On the 16th of August 1819 a crowd in Manchester demonstrating for democratic reform was attacked by sabre wielding cavalry. At least 18 people were murdered.
The corrupt elite used rotten boroughs-old towns that had once been big in medieval times-to control parliament. The seven voters in Old Sarum in Wiltshire elected two MPS. Whereas the new industrial areas of Lancashire elected two MPs despite representing over a million people. The despite economic situation of the textile industry had inspired weavers to attend blanket marches to London, which were repressed by force and the riot act read.
A great assembly was organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union formed by radicals from the Manchester Observer. Chartists like Henry Hunt were to speak in favour of democracy and social reform. Joseph Johnson of the Union wrote to Hunt:
“Nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face in the streets of Manchester and the surrounding towns, the state of this district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection. Oh, that you in London were prepared for it.”
Government spies intercepted the letter and ordered the 15th Hussars to Manchester, with disastrous consequences.
Working class demonstrators from across Lancashire came to Manchester on the 16th of August. Carrying banners declaring ‘liberty and fraternity’, ‘unity and strength’. It was a hot day and the mounted Manchester & Salford yeomanry-local Tory gentry connected to reactionary Orange and Jacobite societies-were drinking in pubs around the corner from the demonstration at St Peters fields. Drunkenly they took out their swords and charged the crowd.
It was called Peterloo as many of victims were veterans of the battle of Waterloo. Victims also included women and babies. “The Masque of Anarchy” by Percy Bysshe Shelley immortalises the event:
“Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another!
What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which Slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own
Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words, that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free.
The old laws of England—they
Whose reverend heads with age are grey,
Children of a wiser day;
And whose solemn voice must be
Thine own echo—Liberty!
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!”
Marxist historian A J P Taylor wrote:
“The magistrates and yeomanry were defending a corrupt system. The demonstrators were demanding their just rights, even if they used sticks and stones as well as arguments. Henry hunt spoke for the people of England… when the defence of order leads to the killing of innocent people, the guilt always lies with the guardians of order”.
It was a despicable event that should be forever remembered.
Ways you can get involved:
There are exhibits about Peterloo in the Peoples History Museum and Working class movement library. The Peterloo Memorial campaign organises an annual commemoration event and is campaigning for a statue. A graphic novel is being written funded on Kickstarter. Mike Leigh’s Peterloo film featuring Maxine Peak is out now!
NB: 0161festival.com is a platform for sharing a variety of articles about sports, arts, politics, history and Manchester.