On the 16th of August 1819 the huge open area around what's now St Peter's Square, Manchester, played host to an outrage against over 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters; an
event which became known as
The Peterloo Massacre.
An estimated 18 people, including four women and a child, died from sabre cuts and trampling. Nearly 700 men, women and children received extremely serious injuries. All in the name of liberty and freedom from poverty.
The Massacre occurred during a period of immense political tension and mass protests. Fewer than 2% of the
population had the vote, and hunger
was rife with the disastrous corn laws making bread unaffordable.
PEACEFUL ASSEMBLYOn the morning of 16th August the crowd began to gather, conducting themselves, according to contemporary accounts, with dignity and discipline, the majority dressed in their Sunday best.
The key speaker was to be famed orator Henry Hunt, the platform consisted of a simple cart, located in the front of what's now the Manchester Central Conference Centre, and the space was filled with banners - REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION and, touchingly, LOVE.
Many of the banner poles were topped with the red cap of liberty - a powerful symbol at the time.
You can see where all this took place on these two maps of Manchester.
Local magistrates watching from a window near the field panicked at the sight of the assembly, and read the riot act, (in)effectively ordering what little
of the crowd could hear them to disperse.
As 600 Hussars, several hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the
Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables waited in reserve, the local Yeomanry were given the task of
arresting the speakers. The Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Birley and Major Thomas
Trafford, were essentially a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners.
On horseback, armed with sabres and clubs, many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. (In one instance,
spotting a reporter from the radical Manchester Observer, a Yeomanry officer called out "There's Saxton, damn him, run him through.")
Heading for the hustings, they charged when the crowd linked arms to try and stop the arrests, and proceeded to strike down banners and people with
their swords. Rumours from the period have persistently stated the Yeomanry were drunk.
The panic was interpreted as the crowd attacking the yeomanry, and the Hussars (Led by Lieutenant Colonel Guy L'Estrange) were ordered in.
As with the Tiananmen Square Massacre, there were unlikely heroes amoung the military. An unnamed cavalry officer attempted to strike up the swords
of the Yeomanry, crying - "For shame, gentlemen: what are you about? The people cannot get away!" But the majority joined in with the attack.
The term 'Peterloo', was intended to mock the soldiers who attacked unarmed civilians by echoing the term 'Waterloo' - the soldiers from that battle being seen by many as genuine heroes.
By 2pm the carnage was over, and the field left full of abandoned banners and dead bodies. Journalists present at the event were arrested, others
who went on to report the event were subsequently jailed. The businessman John Edward Taylor went on to help set up the Guardian newspaper as a reaction to what he'd seen.
The speakers and organizers were put on trial, at first under the charge of High treason - a charge
that was reluctantly dropped by the prosecution. The Hussars and Magistrates received a message of
congratulations from the Prince Regent, and were cleared of any wrong-doing by the official inquiry.
Historians acknowledge that Peterloo was hugely influential in ordinary people winning the right to vote, led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from
which grew the Trade Unions, and also resulted in the establishment of the Manchester Guardian newspaper.
According to Nick Mansfield, director of the People’s History Museum in Manchester, "Peterloo is a critical event not only because of the number of people
killed and injured, but because ultimately it changed public opinion to influence the extension of the right to vote and give us the democracy we enjoy
today. It was critical to our freedoms."
Eyewitness Account of the Massacre
Shelley's Poem 'The Masque of Anarchy'