The Peterloo Massacre: what did it achieve?

It started as a peaceful appeal for political reform, but ended with 18 dead and hundreds injured. 
Stephen Bates describes how the events of 16 August 1819 became a landmark moment in the struggle for democracy

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)

What was the Peterloo Massacre?

The Peterloo Massacre, which took place on 16 August 1819, was the worst violence ever to occur at a political meeting in Britain. Cavalry brutally dispersed a crowd of 60,000 protestors in Manchester taking part in a peaceful appeal for political reform. The many thousands of weavers and tradesmen and their families had gathered to consider “the propriety of adopting the most legal and effectual means of obtaining a reform”.

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The one thing they were not expecting as they made their way on foot to Manchester on 
that fateful Monday morning was a massacre. They came in from the suburbs and surrounding towns and villages respectably dressed, holding their children by the hand, marching in disciplined columns behind banners and flags, with bands playing patriotic tunes, to have an entertaining day out and to hear speeches calling for parliamentary reform.

It was a fine summer day and the meeting was entirely legal. It had been called to consider – not to demand – “the propriety of adopting the most legal and effectual means of obtaining a reform”. And the demonstrators had been warned not to be provoked by what was sure to be a heavy presence of constables and local militia. They should, they were told, bring “no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience”.

“There were crowds of people in all directions, full of good humour, laughing 
and shouting and making fun,” recalled John Benjamin Smith, a 25-year-old businessman who witnessed the meeting. “It seemed to be 
a gala day with the country people who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives.”

But what happened to them that day was the worst violence ever to occur at a political meeting in Britain, an event that shocked the nation and was pivotal in the long struggle for the vote. At least 18 people were killed and more than 600 injured when the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and the regular cavalry of the 15th Hussars charged into the crowd gathered at St Peter’s Fields to break up the meeting on the orders of local magistrates.

The troops cleared the field in 20 minutes but what happened that day has reverberated for the best part of 200 years since. That’s at least partly due to the inspiration of the local journalist James Wroe, who described it as the Peterloo Massacre, in punning reference to the battle of Waterloo four years earlier. Wroe, incidentally, found himself imprisoned for a year and his newspaper closed down by the authorities in retaliation. The event did however give rise to the foundation of another progressive newspaper, the Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) by an outraged local businessman, John Edward Taylor, two years later.

Why did the protest take place?

At the time of Peterloo, Manchester was growing fast. It had quadrupled in size in the previous 50 years as a result of the industrial revolution and the expansion of the cotton trade. By 1819, the population was more than 100,000, with people pouring in from the Lancashire and Cheshire countryside and Ireland in search of better-paid work. Mechanisation in the mills was making the traditional home-based handloom weavers a declining workforce. More urgently, the economic depression that had followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars was leading to a halving of the weavers’ wages just at the time that a succession of poor harvests (partially caused, though they did not know it, by climatic changes resulting from a volcanic eruption in Indonesia) was increasing the price of food.

Dissatisfaction under these precarious conditions led to pressure for parliamentary reform, to make legislators more responsive to the needs of citizens – and indeed to secure fairer representation at Westminster so that their plight could no longer be ignored. Manchester, now the largest and most important of the new cities of the north, elected no MPs, unlike some rotten boroughs (with their tiny electorates) down south, and so its influence on policy was limited.

Campaigners who wanted to change the system in the years after Waterloo divided into those who pressed peacefully for constitutional reform to widen the franchise to all men (only a few thought women should get a vote, though female suffrage leagues were beginning to emerge) and a small, revolutionary minority who wanted violent upheaval. The Peterloo demonstrators were in the former category.

Painting by George Cruikshank, 'The Massacre of Peterloo or Britons Strike Home'. (Photo by Spencer Arnold Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Painting by George Cruikshank, ‘The Massacre of Peterloo or Britons Strike Home’. (Photo by Spencer Arnold Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lord Liverpool’s Tory government of the day knew that the parliamentary system was unbalanced but were in no mood to give way to even peaceful campaigners. The French Revolution was well within living memory – Liverpool and his foreign secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, had been in Paris to witness it as students 30 years earlier – and they feared any concessions would lead to something similar in Britain. Ministers and their supporters particularly feared the Spenceans, followers of the radical Thomas Spence, who argued for the common ownership of land, universal suffrage and the abolition of the aristocracy. But the government had only limited means to contain disturbances: no police forces yet, only special constables to enrol, or local militias and regular troops to call out – and they were reliant on informers to keep them abreast 
of what was happening.

