One of the most enduring effects of the French and American Revolution in England was the governmental crackdown on ‘radicalism’, which was typically considered anything remotely resembling a call for sociopolitical reform. The government didn’t want a bunch of poor workers meeting and talking about inequality. The next thing you knew the poors would be unionizing and thinking they could have human rights or a living wage! Those kinds of ideas would lead to a revolt by the underclass demanding their civil rights!
Fears by the upper/middle classes that reformist leaders would agitate for rebellion by the lower orders came to a head on 16 August 1819, in form of the Peterloo Massacre.
The working poor of England were rightfully aggrieved. Since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 unemployment was through the roof. The poor, employed or not, were dealing with episodic famine, exacerbated by the introduction of the first of the Corn Laws to protect landowner profits and the devaluation of English currency. People were literally starving to death so the rich could stay rich, and those dying of hunger didn’t like it one bit. Many people in less dire straights had enough empathy to not like it either.
Doing something to alleviate the situation was a primary concern, and the key to helping the workers was thought to be universal suffrage and other forms of political radicalism. Groups of radical reformers, including the the Manchester Patriotic Union, held meetings and rallies to try to generate support for their cause and to gain the notice of people in power who might actually aid them (motivated by fears of rebellion if nothing else).
In January 1819 the reformist held a rally, which featured a speech by radical orator Henry Hunt, and it had drawn a crowd of nearly 10,000 to St Peter’s Field, a small plot of land that had yet to be developed, in central Manchester.
The reformers at the rally listed the dreadful economic conditions and symbolically called on the Prince Regent to help them repeal the Corn Laws before peacably dispersing. No violence, no rebellion, no riots occurred. Nevertheless, the meeting scared the shit out of the local magistrates. They warned that:
a ‘general rising’ was imminent, the “deep distress of the manufacturing classes” was being worked on by the “unbounded liberty of the press” and “the harangues of a few desperate demagogues” at weekly meetings. “Possessing no power to prevent the meetings” the magistrates admitted they were at a loss as to how to stem the doctrines being disseminated.
The government became convinced an insurrection was imminent, and when word got round to them that the Manchester Patriotic Union had organised a demonstration and another speech by Henry Hunt, they ordered the 15th Hussars to Manchester and the acting Home Secretary, Henry Hobhouse, told the magistrates, led by William Hulton, that it would “be the wisest course to abstain from any endeavour to disperse the mob, unless they should proceed to acts of felony or riot.” However, Hobhouse also warned them that there was, “the strongest reason to believe that Hunt means to preside and to deprecate disorder.”
In reality Henry Hunt had demanded that those attending the meeting should come “armed with no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience”, but the nervous magistrates decided to arm themselves for bear lest the poor rise up and slaughter them. In addition to the 600 men in the 15th Hussars, the magistrates had “several hundred infantrymen; a Royal Horse Artillery unit with two six-pounder (2.7 kg) guns; 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry; [and] 400 special constables” surround the area of St Peter’s Field. The magistrates’ troops were rounded out by the 120 cavalrymen of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, who had been derided in the Manchester Observer as being “the fawning dependents of the great, with a few fools and a greater proportion of coxcombs, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals”.
The panicked feelings of the magistrates only increased when they saw the turnout for the demonstration:
Hunt’s carriage arrived at the meeting shortly after 1:00 pm … By this time St Peter’s Field, an area of 14,000 square yards (11,700 m2), was packed with tens of thousands of men, women and children … Scholar Joyce Marlow describes the event as “The most numerous meeting that ever took place in Great Britain” and elaborates that the generally accepted figure of 60,000 would have been six per cent of the population of Lancashire, or half the population of the immediate area around Manchester … A particular feature of the meeting at Peterloo was the number of women present. Female reform societies had been formed in North West England during June and July 1819, the first in Britain. Many of the women were dressed distinctively in white, and some formed all-female contingents, carrying their own flags.
