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A coloured engraving that depicts the Peterloo Massacre

The Peterloo Massacre: Rebellion, bloodshed, and the fight for democracy

Image: Public Domain

At the beginning of the 1800s, the industrial revolution was in full swing. Factories had popped up all over the northwest of England putting many people out of work while property and landowners became increasingly wealthy.

Meanwhile, those that toiled in the cotton factories and mills, down mines, and in the fields spent the remainder of their time cramped in slum housing starving from their meagre wages.

Punitive corn laws at the end of the 1700s had already pushed up food prices and the Napoleonic Wars, having recently ended, had plunged the country into recession as 350,000 exhausted ex-servicemen returned from the frontline needing work, housing and food.

But only the wealthy land and property owners, about 5% of the population, were allowed to vote. Everyone else was effectively gagged.

Early 1800s Manchester

This former town had less than 10,000 inhabitants 100 years before 1801. However, it was now a city of almost 330,000 people, the vast majority of whom were on or below the breadline. With no MP to channel their cries of despair, it was down to ordinary citizens to stand up and make themselves heard.

In 1817, 600 ‘blanketeers’ set out from Manchester on a protest march to London with only their blankets, from which their sobriquet was coined, as protection from the elements during the night. In the same year, 200 men from Derbyshire tried to stage an unsuccessful uprising in Nottinghamshire, arguably spooking the establishment.

So, when a peaceful demonstration was organised in St Peter’s Square, Manchester, with guest speakers and reformers on hand to lend some intellectual weight to the protest, the authorities were waiting for trouble.

16th August 1819

At 9am crowds began to gather at St Peter’s Square. Despite having marched for many miles, it was a good-natured affair. Many demonstrators were dressed in their Sunday best and sang the national anthem and other patriotic tunes. Some carried banners bearing slogans for ‘equal representation’ and ‘universal suffrage’. Others prepared the hustings for celebrated public speakers such as Henry Hunt.

By midday, up to 80,000 demonstrators had gathered. Also present were around 600 soldiers that included members of the Yeomanry -a volunteer army consisting predominantly of tradespeople and shopkeepers- and the Fifteenth Hussars who’d been on parade earlier in the day. Meanwhile, the local magistrates had moved to a building with a better view over St Peter’s Square.

The reading of the Riot Act

As the speakers began to address the cheering throngs, the magistrates’ sense of unease tipped over into paranoia. After notifying the heads of the Yeomanry -Captain Hugh Birley and Major Thomas Trafford- and Colonel L'Estrange of the Fifteenth Hussars, the Reverand Charles Ethelston read the Riot Act at 1:30pm from an upstairs window overlooking the packed square.

We have all heard the phrase ‘read the Riot Act’, to flippantly describe the actions of a parent or teacher laying down the law. But from 1714, the Riot Act was very real, having been passed through parliament to prevent the ‘unlawful gathering of 12 or more persons'. If the crowds didn’t disperse ‘within an hour’ after the Riot Act was read in public, the authority would be legally permitted to use force to dispel the addressed assembly. Those caught rioting could be tried, convicted and hanged.

The massacre

10 minutes later at 1:45pm, hundreds of Yeomanry, some on horseback, others drunk with personal vendettas, were ordered into the crowd to arrest the speakers. Charging through the crowds with sabres drawn, the panic that ensued quickly turned into chaos.

Soon after, hundreds of Hussars were also ordered in to control the crowds, though a few found themselves protecting the civilians from the brutal Yeomanry. In the space of 20 minutes, over 600 people had been injured and as many as 20 people, including women and children, were killed at close quarters. Following a violent arrest, Henry Hunt was tried, convicted of seditious conspiracy and sent to prison for two years.

The aftermath

The massacre was widely condemned in the press with many journalists having witnessed the scenes for themselves. This included John Tyas of The Times who was also arrested with Hunt. Tyas later wrote of the crowd before the attack, ‘Not a brickbat was thrown…not a pistol was fired… all was quiet and orderly as if the cavalry had been the friends of the multitude.’

Five days after the massacre James Wroe of the Manchester Observer coined the word ‘Peterloo’, a bitter pun on an incident at Waterloo four years earlier when soldiers attacked unarmed civilians. His pun cost him a year’s liberty and his newspaper shut down.

The authorities were far more concerned about the wave of protests that followed Peterloo than facing any justice. Fearing an armed rebellion, new laws were rushed through parliament: the short-lived Six Acts saw reformers jailed, newspapers silenced and the absolute banning of politically motivated gatherings.

The Great Reform Act

But still making himself heard was Henry Hunt, now MP for Preston, Lancashire, eight years after being released from prison. Hunt's voice, amid a chorus of reformers, eventually led to the Great Reform Act of 1832 which went some way to giving the working classes a voice in parliament. Ultimately, the Great Reform led to equal rights, trade unions and our modern notion of democracy.

As for the Riot Act, the Draconian mandate that legitimised the Peterloo massacre, it survived for almost 260 years until it was finally repealed in 1973.