The French Revolution and its excesses delayed many reforms that were needed due to England's rapid industrialization. The primary reform needed was more equitable distribution of representation in Parliament. One group gathered in St Peter's Fields, Manchester. The local officials ordered in the militia and a dozen were killed and many were wounded. The British government then supported the militia's actions and suppressed and reform acts. Free speech and expression was restricted and the deaths of the protesters were deemed just.

The Peterloo Massacre is the name now given to the incident that took place at St Peter's Field in Manchester on the 16th August 1819, although in the immediate aftermath of the event it was generally known either as the 'Manchester Massacre' or the 'Battle of Peterloo'. (The latter name being of course an ironic reference to the recent Battle of Waterloo.)

The Background

At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were a radical movement within Great Britain, partly inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, campaigning for such objectives as universal suffrage. Such radical ideas found some measure of support following the economic slump that gripped the country at the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, made worse by a succession of poor harvests. One of the main tactics adopted by such radicals was that of holding mass meetings, such as the one held at Smithfield in London on the 14th July 1819, chaired by 'Orator' Henry Hunt.

It was the standard practice for such mass meetings to go through the motions of electing a people's representative, thus making the point that this was a privilege denied to the people by the electoral system then in place. The moderates regarded this as a way of demonstrating the level of popular support for reform, whilst the radicals hoped that the assembled crowd could be incited to attempt an insurrection on the spot.

Although it seems unlikely that anyone contemplated initiating an insurrection in Manchester, the meeting planned there for the 9th August was indeed proposing to elect a 'legislatorial attorney', that is a working-man's popular representative for Lancashire. This meeting was however cancelled because the local magistrates issued a notice declaring that it was assembling for an illegal purpose. The organisers promptly decided to hold another meeting which was advertised for the 16th, this time to petition for parliamentary reform, as well as to protest about the cancelation of the first meeting.

On the 4th August, the Home Office wrote to the magistrates in Manchester about the proposed meeting:

Reflexion convinces him the more strongly of the inexpediency of attempting forcibly to prevent the meeting on Monday. Every discouragement and obstacle should be thrown in its way... He has no doubt that you will make arrangements for obtaining evidence of what passes; that if anything illegal is done or said, it may be the subject of prosecution. But even if they should utter sedition ... it will be the wisest course to abstain from any endeavour to disperse the mob, unless they should proceed to acts of felony or riot.(PRO, HO 41/4)

(The 'he' in this case being the Home Secretary, Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth)

The Horrid Massacre at Manchester

One thing that is important to remember is that the radical reform groups of the time were in the habit of forming themselves into 'regiments' and practising drilling in a military fashion. According to some radicals such as Samuel Bamford, this was in order to "disarm the bitterness of our political opponents by a display of cleanliness, sobreity and decorum". Other radicals of course had different ideas as to the exact purpose of such drilling, and naturally the sight of would-be revolutionaries marching around the place in military formation was extremely disturbing to those who supported the established order.

Thus on the 16th August various groups of protestors began their preparations for the meeting by drilling on the moors before marching towards Manchester brandishing banners inscribed with such popular slogans as 'Universal Suffrage', 'Equal Representation or Death', and 'No Corn Laws'. Some have asserted that "their processions with their banners and bands were more like a Sunday School outing than a military parade, with women and children as well as men in the throng". On the other hand, many of the women present were themselves organised into women's 'regiments', such as the one hundred and fifty six members of the Oldham Female Reform Club, one eyewitness John Tyas describes how the protestors "marched to the sound of the bugle, and in very regular time, closing and expanding their ranks, and marching in ordinary and double-quick time, according as it pleased the fancy of their leader", whilst another a special constable named Robert Mutrie, described the marchers as appearing "in regular military order with monstrous clubs over their shoulders".

Estimates of the number of people who turned up at St Peter's Field vary widely from 40,000 to 80,000 people, but whatever the exact number present it appears to have been far in excess of that anticipated by the authorities. The local magistrates under their chairman William Hulton had called out the special constables, the Manchester Yeomanry and the 15th Hussars and became increasingly nervous as they saw the size of the growing crowd. Notwithstanding the Home Secretary's advice they decided to arrest the speakers and sent in the yeomanry to accomplish the task.

According to John Tyas, the correspondent for The Times newspaper;

It appears by every account that has yet reached London, that in the midst of the Chairman's speech, within less than twenty minutes from the commencement of the meeting, the Yeomanry Cavalry of the town of Manchester charged the populace sword in hand, cut their way to the platform, and with the police at their head, made prisoners of Hunt and several of those who surrounded him - seized the flags of the Reformers - trampled down and cut down a number of the people, who, after throwing some stones and brickbats at the cavalry in its advance towards the hustings, fled on all sides in the utmost confusion and dismay.

