In a long read, Tanya examines the events and implications of the Peterloo Massacre. You can see footage of the streets where these events took place in the second of our ‘Connections and Combinations’ videos.

The former Free Trade Hall in Manchester, site of the Peterloo Massacre. Now a hotel.

“At Waterloo there was man to man, but at Manchester it was downright murder”

Eric Hobsbawm, in his 1960s classic The Age of Revolutions, 1789 – 1848, writes principally of two, the political revolution in France and the industrial revolution in Britain.  The event that we know as Peterloo took place almost exactly in the middle of that period, on 16 August 1819, and represented conflicting elements from both revolutions.

Since 1789, Britain had, to a great extent, defined itself by not being France.  The Revolution, the deaths of Louis and Marie Antoinette, the Terror and rise of Napoleon, all were viewed with a fascinated horror as a sort of object lesson in how not to do government and why ideas, especially among the lower orders, were appallingly dangerous things.  And France, of course, had been for a large part of that period not merely a dysfunctional neighbour, but an active enemy, whose defeat was essential to the continuance of the British social and constitutional project.

The very name quickly given to the tragedy at St Peter’s Field, ‘Peterloo’, indicates the extent to which the conflict with France still dominated the public imagination.  The victory at Waterloo had been greeted as a defining moment by the British establishment, with Wellington granted extraordinary wealth as his reward for apparently saving the nation.  But now that the protracted war was over, it was time to count the cost, and that was massive.

The site of the Peterloo demonstration

As always, the price was paid by those least able to afford it, including the poor of the newly industrialised county of Lancashire.  Fifty years earlier, it would have been possible for the entire population of Lancashire to stand with ease in St Peter’s Field. Now Manchester alone, formerly a mere village, had over forty, mostly substantial, factories, employing over sixteen thousand people, and a total population of around two hundred thousand.  Factory operatives, including children, worked what are now unimaginably long hours, in difficult and dangerous environments.  And yet they were by no means the only casualties of mechanisation.  Throughout the county, skilled artisans in the dominant cotton industry saw their incomes fall, while the price of bread, under the Corn Laws, remained beyond reach.

Manchester is remembered for its radical history, but it also had a vigorously Loyalist tradition, with Church and King Clubs, Orange lodges, the burning in effigy of Thomas Paine and at least one attack on the home of a prominent reformer.  With the end of the war, the loyalist sentiment among the less well-to-do was losing some of its impetus, but among the men who made decisions, notably the magistrates, the terrible example of France hung ominously overhead.  Manchester, as such a new urban centre, had no local corporation and no Member of Parliament.  Power, as was tragically shown at Peterloo, was in the hands of those magistrates, untrained, unaccountable, partisan, fearful and ignorant.

It was not only the example of France which made them afraid.  Pressure for parliamentary reform was growing across the social and geographical spectrum, including among the working and middle classes of the North West.  Home Secretary Henry Addington, now Lord Sidmouth, influenced by his gluttonous and even more reactionary brother Hiley, saw violence, conspiracy and the overthrow of civilisation, in every corner.  A loose network of spies, employed by magistrates and the government, earned their pay by reporting, inventing, and attempting to foment revolutionary activity.  Though the reality, typified by the well-meaning but disorganised Blanketeers’ March, was somewhat less exciting, authorities both local and national convinced themselves that the country was on the verge of anarchy, and that only repressive action, such as that meted out to the Luddites, would serve to save it.  The young organisers of the Blanketeers March, in which small groups of working people planned to march to London with reform petitions, were imprisoned, including spells of solitary confinement.  After their release, not long before Peterloo they tried to flee to America but were arrested at Liverpool docks before boarding ship.

America, of course, strange as it seems to us especially this year, was a haven of free speech and liberty to English radicals of the time, and crossing the Atlantic was, if you could afford and arrange it, the best way to avoid going to gaol.

