< All Articles

Peterloo: the bloody massacre that led to parliamentary reform

The Massacre of Peterloo or Britons Strike Home by George Cruikshank

The crowds had come from far and wide to hear Henry Hunt, the great orator, speak about parliamentary reform. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion. In attendance were not just men and women of all ages, but also children as well. The horrendous events that followed would help change the course of British history. Some even argue that the Peterloo massacre was a necessary evil for the contribution it made to the country finally reforming its corrupt political system. But can anything that involves the deaths of innocent people really ever be considered necessary?

Mr Hunt arrived at around one in the afternoon and climbed aboard a hustings made from two wagons lashed together. Already on St. Peter’s Field in central Manchester were hundreds of special constables armed with wooden truncheons. The magistrates who ran the town were worried about this gathering. Very worried. They and their factory owning friends were quite happy with the status quo in Manchester. Sending no MPs to Westminster meant the town was theirs to do with as they pleased. These reformists would upset the applecart that kept them rich and in power, if they got their way. The reformists wanted representation in parliament and an end to the so-called ‘rotten boroughs’ – parliamentary constituencies such as the abandoned Medieval settlement of Old Sarum in Wiltshire which sent two MPs to Westminster despite having a population of just one person. Manchester, by contrast, had a large and ever-expanding population, yet sent no one to London.

This was a seditious meeting, and it had to be stopped...

As far as the magistrates were concerned, the meeting scheduled for August the 16th 1819 was nothing short of a seditious act organized by rabble-rousers determined to overthrow the status quo. The authorities agreed with them, and that’s why troops from the 15th Hussars regiment, the Royal Horse Artillery, the Cheshire yeomanry, the bully boys from the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and 400 special constables had been drafted in to crush what the magistrates presumed would be a riot. Over one and a half thousand men were lined up against the ordinary folk who had come to hear Mr. Hunt speak. The fact that there were hundreds of children at the gathering meant nothing to the authorities. This was a seditious meeting, and it had to be stopped.

Hunt had barely begun to speak before the yeomanry were ordered into the field to facilitate his arrest. Resplendent in blue and white tunics, the yeomanry cantered down Cross Street towards the crowd on horseback, knocking over a young woman as they swept towards St. Peter’s Field. The toddler she was carrying in her arms tumbled to the ground and was crushed under the horses’ hooves. Little William Fildes was the first casualty of the day.

After saluting the watching magistrates, the yeomanry pushed into the crowd. When they arrived at the hustings, the yeomanry’s leader, Hugh Birley, attempted to arrest Hunt. He refused, saying he would only be arrested by a civilian. The arrest of Hunt was instead carried out by Joseph Nadin, a corrupt brute of a man who was much feared around Manchester in his capacity as a Deputy Constable and the town’s chief ‘thief-catcher’. Hunt was escorted down from the hustings and manhandled through the crowd, receiving a blow to the head as he was pushed towards the magistrate’s building.

Of the others on the hustings, the suffragette Mary Fildes jumped from the wagon and was beaten about the head by the constables. The Times correspondent John Tyas was arrested, as was the radical campaigner, Samuel Bamford.

While the arrests were being made, the yeomanry became stuck by the sheer numbers of people pressing in on them. Panicking, they began hacking away at the crowd with their sabres, causing hideous injuries to those unable to get away. Watching from their window, the magistrates quickly became convinced that the crowds were attacking the soldiers. Magistrate William Hulton shouted down to Colonel Guy L’Estrange of the 15th Hussars that his troops must step in and help the yeomanry. L’Estrange sent his men galloping into the crowd of screaming, terrified people, who were all trying desperately to get out of the way of the charging horses and the soldiers’ flashing sabres.

It was carnage. Crowds of men, women and children were easy pickings for battle-hardened troops on horseback. As the crowd tried to escape St. Peter’s Field, they were cut down, trampled by horses or crushed under the feet of the fleeing. Some tried escaping into nearby yards but were pursued and cut down as if they were enemy troops fleeing a battle. Others were crushed against walls of the buildings abutting St. Peter’s Field. Shouting and screaming could be heard many streets away as the people tried to get away.

