On 16 August 1819, more than 60,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, bearing banners with the words ‘Reform’ and ‘Equal Representation’ written on them. The reform they wanted was that of Parliament itself – less than two per cent of the population were eligible to vote – and an end to the extreme poverty that gripped Britain. That, too, was deemed Parliament’s fault: the Corn Laws of 1815, which had introduced tariffs on imported grain at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, had seen the price of bread become astronomical.
Famed radical orator Henry Hunt was scheduled to speak to the gathered crowds – many of whom had journeyed from miles around, some in their Sunday best. For those attending, it was an exciting day out; the processions heading for Manchester were accompanied by bands. Local magistrates watched the assembling crowd with some trepidation, imagining the gathering as having revolutionary and dangerous intentions.
The magistrates attempted to read the crowd the Riot Act (from which we get the idiom – the now-defunct Act of 1714 gave authorities the ability to declare any group of 12 or more persons as being “unlawfully assembled”).
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Soldiers and cavalry watched on when the local militia was tasked with arresting the ringleaders. The protesters linked arms to prevent the arrests, at which point the militia began striking down people with their swords. This was mistaken as an attack by the protestors, causing the rest of the troops to engage the already bottled-up crowd.
At least 11 people, including women and children, were killed during the horror that unfolded. Around 700 others received serious wounds as the soldiers slashed their way through. Many of the protest leaders were arrested, and the magistrates received messages of congratulations from the Prince Regent – later George IV. But the majority of the public sympathised with the protestors, and began using the term ‘Peterloo’ in mockery of those who had attacked unarmed civilians – among whom were many who had returned from the battle of Waterloo as heroes.
The Government responded with a crackdown: a series of laws, known as the Six Acts, intended to quash radical activity amidst the threat of revolution. Holding public meetings of more than 50 people now needed the permission of a sheriff or magistrate. Shocked by what he had witnessed, businessman John Edward Taylor set up The Manchester Guardian – now The Guardian – to promote liberal interest and civil liberty.
Although it wouldn’t happen immediately, the massacre at Peterloo did alter people’s perceptions regarding voting rights and led to the rise of Chartism – a working-class movement that called for parliamentary reforms. Chartist demands included universal suffrage for men and payment for MPs, to enable those of modest means to take part in politics. The Reform Act of 1832 would extend voting rights to adult males who rented land over a certain value – but it wouldn’t be until 1928 that all adults over the age of 21 were given equal voting rights in Britain.