A vital part of the authorities’ repressive action, along with the criminal law which sentenced several Luddites to hang, was the military.  In addition to regiments of regular soldiers, volunteer militias carried out what could politely be called policing functions in the early nineteenth century.  To an extent they were vanity projects of wealthy men (and their wealthy wives, who delighted in the presentation of symbols and the encouragement of martial fervour), with elaborate uniforms and impressive weaponry.  Cavalry yeomen were obliged to provide their own horses, which excluded the socially unsuitable, and the hierarchy provided a convenient mirror to the corresponding structures of local power.  Manchester, as a recently expanded settlement, had no militia until shortly before Peterloo, a gap which was seen as a blemish upon its civic pride.  The formation of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, with its sky-blue uniforms and inexperienced officers, was a delight to the elite of the town – and was to be a tragedy for the working people of Lancashire.

Machinery from the cotton mills, now in a museum

With no representation in the House of Commons, Manchester was an ideal platform for a new campaign which was gaining momentum, highlighting both the scandal of ‘rotten boroughs’ and the extremely restrictive nature of the current franchise.  The plan was for mass reform meetings at which ‘legislatorial attorneys’ e.g. unofficial Members of Parliament would be elected.  Reformers in Lancashire, including leading activist  Samuel Bamford, invited the well-known Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt to come to St Peter’s Field in Manchester, address the crowds and, implicitly at least, be elected as its attorney.

Hunt was a West Country farmer by origin, and by now very much a celebrity in the reform movement.  He had only recently visited Lancashire for the first time, but his never inconsiderable vanity had been tickled by the warm reception he had received, and so he willingly agreed to address the meeting on Monday 9th August.

Meanwhile, however, the government had concluded that the election of unauthorised representatives, however symbolic their role, was an attack upon the sanctity of Parliament and constituted a ‘high misdemeanour’, effectively treason.  The local magistrates jumped at the excuse to ban the 9th August meeting and put up grammatically ambiguous but threatening posters around the district saying so.

Unfortunately Henry Hunt, down in the south of England, missed these prohibitions, and none of the Lancashire reformers thought to tell him.  He therefore arrived in Manchester on the 8th August anyway and was considerably annoyed to discover that his august presence was not required.  He was, however, mollified by the warm reception he received from the local people (possibly excluding those he had instructed to pull his carriage around the town) and agreed to stay on for the rescheduled and redefined meeting to be held a week later, again at St Peter’s Field. This time, instead of electing a representative, the intention was stated as merely being to consider what ‘legal and effectual means’ might be found to move towards the goal of parliamentary reform.

Hunt spent the intervening week as a guest in the cottage of Samuel Bamford, an experience which doesn’t seem to have been particularly enjoyable for either of them.  Meanwhile across Lancashire communities were preparing for Monday’s event, an occasion which was to be a celebration almost as much as a protest.  Because Peterloo happened in Manchester, there is a tendency to think of the participants as being primarily urban factory workers.  But, although these were certainly represented, they were far from being the majority of the people present.  For one thing, those employed in factories would have been obliged to be at work on a Monday, whereas the self-employed, such as handloom weavers, were able to take the day off, albeit no doubt at considerable financial cost.

The train from St Peter’s Square to Rochdale, birthplace of the cooperative movement

Throughout the summer groups had been preparing, originally for the meeting on the 9th, now for the 16th.  A common criticism made of working-class reformers and their demonstrations was that they were disorganised, undisciplined, a ‘rabble’.  The Lancastrians were determined to show that this was not true.  They practised drilling, marching in time in neat formation, carrying beautifully embroidered banners and the ‘caps of liberty’, referring back to freed Roman slaves and a popular symbol of contemporary reform and revolution.  Unfortunately, of course, from the authorities’ point of view, this order was even worse than being a rabble.   This looked, to men expecting the worse and accustomed to thinking in military terms, like preparations for battle.