When chief Magistrate William Hulton saw how excited the crowd was to see Henry Hunt, he decided the best course of action was to whip the peaceful crowd into a frenzy by arresting Hunt, along with the union leaders Joseph Johnson, John Knight, and James Moorhouse who were with Hunt on stage. When ordered to carry out the arrests, the Chief Constable, Jonathan Andrews, pointed out that his men would have a hard time getting through a crowd that size. Hulton determined that miluitary action would be needed to get through the throng, so he sent notes to Major Thomas Trafford, the commanding officer of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, and to Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange, who was acting as the overall military commander in Manchester.
Regrettably, Trafford got his note first, and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry rode to the ‘rescue’:
Sixty cavalrymen of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, a local factory owner, arrived … the Chief Constable instructed Birley that he had an arrest warrant which he needed assistance to execute. Birley was asked to take his cavalry to the hustings to allow the speakers to be removed … The route towards the hustings between the special constables was narrow, and as the inexperienced horses were thrust further and further into the crowd they reared and plunged as people tried to get out of their way … As the cavalry pushed towards the speakers’ stand they became stuck in the crowd, and in panic started to hack about them with their sabres … William Hulton perceived the unfolding events as an assault on the yeomanry, and on L’Estrange’s arrival … he ordered them into the field to disperse the crowd … the crowd had some difficulty in dispersing, as the main exit route into Peter Street was blocked by the 88th Regiment of Foot, standing with bayonets fixed. One officer of the 15th Hussars was heard trying to restrain the by now out of control Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, who were “cutting at every one they could reach”: “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!”
It was a bloodbath.
Women in particular had been targeted by the the yeomanry. Although women made up only 12% of the crowd, they were nearly 26% of the 654 recorded casualties, and many had been hit by weapons rather than being trampled or crushed in the melee. Four women died of a result of their injuries, including Sarah Jones and Margaret Downes, who were bludgeoned and stabbed to death, and Martha Partington, who died from being thrown into an open cellar, and Mary Heys, who died giving birth to her seventh child after her assault caused a premature labor. The youngest known victim was 2 year old William Fields, who was knocked out his mother’s arms by a yeomen’s horse.
James Wroe, the editor of the Manchester Observer, was at the meeting and wrote a firsthand account the incident, which he dubbed the “Peterloo Massacre” by combining St Peter’s Field with the Battle of Waterloo to indicate the importance of the event. In retaliation, Wroe was arrested and found guilty of producing a seditious publication, for which he was sentenced to a year in prison and fined £100. However, it was too late for the government to put the horse back in the barn; people all over Britain were horrified by the attack on peaceful protesters.
It will not surprise you to learn that not only did those that attacked and killed the reformers got away with it, they and the Manchester Magistrates were given a personal thanks of the Prince Regent for their efforts in the “preservation of the public peace”.
The government decided the only thing it could do to prevent open rebellion was to double down on it’s persecution of reformers:
By the end of the year, the government had introduced legislation, later known as the Six Acts, to suppress radical meetings and publications … The Manchester Observer closed in February 1820 … Hunt was sentenced to 30 months in Ilchester Gaol; Bamford, Johnson, and Healey were given one year each … by the end of 1820 every significant working-class radical reformer was in jail; civil liberties had declined to an even lower level than they were before Peterloo. Historian Robert Reid has written that “it is not fanciful to compare the restricted freedoms of the British worker in the post-Peterloo period in the early nineteenth century with those of the black South African in the post-Sharpeville period of the late twentieth century”.
In response to losing their freedoms, the middle-class and upper-class, who were the vast majority of those eligible to vote in Britain, threw their support behind the Tories and shut out the reformist-sympathizing Whigs for decades. The Tories promised them safety in exchange for civic freedoms and the lives of the working poor, and that was a trade the middle/upper strata of society was more than willing to make.
Things eventually changed. The Corn Laws were repealed, people got the right to vote and to assemble in protest. Even the freedom of press came into being once again. Mostly. The UK ranks 40th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index. The USA is at 43.
Still, things like the Peterloo Massacre cannot happen nowadays, thank goodness. Imagine having to live in a country where armed agents of the government, like the police, could murder citizens and not only get away with it, but be defended by people who are not personally at risk and who have no empathy for those being oppressed. Wouldn’t that just suck?