There had been a series of small-scale and easily contained uprisings in the previous four years, some shading into violence. England in particular was very far from the peaceful land depicted in Jane Austen’s novels. Long before the war ended, Luddites fearing for their jobs had been randomly destroying the new machinery that would replace them in mills across the north and Midlands. In 1817 starving Blanketeers (so called because of the blankets they carried) had attempted unsuccessfully to march from Manchester to London to petition the king for food but were headed off by mounted troops before they got beyond Stockport. In rural Derbyshire later that year, an attempted armed uprising had fizzled out with savage reprisals by the authorities against the ringleaders, three of whom were hanged and then beheaded. Much closer to Westminster, a reform meeting at Spa Fields, Clerkenwell in December 1816 had turned to violence as agitators attempted to lead a faction to storm the Bank of England before being repelled by troops from the Tower of London.

The government’s difficulty was distinguishing between peaceful and violent protests, not helped by some reformers’ flirting with violent rhetoric. Viscount Sidmouth, the home secretary, quietly promised to offer magistrates legal protection if violence erupted and troops were called in.

A series of large-scale public reform meetings had passed off peacefully across the country in 1819, including an earlier one at St Peter’s Fields, a three-acre open space on the edge of Manchester. Nevertheless, the local magistrates and government supporters, including factory owners and businessmen, were edgy in advance of the meeting on 16 August 1819, which promised to be the biggest gathering yet.

Groups of those planning to attend had been drilling publicly in the foothills of the Pennines, as a means of keeping order on the big day. Unfortunately, the authorities did not see it that way, and there was concern that the meeting would be addressed by Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, the leading extra-parliamentary speaker for the reformists, whom they regarded as a rabble rouser. Hunt had been speaking at meetings across the country that summer, including the earlier rally in Manchester, without being arrested and, a few days before the St Peter’s Fields meeting, he checked with the local magistrates that it was legal and could go ahead. They told him it could.

An illustration by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) depicting the Peterloo Massacre, for Camden Pelham "The Chronicles of Crime", 1887, London. (Photo by Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
An illustration by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) depicting the Peterloo Massacre, for Camden Pelham “The Chronicles of Crime”, 1887, London. (Photo by Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Why did the Peterloo Massacre happen?

Maybe the magistrates panicked that Monday morning when they saw the size of the crowd pouring into the space, from Manchester itself and the surrounding towns and villages. Later estimates reckoned there were about 60,000 people by 1pm when Hunt was due to arrive. They were so tightly packed that observers said their hats seemed to touch.

The magistrates watching from the first floor of a neighbouring building had taken no chances. The newly formed Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, a part-time cavalry force, proud in their new blue and white uniforms, made up of local businessmen, factory owners and their sons, were holed up in nearby back streets. Many of them passed the morning drinking in local taverns, until a witness said they were so inebriated they were rolling on their saddles. There was also a contingent of regular cavalry from the 15th Hussars, as well as a detachment of 400 infantry with two small cannon, and special constables enrolled for the day and equipped with long wooden truncheons.

The magistrates – all local men of property, retired businessmen, lawyers, even a clergyman, none of them likely to be sympathetic to political reform – had also taken the precaution of calling in some local loyalist Tories who could be sworn to testify that they believed the town to be in danger if need be. They accordingly did so, even as the crowd gathered below. Later the magistrates would claim that they had also read the Riot Act, the formal rubric ordering the crowd to disperse, though if they did so no one heard them and they certainly did not allow the statutory hour for the gathering to leave.

The feared spinner

Hunt arrived at the edge of the crowd in an open-topped barouche carriage at 1.15pm, accompanied by other members of the platform party, including Mary Fildes, the organiser of the newly formed local women’s suffrage movement, and John Tyas, a correspondent covering the meeting for The Times. Hunt mounted the hustings platform – two carts lashed together – and had no sooner started to speak than the magistrates ordered Manchester’s deputy constable, a corrupt and much feared 
former spinner called Joseph Nadin, to 
go and arrest him. To help him do so, they 
also sent in the yeomanry.

It was just what the part-time cavalry had been waiting for: they clattered through the side streets, knocking over a woman and killing her two-year-old son as they did so, and charged into the crowd. People were packed so tightly around the hustings that the yeomanry were soon lashing out with their sabres and becoming submerged in the terrified mass of onlookers.

The Rev Edward Stanley, rector of Alderley and a future bishop, who had ridden into Manchester on business that morning, was a witness to what happened: “With scarcely the semblance of line, their sabres glistened in the air, on they went, direct for the hustings… As the cavalry approached the dense mass of people they used their utmost efforts to escape but so closely were they pressed… that immediate escape was impossible… a scene of dreadful confusion ensued.”