Unaware of the increasingly frantic and paranoid letters circulating between spies, magistrates, officials and the Home Office, the people of Stockport, Bolton, Bury, Oldham and a host of other towns, looked forward to Monday’s processions.  They of course had no way of travelling to Manchester but on foot, but all were accustomed to walking what for us now would seem exceptional distances.  It was to be a community occasion, with church bands accompanying the marchers and whole families, including children, coming along.  Women in particular were prominent, though they only made up around 12 per cent of the total.  During the past few months Female Reform Unions had been set up in several Lancashire towns and their members marched together in white dresses that were to be central to the emotional iconography of the Peterloo Massacre.

The morning of Monday 16 was a bright and clear one, and in the further towns people were assembling at daybreak to begin their journey.  Henry Hunt, never knowingly undercelebrated, had persuaded some of the towns’ contingents to accompany him on his circuitous route through Manchester from Samuel Bamford’s house to St Peter’s Field.  He went via the poor districts of Newtown where many Irish families lived, and where he knew he would receive a warm welcome.

St Peter’s Field was a roughly triangular area, commonly used for large outdoor gatherings.  Wooden hustings, around eight feet high and decorated with bunting, had been put up on one side of the field in order to accommodate the speakers.  By the time Hunt arrived, thousands of people were gathered around the hustings.   The four hundred odd special constables recruited to keep the peace had originally ensured that an empty corridor was maintained between the stage and the nearby house in which the magistrates were gathered, but the reformers in response, had simply moved the hustings and surrounded them.

The special constables were not, of course, the only men physically equipped to enforce the law, or whatever the magistrates decided the law to be on that occasion.  There were around fifteen hundred soldiers from various regiments, around a thousand of them regulars and five hundred from the voluntary militias including the brand new Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry.

It was in the interests of both sides, after Peterloo, to exaggerate the number of civilians present.  For the reformers it showed the strength of their cause, for the authorities the justification for their action.  It seems likely that there were about fifty or sixty thousand, with some towns’ contingents still on their way to Manchester.

Hunt arrived at St Peter’s Field to the accompaniment of See The Conquering Hero Comes, and God Save the King, and ascended the hustings along with both other leading reformers and reporters from the Times and the Leeds and Liverpool Mercuries.

Whether it was the cry of welcome from the crowds, or simply the sight of the Orator himself, beginning his address, the magistrates peering from the windows decided that enough was already enough.  They had pre-prepared their justification for breaking up the meeting, with statements solicited from local residents setting out their anxiety and fear.  For a meeting which was ‘apt to raise a terror’ (the political uses of the word are long-standing) was, de facto, an illegal meeting against which, after the reading of the Riot Act, force could legitimately be used.

An order was made for Hunt and the other speakers to be arrested but it was claimed that, owing to the crowds surrounding the hustings, this could not be done without military assistance.  The magistrates then sought such assistance, having read the Riot Act out of a window so quietly that even an observer standing at an adjacent window did not hear it.

Quite why the military were considered to be required isn’t quite clear.  The crowds, though enthusiastically noisy, were acknowledged by impartial observers to be exceptionally peaceful.  Samuel Bamford had even recommended that his marchers leave their walking sticks at home in order to arrive demonstrably armed only with the force of their clear consciences.  And the authorities had gone over the ground first thing in the morning to remove any stones.  Joseph Nadin, the deputy constable, was an extremely unpopular man, but he had instant backup in the form of four hundred truncheons.

Whatever the justification, the military were summoned.  Unfortunately this meant two separate notes to be delivered to two separate commanding officers.  While part of the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry were on one side of St Peter’s Field, under the control of Major Thomas Trafford, the rest, along with the Cheshire Yeomanry, the Hussars and the infantry were some distance away on the other side, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange.

The message reached the smaller body first, and they galloped into St Peter’s Field.  L’Estrange took longer, leading his men by a circuitous way up and down streets to arrive close to where the magistrates were gathered.

