As hundreds of “Kill the Bill” protestors recently gathered in Manchester city centre, it felt timely to remember the Peterloo Massacre. The objective of “Kill the Bill” protesters is to stop police and government from imposing conditions on non-violent protests, thus, a parallel arises between this topical issue and the Peterloo Massacre. Post-Napoleonic War Britain was wrought with debt and poverty. The country faced an industrial depression and victory in France was becoming a distant memory. Returning soldiers were dismayed at the state of the country and The French Revolution sparked waves of revolutionary thought in Britain, inspiring those who felt unrepresented by their government to take action against authority.
On the 16th of August 1819, in what is now St Peter’s Square, over sixty thousand peaceful protestors gathered to hear “Orator” Henry Hunt speak, with the aim of invoking government reform. Despite the organised, civilised nature of the protest, the crowd was charged by paramilitary yeomanry, which resulted in the death of over fifteen civilians. Later nick-named the Peterloo Massacre, it was seen as an unforgivable failure for a government who had won a famed victory at Waterloo, just four years previously.
The massacre, albeit avoidable and unjust, paved the way for working-class activism in the following years. Peterloo became a catalyst for the mobilisation of reformers, such as John Taylor Edwards who witnessed the massacre. In 1821, Edwards established the Manchester Guardian which sought to promote liberal interests and political equality. Edwards sent his account to the London press to ensure the authorities could not manipulate the public narrative. Further political movements were inspired by the massacre such as the Anti-Corn Law League. Manchester was an integral hub for industry and manufacturing, and in 1838, the Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association was formed, with the site of the massacre used as the group’s base.
Most notably, the Chartist movement fought for the same cause upon which the Peterloo victims had fallen. As the first mass working-class movement in the country, Chartists demanded universal male suffrage. By 1918, five of the six Chartist demands had been achieved, making politics more accessible to those it once severely disadvantaged. The Peterloo Massacre changed parliamentary democracy and gave new political agency to the working class, making it a considerable turning point in British history. With current attempts to limit protestors’ freedoms, it is paramount to question whether our society is respecting the historical legacy of Peterloo and protecting our right to peacefully protest. Peterloo is a reminder that it is essential to maintain the right to protest, and, despite the ruthless attempts by the establishment to quell their voices, the Peterloo activists had a monumental impact on the political landscape of the nineteenth century.