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The Peterloo Massacre

On the 16th of August1819, the area around what is now St Peter’s Square in Manchesterhosted an attack on 60,000 peaceful protesters in what became known as thePeterloo Massacre.It took place against the international backdrop of the American Revolution, French wars and famine and unrest in Ireland; and reflected the political, social and economic discontentin Britain.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 meant that an indigenous British radicalism which had continually romanticised the fight for liberty during the civil wars turned to France for inspiration. Thomas Paine’s rhetoric that it was necessary to sweep system away in order for individuals to claim their voting rights to participate as a citizen was particularly potent. With a constitution based on property and a monarchy based on divine right, this simple, heady idea that you were given rights at birth captured the hearts of many Englishmen. This frightened theconservative, aristocratic British establishment which reacted by introducing restrictions to civil liberties: the suspension of Habeus Corpus, the Treasonable Practices Act, and the Seditious Meetings Act.

Social dislocationaroseas part of the Industrial Revolution. A change in practices, particularly in textiles, which led to an increase of machines operated by women and children, came at a time when there was an excessive pool of labour with the demobilisation of soldiers and sailors from war.This gave rise to anti-industrial movements such as Luddismand the Blanketeers.

Post-1815, chronic economic depressionensued among textile workers in Lancashire. Weavers, who earned 15 shillings for a six-day week in 1803 saw their wages cut to 4s 6d by 1818. Exacerbating matters were the 1815 Corn Laws which imposed a tariff on foreign grain to protect English producers. The cost of food rose, famine and chronic unemployment ensued, increasing the desire for political reform.

Economic and social dislocation was politicised in Manchesterbecause of growing discontent at theinequalities in the British constitution. In 1819, Lancashire was represented by two Members of Parliament. Voting was restricted to adult male owners of freehold land with an annual rental value of 4 shillings or more; and votes could only be cast by a public spoken declaration. Constituency boundaries were out-dated, and so-called rotten boroughs had a hugely disproportionate influence on the membership of Parliament compared to the population. These inequalities led to calls for reform and enhanced the appeal of political radicalism among the weavers of south Lancashire.

In response a ‘great assembly’ was organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union. A group formed by radicals from the Manchester Observer, Joseph Johnson and James Wroe. Johnson, wrote to theorator Henry Hunt asking him to chair a meeting. Its aim was to raise the profile of reform by a peaceful demonstration of a great number of workers.

On the morning of 16th August a crowd gathered. The speaker’s platform wastrimmed with banners bearing the words REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATIONand LOVE;and topped with the red cap of liberty.Magistrates panickedand ordered the crowd to disperse.600 Hussars, several hundred infantry, an artillery unit, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables waited as the local Yeomanry arrested the speakers. Manyhad old scores to settle with the leading protesters. A Yeomanry officer called out “There’s Saxton…run him through.” ‘Peterloo’ mocked the soldiers who attacked unarmed civilians by echoing ‘Waterloo’in which they had been seen as genuine heroes. An estimated 18 people died and over 700 were seriously injured in the name of liberty and freedom.

By 2pm the field was left strewn with abandoned banners and dead bodies. Journalists present were arrested; others who reportedon the event were subsequently jailed. The speakers and organizers were put on trial. The Hussars and Magistrates received messages of congratulations from the Prince Regent, and were cleared of any wrong-doing by an official inquiry. Businessman John Taylor, who had witnessed the aftermath, went on to set up the Manchester Guardian in response. Percy Bysshe Shelley, living in Italy, found out about the massacre and “the torrent of my indignation”, as he put it, flowed into his epic poem The Masque of Anarchy which reflected the widespread public outrage and condemnation of the government’s role in the massacre.

The legacy of Peterloo is great. According to the director of the People’s History Museum in Salford: “Peterloo is a critical event not only because of the number of people killed and injured, but because ultimately it changed public opinion to influence the extension of the right to vote and give us the democracy we enjoy today” with the passing of the Great Reform Act.