Hunt and the others were arrested, and the order given to disperse the crowd.  Most, of course, were only too anxious to leave and hastened to do so as quickly as possible.  But the field was largely enclosed, with only a few available exits.  And at these stood the infantry with fixed bayonets, preventing people from leaving or stabbing or clubbing them as they did.  Thousands were trapped between the cavalry sabres and horse hooves and the infantry bayonets and muskets.

Many of the soldiers, and the officers who led them, were determined to treat this as a battle rather than an evacuation.  And one of the things that soldiers do in battle is to capture trophies.  The cry of “Have at their flags!” was heard, and a concerted effort to take the banners, including with lethal force. Other people were attacked for no apparent reason, even after the field was virtually empty and several were pursued and wounded after they had left the area entirely.

The relative vulnerabilities of the reformers and of the troops were of course immense.  The cavalry, who made up the bulk of the soldiers were on horseback, and armed with sabres.  The Manchester Yeomanry in particular were not practised in this type of situation and many were unable to control their horses even had they wished to do so.  The fact that they regrouped in the field before deliberately galloping into the crowd implies no great desire to minimise casualties.  It was suggested that, in the heat of that day and in their thick and elaborate uniforms, they had been quenching their thirst pretty liberally beforehand.  Whether drunk or sober, it is clear that they felt a personal animus against the reformers, and many people reported being attacked by volunteer yeoman whom they knew.

While it was reported that the Hussars, at least, attempted to use the flat of their swords against the civilians, even that, of course, would have and did cause serious injuries.  The Yeomanry, it is implied, felt no such compunction and indeed had arranged for their swords to be specifically sharpened during the days preceding the meeting.

Altogether there were over 650 casualties, nearly half of whom suffered wounds from weapons, with a quarter trampled by horses and a quarter by the crowd.  It is noticeable that although only 12 per cent of those at the meeting were women, they made up a quarter of the wounded, and this cannot be explained solely by their vulnerability in the crowd.  It appears, from the statistics as well as from accounts of the event that women, children and the elderly were disproportionately singled out for attack by the soldiers.

Eighteen people died as a result of Peterloo.  The first was a two-year old boy, William Fildes, who was knocked from his mother’s arms as the troops galloped to the field.   Eight men and two women died of wounds inflicted by sabres, bayonets and truncheons. Two men and one woman were killed by being ridden down by the cavalry and one woman fell and was crushed beneath the crowd.  One special constable was killed in a reprisal attack later that day, and two men were shot that evening by the military.

A red plaque to the victims of the massacre

Immediate responses were quick and polarised.  Journalists who had been at the scene viewed it as an outrage, a massacre and a cause of national shame.  Other publications, such as the Gentleman’s Magazine, writing of “unprincipled individuals, whose only object, under the specious names of patriotism, is to effect a Revolution, and aggrandize themselves on the ruins of their country” supported the magistrates and troops, as did the Government and the Prince Regent. The creative arts were enlisted mainly on the side of the reformers, with many poems written in memory of the dead and support of the wounded.  The most enduring is of course Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy, but there were many more ephemeral but popular works such as William Hone’s The Political House That Jack Built.

“These are THE PEOPLE all tatter’d and torn,

Who curse the day wherein they were born,

On Account of Taxation too great to be borne,

And pray for relief, from night to morn;

Who, in vain, Petition in every form,

Who, peaceably Meeting to ask for Reform,

Were sabred by Yeomanry Cavalry who,

Were thanked by THE MAN, all shaven and shorn.”


The visual arts also commemorated the events, with prints, jugs and handkerchiefs, the latter sold to raise money for the injured.  Sadly only a small proportion of the funds raised went to the working class wounded, with much used towards the legal costs of Hunt and his co-defendants.

They were tried in York, a distance impossible for the poorer witnesses and most, though not all, convicted, and sentenced to between one and two-and-a-half years in prison.  There were other legal proceedings at the inquest into one death and the civil case brought by a victim against his attacker.  In both cases, though the evidence was clearly in favour of the reformers, the verdicts went against them.