It took twenty minutes to clear the crowds from St. Peter’s Field. As the smoke and dust cleared, an estimated 400-700 people had been injured, many severely. The numbers are vague because many people hid their injuries after the massacre for fear of reprisals by the authorities. 15 people would eventually be confirmed dead, either dying on the day or in the weeks that followed. Among the dead was Mary Heys, a mother of six from Manchester who had been pregnant with her seventh child when she was trampled by cavalry at Peterloo. Her injuries were horrendous, causing her to fit constantly in the agonizing days after the massacre. The premature birth of her child eventually sent her to an early grave.

Another of the dead was John Lees from Oldham in Lancashire. Lees had fought at the Battle of Waterloo and like many soldiers had returned home to find no hero’s welcome, only squalid living conditions and poverty wages. He received two deep cuts to the head at Peterloo and was refused medical treatment when he told a doctor that Peterloo had not put him off attending political meetings. He died three weeks later.

Peterloo was the first big political meeting to be attended by journalists outside of the local area, which meant journalists such as Edward Baines from the Leeds Mercury, Charles Wright from the London Courier and John Smith from the Liverpool Mercury were there to witness the carnage. Thus, news of the massacre spread rapidly across the country. 

It was the editor of the Manchester Observer who gave the massacre its name, combining the name of St. Peter’s Field with that of the Battle of Waterloo, which had been fought and won just four years before. For this, Wroe would be imprisoned for a year and fined the huge sum of £100 for running a seditious newspaper. Court cases against the Observer were rushed through, causing huge financial difficulties, and a number of police raids on the newspaper led to the Observer permanently shutting down in 1820. Out of the ashes of the Observer would rise the Manchester Guardian, which today is simply The Guardian – Britain’s preeminent liberal newspaper.

The authorities’ reaction to the massacre was to lay the blame not on the magistrates, the yeomanry and the soldiers, but on the people who had been slain and crushed by them. The journalists and newspapers who covered the story were also targeted. The crowd struck first was the official line, attacking the yeomanry with stones and cudgels concealed about their persons. This, the authorities argued, was why the Riot Act had to be read; it was why Hunt and the other speakers had to be arrested and it was the reason why the crowd needed to be dispersed quickly. Many people, horrified by the massacre, did not swallow the official line.

What the reformists had been asking for at Peterloo in 1819 would be mostly granted a mere thirteen years later.

Hunt and eight other defendants were tried at York assizes and found guilty of sedition. Hunt was handed a sentence of thirty months. Anyone who attempted to lay the blame on the magistrates and their troops was shouted down, such as in the case of a private prosecution brought against several members of the yeomanry who were all acquitted in a trial whose outcome was a foregone conclusion.

After the massacre, the government crackdown on the parliamentary reform movement led to the imprisonment of every significant figure in the movement and the curtailing of workers’ freedoms via the notorious Six Acts bill. The bill effectively banned reformist meetings and slapped an unaffordable tax on newspapers and pamphlets sympathetic to the reformist cause. The writing, however, was on the wall. The growing public outrage over Peterloo and the subsequent heavy-handed treatment of further uprisings and protests led to the 1832 Great Reform Act. This finally saw rotten boroughs swept away and Manchester finally getting its very first members of parliament. What the reformists had been asking for at Peterloo in 1819 would be mostly granted a mere thirteen years later.

So, was Peterloo necessary? Well, no. Nothing necessary involves the trampling to death of an infant or the maiming and killing of so many people who simply wished to see themselves represented in Westminster. The massacre was, however, a hugely important lesson in why things simply could not stay the same. Had Peterloo not happened, would the Great Reform Act of 1832 so quickly have come into law? It’s impossible to say for sure. What is true is that men and women from all social classes were appalled by the needless slaughter and maiming of so many innocent people, many of them children. Had Peterloo never taken place, who knows how many men and women of influence would have so readily taken up the reformist cause? It is perhaps better to say that the tragedy of Peterloo was helpful to the cause, despite being completely and utterly unnecessary and an affront to democracy and basic human decency.

Peterloo is an important event in the history of the labour movement of Great Britain. It lit a fire under a movement that would eventually lead not only to the passing into law of the Great Reform Act, but also to the formation of the trades unions, the founding of the Labour Party, universal suffrage and the slew of workers’ rights Britons enjoy today. No, the Peterloo massacre was not necessary. No massacres are. But the dreadful events of that day were a hugely important milestone on the road to achieving liberty and equality for the masses. And it is for that reason that Peterloo should forever be remembered.