Why were there so few casualties at Peterloo?
What became known as the Peterloo Massacre took place on St Peter's Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819...
A public meeting had been called to demand political reform and was led by the famous radical speaker Henry Hunt. At 1pm the chief magistrate, William Hulton, sent for military assistance to arrest Hunt and break up the crowd of 80,000 people.
The amateur Manchester and Salford Yeomanry arrived first, urged their horses into the crowd, and began hitting people with the flats of their blades. This provoked the crowd to throw stones, which in turn enraged the Yeomanry and at one point some of them began using the edges of their weapons.
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By the time the regulars of the 15th Hussars arrived at 2pm the situation was out of control. Led by Colonel L’Estrange they charged the crowd, but he soon realised that the exits from the field were so narrow that the crowd could not disperse. He called off his men and shouted at the Yeomanry: “For shame, for shame. The people cannot get away.” After 10 minutes the fighting had stopped, the crowd dispersed and Hunt had been arrested.
Of the 11 dead, five died as a result of sabre wounds and the rest died due to being mown down by the horses. Most of the injuries were caused by people being crushed or trampled by the crowd as they tried to escape. The outrage at the time was due not only to the carnage and confusion, but also to the fact that Hulton had not given warning of his actions by reading the Riot Act.
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The low number of deaths was probably due to the fact that L’Estrange called off his men and to the restraint shown by the 15th Hussars. This is ironic as the event was dubbed ‘Peterloo’ due to the fact that the 15th Hussars had fought at the battle of Waterloo just four years earlier.
Answered by Rupert Matthews, historian and author.
This Q&A was first published in the January 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
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