When the people of Manchester awoke on Monday, 16 August 1819, it was already shaping up to be a fine, hot day. By mid-morning thousands of people were streaming past the mills and chimneys towards St Peter’s Field in the town centre. To the watching townsfolk they presented an extraordinary spectacle. Each local village had sent its own contingent, but far from being the disorderly rabble of press hysteria, they seemed remarkably well turned out. Many were women, dressed all in white. And everywhere were flags and banners, woven in bright silk. “No Corn Laws”, they read, “Annual Parliaments”, “Universal Suffrage”, “Vote by Ballot”. The only banner that survives today was carried by Thomas Redford of Middleton. “Liberty and Fraternity” read the message on one side, picked out in gold letters. “Unity and Strength” it read on the other.

Cavalry charge into a crowd of protesters at St Peter's Field, Manchester, as depicted in an 1819 engraving. What followed was the worst violence ever to occur at a political meeting in Britain. (Picture by Alamy)

The passions behind the meeting at St Peter’s Field had been brewing for years. Poor economic conditions since the Napoleonic Wars had bred a mood of deep dissatisfaction in Lancashire’s cotton towns, and many weavers were outraged at their lack of representation in parliament. The question of democratic representation became a kind of shorthand for the plight of the region. In Manchester, wrote Joseph Johnson, the founder of the town’s radical Observer, “nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face, the state of this district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection”.

Johnson’s solution was a mass meeting, to be addressed by the radical speaker Henry Hunt. But when the government intercepted his letter, the dreaded word “insurrection” loomed large. Even as the weavers approached St Peter’s Field, Manchester’s magistrates were meeting for breakfast at the nearby Star Inn. Terrified that the rally would turn into a riot, they had mobilised the local yeomanry and the city’s militia, while Lord Liverpool’s Tory government had sent a detachment of the 15th Hussars.

Using the troops against the crowds, however, was bound to be risky. One observer called the yeomanry a band of “hot-headed young men, who had volunteered into that service from their intense hatred of radicalism”; for another, they were simply “younger members of the Tory party in arms”.

Mike Leigh at the 67th Cannes Film Festival in 2014. (Photo by dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo)

In the meantime, the crowds had swelled to unprecedented proportions. Estimates of the numbers differ wildly, from 50,000 people to as many as 150,000. So dense were the ranks of protesters, wrote one eyewitness, that “their hats seemed to touch”. But when Hunt arrived to begin his address, the chairman of the magistrates panicked, issuing a warrant for his arrest.

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At that, Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, a local factory owner, spurred the yeomanry into action. By now, however, the crowds were far too tightly packed for the horses to pass – and in the chaos and the heat, something snapped. Some said Birley and his men were drunk; what is beyond doubt, however, is that they lost all self-control, lashing out wildly with their sabres. Then in came the hussars, charging the crowd – but even they were shocked by the indiscipline of the yeomanry. “For shame! For shame!” one hussars officer was heard to shout. “Gentlemen: forbear, forbear!”

The massacre lasted ten minutes. After that, wrote the radical Samuel Bamford, “the field was an open and almost deserted space,” strewn with “caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody.”

George III at the end of his reign. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the awful silence, he recalled, “several mounds of human being still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning; others, with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more. All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.”

The final casualty figures at St Peter’s Field – which soon earned the nickname ‘Peterloo’ – were never determined.

As many as 15 people may have been killed, and a further 500 badly injured. Four men of the Manchester yeomanry were later acquitted of the murders; in a bitter irony, though, five of the radical organisers, who had killed nobody, were sent to prison.

Terrified of revolutionary far-left Jacobinism, spreading from France, the government cracked down on civil liberties. But as Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had been appalled by the news of the massacre, wrote in his great poem The Masque of Anarchy, the campaign for rights and liberties would never die. “Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number,” he exhorted the masses.

“Ye are many – they are few.”

Dominic Sandbrook’s latest book is Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review


This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine