Peterloo: the English uprising

The bloody event of the Peterloo Massacre has often been seen as an episode of industrial protest. But, argues Professor Robert Poole, the violence of August 1819 was also a key uprising in the history of English populism…

The Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819 was the bloodiest political event of the 19th century on English soil. Troops under the authority of the Lancashire and Cheshire magistrates attacked and dispersed a rally of some 50,000 reformers on St Peter’s Field, Manchester. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

In the summer of 1819, populist radical leaders based in England’s industrial north confronted a British state grown overmighty on taxation and war.

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As with the politics of summer 2019, which has seen some framing an English showdown with a European ‘state’, the early 19th-century movement called for reform of a system which was fond of taxing and careless of the liberties and livelihoods of the citizens in its most depressed regions.

The Peterloo Massacre of Monday 16 August 1819 was the bloodiest political event of the 19th century on English soil. Troops under the authority of the Lancashire and Cheshire magistrates attacked and dispersed a rally of some 50,000 reformers on St Peter’s Field, Manchester. Twenty minutes later,nearly 700 people had been injured, many by sabres. Many of the injured were women, some of them children, and 18 people lay dead or mortally wounded. Independent witnesses were horrified, for there had not been any disturbance to provoke such an attack – but the authorities insisted that a rebellion had been averted.

Waterloo, the final victory of the European allies over imperial France, had been four years earlier; now, at ‘Peterloo’, British troops were turned against their own people. There were Waterloo veterans present on both sides; one of them, the reformer John Lees of Oldham, later died of his injuries. A rally designed to proclaim that its members were citizens instead showed that they were still only subjects.

Because it took place in Manchester, the northern ‘cottonopolis’, the Peterloo Massacre has often been seen as an episode of industrial protest. The commander of the volunteer Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry, which did much of the damage, was a leading cotton master. “There is no term for this but class war,” wrote historian EP Thompson in his classic The Making of the English Working Class (1963). It was, however, class war levied from above.

Why did crowds march to St Peter’s Field?

The people who marched into Manchester from the surrounding districts were not mainly cotton factory workers (who were mostly locked in at their workplaces), but domestic handloom weavers. Manchester was at the centre of a great network of industrious villages and small settlements that extended for 15 miles and more around, well into the Pennine hills. These places were notable for their vigorous popular culture, their independent religious gatherings, and their social solidarity. Processions of weavers – dressed in their Sunday best, carrying hand-woven flags and banners with messages of hope, and accompanied by bands of music – flooded into Manchester that summer morning with their families.

Drilled to marching order by military veterans, and in at least one case singing ‘Rule Britannia’, the very organisation of the reformers proclaimed their fitness for political citizenship. The communities from whichthey came had known better days, and they were marching in defence of their way of life and for a democratic voice in the government of a country for which many of them had recently fought.

The final victory over Napoleon in 1815 after 20 gruelling years of war had been followed by a double-dip economic slump in 1817 and 1819, deepened by the demobilisation of troops, a disastrous harvest, and the boom-slump cycle of the expanding cotton industry. The landed classes had had their “peace dividend” in the form of the Corn Laws, which kept corn prices high by preventing imports of grain. The middle classes had rejoiced in the end of the wartime income tax. Working people however continued to pay taxes on essential items like malt, soap, candles and paper, as well as record prices for bread. The regulations protecting their trades had been abolished and their trade unions banned, all by act of parliament.

As wealthy fundholders continued to rake in interest on the wartime national debt, the political system seemed designed to turn power into wealth, and wealth into power – and to exploit and exclude the rest. The radical writer William Cobbett called the system “old corruption” and insisted that such things would not have been possible if working people had the vote. The radical orator Henry Hunt was equally forthright: “The war was carried on, not to preserve this country from the horrors of the French revolution… it had been from the beginning a war against the principles of liberty.”