Politically, the effect was more repression, in the form of the notorious Six Acts, which outlawed most public and political meetings and imposed severe restrictions on the press.  It’s at least arguable that the Six Acts weren’t intended so much to forestall future reforming activity as to retrospectively justify the actions at Peterloo.  Meanwhile it was more than a decade before, with the Chartist movement, the campaign for reform found a popular rallying point once more.

We are, of course, approaching the 200th anniversary of the tragedy at St Peter’s Field.  Across these islands we will honour those who were killed and injured, and of course all the thousands who would have remembered the horror for the rest of their lives.  But does it have lessons for us today?  There are five particular questions which arise for me.

What is a ‘good protest’?

It is fairly universally accepted now that the processions and meeting at St Peter’s Field were a legitimate and laudable expression of the democratic will and that the authorities’ response was disproportionate and unjust.  But it did not necessarily appear so at the time.  There was an argument, a weak one, but not ludicrous, that the meeting was essentially illegal, and that was the line taken by the magistrates and government.  Do we, when laws are unjust, necessarily require that all protest must be strictly legal?  What standard do we expect of the good protestor – is it higher than that in any other circumstances?  This is what David Graeber has written in The Democracy Project about the vilification of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“even in New York in March, there was still endless discussion of a single café window that may or may not have been broken by an activist … during a march in November; as a result there was virtually no discussion of the first OWS-associated window-breaking in New York itself, which occurred on March 17.  The window in question – it was a shop window in lower Manhattan – was broken by an NYPD officer, using an activist’s head.”

And what about the cause?  We now see the universal franchise as being the foundation of our democracy, but it did not necessarily appear so at the time.  On the contrary, it was expected to lead to societal chaos, family breakdown and the end of true religion.  Are there causes today, matters of justice which we will only appreciate in hindsight? In the case of environmental issues, hindsight may be too late.


What happens when women protest?

The attacks of the press upon the members of the Female Reform Societies were virulent, aggressive and exactly like those upon the women’s suffrage movement ninety years later.  The women of the Reform Societies were not even, on the whole, seeking the vote for themselves, though it had been occasionally suggested.  They concentrated upon presenting themselves as wives and mothers, primarily concerned with home and family, with ensuring that their husbands and children were properly fed, decently clothed and able to observe the Sabbath day of rest.  But still they were caricatured as slovenly neglectful slatterns, as drunkards and nymphomaniacs.  On the day of the Peterloo meeting they dressed in white, which only served to make them clearer targets for the armed men who attacked them.  In Lancashire now, two hundred years later, there are women protesting in white, standing in silent appeal before the police and security guards who are helping to impose fracking on communities that have said no.  They too are attacked, and not spared for being over eighty.

Why do we love our banners?

Peterloo was in many ways the beginning of the culture of the protest banner, and the end of its freedom.  The Six Acts for the first time outlawed the carrying of ‘flags, banners, emblems…’ as the reformers and repressers alike realised the power of the visual symbol to represent change.  Here in Northern Ireland, of course, we’re only too well aware of the significance of certain flags and the emotions which they catalyse.  And yet it’s rare to see a piece of cloth treasured in the way that the Middleton banner has been, carried at Peterloo and recently restored.  Clothing, too, was important to the Peterloo marchers.  As well as the women in their distinctive white dresses, there were working men wearing top hats decorated with sprigs of laurel.  Those hats seem to have been viewed as a deliberate insult, a sort of sumptuary class transgression, judging from the number which were split or crushed by sabres and truncheons. Severe injuries were thereby inflicted on the heads beneath, although at least one enterprising reformer saved his skull by storing his bread and cheese lunch beneath his tall hat.

Spies and strategies – do they work?