In the middle of all this, Nadin reached the platform and arrested Hunt, who was hustled back towards the magistrates’ building through a line of jeering constables and was beaten about the head as he reached the steps to the house. The constables themselves came under attack, probably accidentally, by the soldiers in the melee, with two being killed.

The magistrates ordered the hussars into the crowd to rescue the yeomanry, who could be seen bobbing about in the midst of the crowd, slashing at the banners they were carrying. The hussars may have been marginally more disciplined than the yeomanry but neither had any experience of crowd control and if the troops really did, as their officers later alleged, try to use the flats of their sabres to move people along, they too were soon slashing away at anyone within reach.

The crowd fled as best they could in the crush, falling over each other in their attempts to escape, trying to avoid the flashing blades and the horses’ hooves. Some ran into the grounds of a nearby Quaker chapel and found the cavalry riding in after them, others fell down the cellar steps of nearby buildings or were pressed against walls and railings. John Benjamin Smith, the young businessman, reported: “It was a hot, dusty day; clouds of dust… obscured the view. When it had subsided a startling scene was presented. Numbers of men, women and children were lying on the ground who 
had been knocked down and run over by 
the soldiers.”

Within 20 minutes the field had been emptied and what was left behind were 
piles of bodies and the discarded debris 
of the rally: clothes, shoes and hats, banners and musical instruments abandoned by the bands. The troops rallied in front of the magistrates’ building and gave three cheers. They were congratulated by the Rev William Hay, one of the magistrates; they would receive the commendation of local Tories at a meeting the following day and would be sent a message later from the Prince Regent commending their “preservation of the public tranquillity”. The chief magistrate William Hulton wrote to Sidmouth praising “the extreme forbearance of the military”.

Hiding their wounds

That was not how the survivors in the crowd saw it. The roads out of Manchester were clogged with the injured. Apart from the 18 now thought to have died either on the day or from their wounds in the days afterwards, modern analysis of the casualty lists drawn 
up in the following weeks by reformist campaigners indicates that at least 654 people were sufficiently injured to require medical treatment. Others may have nursed their wounds in private, scared of the consequences for their jobs if their employers found out 
how they had been hurt.

Strikingly, many of the injured were married men with children, the Irish present were particularly singled out (they were probably identified via their distinctive banners), and a quarter of the casualties were women, sabred or trampled by the horses. Margaret Downes bled to death after being slashed across the breast; Elizabeth Farren received a 3-inch gash from the crown of her head to her brow; Alice Heywood’s wrist was almost severed; and Sarah Howarth was wounded in 20 places. The troops and their defenders claimed that they had come under attack by demonstrators throwing stones but the wounds inflicted – 48 per cent injured by sabres, 26 per cent by horses and 26 per cent in the crush of the crowd – indicate that the injured must have been those closest to the cavalry’s path, not the stone-throwers.

As one of the fatalities, 25-year-old James Lees, a former soldier who had fought at Waterloo but was now a weaver, told his relatives before he died from two deep sabre wounds to the head three weeks later: “At Waterloo there was man to man, but here it was downright murder.” Lees had been turned away from treatment at the Manchester infirmary after he refused to promise that he would not attend reform meetings in future.

A fund was raised for the injured, but most of the £3,408 that was contributed went to the lawyers who represented Hunt – charged with seditious assembly – and four others in court at York the following spring. Sentenced to two and a half years, the great Orator settled down to writing his memoirs. He would later become, 
briefly, an MP.

Six months after Peterloo came the Cato Street conspiracy, led by the Spencean Arthur Thistlewood, the man who had tried to storm the Bank of England after the Spa Fields riot. He now wanted to assassinate the cabinet while ministers sat at dinner, but was cornered in a stable loft off the Edgware Road. He was tried and executed with five of his associates. It turned out that the government had known about the plot all along through an informer and may even have encouraged its development. It was the last attempt to overthrow the state by force.

The reforms the crowd at Peterloo were seeking would gradually be enacted over the coming century, though it took 99 years for women to get the vote. From this distance it is hard to know what the Manchester rally would have achieved had it ended peacefully, as the organisers intended. But the cavalry’s brutal attack on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators ensured that it became a landmark in the struggle for democracy and has never been forgotten.

Stephen Bates is a former senior correspondent with The Guardian and the author of 1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo (Head of Zeus 2015)

The film Peterloo, about the 1819 massacre, written and directed by Mike Leigh, was released in cinemas in November 2018.

Listen again: To listen to Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Peterloo Massacre on 
BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, go to bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003k9l7

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This article was first published in the December 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine