Peterloo massacre illustration credit MEPL

The Peterloo massacre - 200 years on

This year marks the 200th anniversary of a key event for democracy and the trade union movement in Britain – one that was brushed under history’s carpet for many years. David Wibberley tells the story….

It was a peaceful rally to call for political reform. It ended in a bloodbath in which 18 people died and 700 were injured. On 16 August 1819 in the area around what is now St Peter’s Square in central Manchester, 60,000 to 80,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters gathered. What followed became known as the Peterloo Massacre – the bloody Battle of Waterloo had taken place only four years earlier.

The horror of the event was airbrushed from official history; the original commemorative plaque, in place until 2007, mentioned only the “dispersal” of the crowd.

In the early 1800s, only 2 per cent of the British population had the vote. It was a time of immense political tension and mass protests; hunger was rife with the Corn Laws making bread unaffordable. Political power in the early 19th century was dependent on social status. Even the new wealth of industrialists and the growing middle classes did not bring access to a parliamentary system dominated by the landed gentry.

A rapidly growing population of industrial workers in urban centres like Manchester, transformed by mills, factories, mines and ironworks, lacked political representation and lived in conditions of squalor, overcrowding and lack of sanitation. Workers were denied adequate wages and the right to form trade unions.

The tens of thousands of men, women and children who assembled on St Peter’s Field in August 1819 were drawn from industrial towns and villages from all over Lancashire and beyond. They carried flags, French revolutionary caps of liberty, and banners calling for reform and equal representation. Dressed in distinctive white cotton, women numbered around one in eight of the protesters. They were in the crowd and on the hustings at the heart of the gathering fighting for universal suffrage.

The meeting was one of a series of national rallies that took place in the years after 1815 as support for reform grew. Henry Hunt, a talented radical agitator, was scheduled to speak. The meeting had initially been called in the hopes of “electing” Hunt as popular representative for Manchester – a city which, like many heavily populated and productive areas, was not entitled to a local MP.

Local magistrates watching from a nearby window panicked at the sight of the assembly and read the Riot Act, ordering the few who could hear to disperse. They had at their command 600 hussars (light cavalry), several hundred infantry soldiers; two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables.

The task of arresting the speakers went to the local yeomanry, a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of local mill and shop owners. On horseback and armed with sabres and clubs, many had scores to settle with the leading protesters. Heading for the hustings, they charged when the crowd linked arms to try to stop the arrests. Mistakenly interpreted as the crowd attacking the yeomanry, the hussars were ordered in, slashing indiscriminately at the protesters with their sabres.

An estimated 18 people, including four women and a child, died from sabre cuts and trampling. Nearly 700 men, women and children received serious injuries. All in the name of liberty and freedom from poverty.

Although it must have looked to those involved like a crushing blow to both freedom and democracy, historians now acknowledge that Peterloo was hugely influential in ordinary people winning the right to vote and led directly to the rise of the Chartist movement from which grew the trade union movement.

Following Peterloo there were several acts of reform throughout the 19th century, but it was not until 1918 that all men over 21 gained the vote through the Representation of the People Act. Women over 21 got the vote in 1928.

According to Nick Mansfield, director of the People’s History Museum in Manchester: “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. It was critical to our freedoms.”

The People’s History Museum in Manchester is well worth a visit, providing opportunities for everyone to learn about, be inspired by and get involved in ideas worth fighting for; ideas such as equality, social justice, co-operation, and a fair world for all.

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