Radicals vs the elite

Ironically, it was the authorities who liked to raise the spectre of Britain following France down the path of bloody revolution. Radicals, led by their organiser John Cartwright, preferred to point to home-grown examples of successful resistance: the barons forcing King John to cede Magna Carta in 1215; the civil wars of the 1640s; and the ousting of the autocratic James II in favour of a parliamentary monarchy backed by the Bill of Rights in 1689. While the government waved the flag of British patriotism, Cartwright talked of England’s “ancient constitution” and sought to mobilise the people to reclaim their lost rights. This was the “peace dividend”, to which radicals now laid claim as they stood for English liberties against the oppression of the British state.

The word ‘radical’ needs explanation in an age when it is more commonly associated with terrorism and the ‘radicalisation’ of disaffected youth. ‘Radical’ means ‘at the root’, and radicals were simply thoroughgoing reformers. For reforming Whigs in parliament, government was the problem and parliament was the solution; ‘the people’ were invoked rather than involved. For radical reformers, parliament was the problem and the people were the solution. While this was certainly radical at a time when democracy was a distant dream, it was also populism – radical populism.

If parliament and people were in collision, parliament had only itself to blame. A mass petitioning campaign for parliamentary reform in 1816–17 had mustered close to a million signatures on some 700 local petitions – maybe one in five adult males, perhaps double the entire electorate. (At that time, the electorate had shrunk to about 11 per cent of adult males, heavily weighted towards propertied voters the south of England while towns such as Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds had no MPs at all).Most of these petitions had been brusquely rejected by parliament for technical reasons (the petition sheets were printed rather than expensively handwritten), or simply left to “lie on the table”. Parliament’s main response had been emergency legislation and the arrest without trial of dozens of radical activists. The upheavals of the spring of 1817 – the march of the Manchester ‘blanketeers’ towards London, and the attempted risings in Huddersfield and Pentrich – were essentially attempts to carry the protest to the capital.

September 1819: A cartoon showing the 'Manchester Heroes', citizens of Manchester who having met at St Peter's Fields to demand the reform of parliament are being brutally cut down by the yeomanry regardless of age or sex. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A cartoon from September 1819 depicts citizens of Manchester brutally cut down by the yeomanry. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The reformers of 1819 tried a different strategy: an open ‘mass platform’ agitation, driven by the numbers of the industrial north. Several mass meetings in the Manchester region issued an ‘Appeal to the People of England’. A mass meeting in Birmingham appointed a ‘legislatorial attorney’, or unofficial MP, to represent them in parliament. Another in London resolved that without parliamentary reform the people’s allegiance to the crown would be dissolved from 1 January 1820. In Manchester, the resolutions would have included a tax strike, by refusing consumption of all taxed goods. It was a pro-democracy movement in search of teeth, its basic aim to force the government to back down and grant parliamentary reform for fear of a revolution. It failed in 1819 but succeeded in 1832, and a century later universal suffrage was a reality.

In her influential book Britons, Linda Colley argued that the wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France were a triumph for the British monarchy and for a supra-national British identity that had only recently formed. So much is true, but Colley also underestimates theprofound disillusionment that followed 1815. The loyalist Lancashire of the 1790s became the radical Lancashire of the Regency period. Many of the patriots of the Trafalgar years became radicals after Waterloo, demobilised soldiers numerous amongst them. Their former British patriotism was transformed into support for English rights and liberties in opposition to the British warfare state.

In 1819, as today, this sense of national frustration was particularly strong in the economically suffering industrial areas of the midlands and north which felt themselves ignored by a prospering metropolitan elite. It opens the modern political division between left and right, but it also tracks the older split between ‘court’ and ‘country’ that goes back to the civil wars.

As long as regional inequalities persist, generation after generation, English populism continues to regenerate from ancient root stock. The radical movement of 1819 was both a formative episode in the making of the English working class and an English uprising.

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Robert Poole is a professor of history at the University of Central Lancashire, author of Peterloo: the English Uprising (OUP, 2019) and co-author of the graphic novel, Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre (New Internationalist, 2019).