The yeomanry were the nineteenth century equivalent of the Territorial Army or the National Guard, and as part-time soldiers they lacked a certain amount of military discipline and training. Indeed there are some suggestions that the Manchester Yeomanry may well have been drunk at the time. But drunk or not, it is certain that the Yeomanry rather lost their cool; at one point they even attacked the special constables (the previously mentioned Robert Mutrie was hit on the head). A total of eleven people, including one constable and one cavalryman were killed, whilst over a hundred people were injured (estimates run as high as six hundred.) Such actions naturally inflamed the passions of the assembled multitude and the result was a mass brawl, with the crowd throwing stones for an hour or two. This continued until the commander of the Hussars persuaded the magistrates to read the Riot Act, and allow them to deal with the situation. Being professional soldiers the Hussars knew how to use the flats of their swords and were thus able to disperse the crowd without any further serious casualties. The town however continued to be in a state of turmoil and it took a further week to restore calm in Manchester.

After the Massacre

It has been said that Peterloo "more than any other single event in the period 1815-1832, helped feed the hostility of working class reformers to the government". Although to be fair most of these reformers were already pretty hostile to the government, particularly since it was the intention of the most radical of them to violently overthrow said government and replace it with one of their own. Indeed the massacre had little to do with the government who, as we have seen, had issued specific instructions to the magistrates to refrain from breaking up the meeting and to only act if they saw "acts of felony or riot"; the fault lay with the local magistrates for over-reacting and employing men ill-qualified to perform the task allotted to them.

At the time Britain was very far from being a police state, only about a dozen civil servants worked in the Home Office, there was no national police force, and the maintenance of any semblance of order depended on the unpaid work of the local magistrates. Therefore despite the fact that the Manchester magistrates were clearly responsible for a number of deaths and injuries, "there remained," in the words of the Prime Minister, the Earl of Liverpool, "no alternative but to support them". As Liverpool wrote to his cabinet colleague George Canning on the 23rd September 1819, "When I say that the proceedings of the magistrates at Manchester ... were justifiable, you will understand me as not by any means deciding that the course which they pursued on that occasion was in all its parts prudent"; whilst Canning himself commented "It is, to be sure, very provoking that the magistrates, right as they were in principle, and nearly right in practice, should have spoilt the completeness of their case by half an hour's precipitation". The point was that the government feared that if they failed to back the magistrates that they would resign, and that without the support of the magistrates they would be unable to maintain order in the country.

The deaths of nine protestors, one cavalryman and one special constable naturally transformed the St Peter's Field meeting into an event of national consequence. Thanks to the presence of John Tyas of The Times, that newspaper gave particular prominence to the incident, although Tyas's account of events was by no means unbiased; he was only present at the meeting at the organisers invitation and The Times was a Whig paper at the time and therefore as keen as the radicals themselves to find reasons to attack the Tory government.

The radical press joined in the chorus of disapproval, most notably Richard Carlile who wrote of the 'Horrid Massacre at Manchester' in William Sherwin's Weekly Political Register and was, together with Tyas of The Times, responsible for establishing what came to be the standard interpretation of the event as a deliberate and wicked attempt by the government to silence the radical opposition. Thus the radical press talked of retribution, and some individuals began arming themselves with sundry home made weapons, with Bamford himself proclaiming, "May the Tree of Liberty be planted in Hell, and may the Bloody Butchers of Manchester be the fruit of it!", but nothing much actually happened.

Hunt, Bamford and two others were arrested and accused of "being persons of a wicked and turbulent disposition" who had "conspired together to create a disturbance of the peace ... in a formidable and menacing manner, with sticks, clubs and other offensive weapons." All four were convicted; Hunt was sentenced to two and a half years, whilst the other three received a year's imprisonment.

As a result of his article Richard Carlile was threatened with prosecution for seditious libel, but the charge was later dropped. He was however already facing an earlier charge of blasphemy, on which he was convicted on the 19th December.

For its part the government decided to pass the Six Acts in order to prevent any further such disturbances. In this regard it was largely succesful as there were no further protest meetings on the scale of Peterloo. Indeed for all the fuss made about the 'Peterloo Massacre' it seems to have convinced both radical and moderate reformers of the ineffectiveness of the mass public meeting as a tactic for pressing their case.


SOURCES

  • Paul Johnson, The Birth of the Modern (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991)
  • The Peterloo Massacre, 16 August 1819 http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/town/terrace/adw03/c-eight/distress/peterloo.htm
  • Peterloo, the Six Acts, and after from Erskine May, Vol. II, Chapter X, pp. 353-368 http://home.freeuk.com/don-aitken/emay2v353.html

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