I think Brexit was and is a terrible concept, with whatever conditions Boris organises. It is unthinkable that Britain would move to a populist but isolated position, cut off from the rest of Europe.

But in these difficult times, is it possible to learn any moral or political lesson from Peterloo? Yes, whenever the authorities in the UK believed the Great Unwashed had revolutionary intentions, those authorities responded with fear and often violence. Often times the fear of revolution was ludicrous but in any case, shooting down innocents was obscene.

Hels said...


I normally think of civil disturbances in Britain to be those between Catholics and Protestants, but in this case the events were based on working class starvation and disenfranchisement. Thus Chartism would have been the perfect response: a working-class protest movement for political reform in Britain. Unfortunately for Peterloo, the Chartists didn't exist until well after 1819.

Support for the Chartist movement peaked in Britain in the 1840s, in perfect time for the 1850s gold rushes in Australia. So you are spot on. Hundreds of Chartists were transported here, and did their best work here!