The use of undercover agents by the authorities in observing the reform movements brought them nothing but misinformation, paranoia and a widening gulf of ignorance.  They have learned little over two hundred years.  The Green peer Baroness Jenny Jones has spoken much about the use of undercover police in infiltrating peaceful and positive environmental campaigns, attempting to provoke destruction and violence, wasting resources and leaving legacies of great pain.  The government at the time of Peterloo believed itself to be coping in a uniquely dangerous climate in which, following the opening of Parliament, a window in the Prince Regent’s carriage had been broken.  Was it a bullet, a stone or, as some said, a potato?  It hardly mattered.  Terror was among us and required a strategy.  But terror is always among in, in some shape.  As Oliver Burkeman has pointed out in The Antidote,

“Try searching Google’s library of digitised manuscripts for the phrase ‘these uncertain times,’ and you’ll find that it occurs over and over, in hundreds of journals and books, in virtually every decade the database encompasses, reaching back to the seventeenth century.”

Across the UK today we see the imposition of the government’s clumsy and brutal Prevent strategy, intended to forestall the ‘radicalisation’ of young people.  A recent article in the London Review of Books tells of a tiny Syrian refugee child, who, trying to cope with the horrors he had lived through, spent his time at nursery repeatedly drawing pictures of bombs falling from aeroplanes.  The nursery staff, following compulsory Prevent procedures, called the police, who separated the parents and questioned them. “How many times a day do you pray?”

Votes – are they all we need?

It is humbling to see the confidence of the St Peter’s Field reformers, many facing unendurable economic hardship, that if they could vote, they would find representation of their real interests and concerns.  I wonder what they would say if they could see us now.   It is also striking to consider how little formal education most received, how books and even newspapers were priced beyond their means, and yet how many contributed willingly to share pamphlets through the new Hampden reform clubs.  Even soldiers in Manchester, a few years before, had formed a society to discuss the works of Tom Paine, though they were quickly moved on when the authorities found out.  Remembering that, and looking at today’s racks of tabloid tat, it’s hard not to feel ashamed.

A final thought.  The vast majority of people in and around St Peter’s Field that day were involved in, or depended on the cotton industry.  A few of the officers, military and civilian, were making unimaginable fortunes from its growth.  Many of the reformers were handloom weavers, whose livelihoods and lives would be during the next decades, sacrificed to the productivity of the new machines.  Those who were not directly connected, especially the many magistrates who were also clergymen, preached of the divine sanctioning of the system.  God, according to their view, was intensely relaxed about the rich getting richer, while the poor accepted their dwindling lot.  As Eric Hobsbawm wrote, “money not only talked, but governed’.

But the handloom weavers and their fellow workers were not the only victims of the cotton-money nexus.  The first cotton fabrics had been imported from India, but now the Lancashire mills were beginning to outproduce the Indian artisans, and the colonial authorities were only too willing to see their native subjects suffer for the benefit of the British export trade.  Within the next two decades India was to become a major importer of British cotton. As the Chinese were to learn to their cost in the Opium Wars, it didn’t do so say no.  Over a hundred years later one man did say no on behalf of the Indian weavers; he wore their homespun cotton and, to do them great credit, many of the cotton workers of Lancashire, particularly the women, gave Gandhi their support.

But cotton, of course, can’t be grown and harvested in Britain.  It is no coincidence that the industry grew up and thrived in Lancashire, within easy reach of the slave port of Liverpool.  While the northern states of America were providing a haven for outspoken English liberals, their southern neighbours were making their part of the cotton fortunes, across the backs, the bleeding backs, of human beings kidnapped, sold, enslaved.

That is the thought that I want to end upon.  Our world is a small one, but our own concerns loom very large.  Whether in history or politics, we can become fascinated by the detail, and leave ourselves no time to trace the wider connections.  Now, more than ever, the local and the global are part of the same picture.  We are privileged to see more of that picture than ever before.  I believe we are obliged to try to make it a brighter one.

Tanya Jones

24 December 2017