The Peterloo massacre: What was it, how many people died and who was to blame?
On 16 August 1819 the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry massacred protesters at St Peter's Field in Manchester, killing at least 16 people
What was the Peterloo Massacre?
On 16 August 1819 Samuel Bamford (1788–1872), a poet and weaver living in the town of Middleton, walked six miles to St Peter’s Field, an undeveloped piece of land near the centre of Manchester. He led a contingent of friends, family and fellow radicals to join a vast meeting. It was intended to be a peaceful one, and about 60,000 men, women and children were in attendance. Passages in the Life of a Radical, his 1841 autobiography, vividly recalls how this vast gathering descended into butchery and terror.
The people had assembled to listen to the charismatic radical politician Henry Hunt (1773–1835), who promised to explain how parliamentary reform and repealing the much-hated Corn Laws (which kept the cost of bread artificially high) would improve their lives. The reformers wanted universal male suffrage to ensure their interests were represented at Parliament. There was a party atmosphere: families dressed in Sunday best had walked many miles, singing songs, carrying flags and banners, and accompanied by bands playing popular tunes. They came from the villages and towns that later would make up the Greater Manchester area, from Bury, Chadderton, Failsworth, Middleton, Oldham, Rochdale, Stalybridge, Stockport and even Delph on the Yorkshire border. Also not everyone was there for politics. Many came out of curiosity, attracted by the novelty of a mass demonstration and a celebrity speaker. None of them expected the horror in store.
A few minutes into the meeting the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, as instructed by the magistrates present, rode into the crowds, brutally cutting a path towards the hustings where they arrested Hunt and other speakers. The shocking event was dubbed ‘Peterloo’ in a satirical reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier.
How many died at Peterloo?
At least 15 people lost their lives during the Peterloo massacre. A further three sustained fatal injuries. Up to 600 more were injured by mounted yeomanry wielding sabres, or were trampled underfoot by the cavalry horses and a panicking crowd.
Why did the Peterloo massacre happen?
While it’s hard to explain the heavy-handed approach of the authorities and the viciousness of this attack on unarmed civilians, it should be remembered that it was only two decades since the end of the French Revolution. The government was terrified by the spectre of mob rule and an English uprising. Peterloo, for the Loyalist supporters of king and country, was about teaching the Radicals a lesson or two – a necessary bloodletting to crush the emerging reform movement.
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The magistrates who sent in the military tried to avoid any blame. But John Tyas, a journalist from The Times, had been sitting next to Hunt. He was no friend of radicalism, but what he saw that day appalled him. His temper was not improved by being rounded up and arrested with the other men on the hustings, and thrown into gaol overnight. Three days later he published his damning account, saying that “not the slightest insult was offered” to the yeomanry that would have provoked the attack. He said that Hunt and another speaker, Joseph Johnson, surrendered peacefully to the yeomanry, but they charged the crowd indiscriminately in a bid to cut down banners with radical slogans. He concluded: “Was that meeting at Manchester an unlawful assembly? We believe not. Was the subject proposed for discussion, reform of the House of Commons, an unlawful object? Assuredly not. Was anything done at this meeting before the cavalry rode in upon it, contrary to the law or in breach of the peace? No such circumstances are recorded in any of the statements which have yet reached our hands.”