Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Peterloo Massacre

by Maggi Andersen

St Peter’s Field, Manchester, England.

In August 1819 on a cloudless, hot summer’s day, a peaceable crowd of some 60,000 to 80,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field (an open piece of cleared land alongside Mount Street) to hear orator, Henry Hunt speak and to demand reform of parliamentary representation. What happened next was as unnecessary as it was shocking. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuring confusion, 15 people were killed and between 400 and 700 injured.

In March 1819, Joseph Johnson, John Knight and James Wroe formed the Manchester Patriotic Union Society. All the leading radicals in Manchester joined the organisation. Johnson was appointed secretary and Wroe became treasurer. The local magistrates were concerned that such a substantial gathering of reformers might end in a riot. The magistrates therefore decided to arrange for a large number of soldiers to be in Manchester on the day of the meeting. This included four squadrons of cavalry of the 15th Hussars (600 men), several hundred infantrymen, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry (400 men), a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery and two six-pounder guns and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry (120 men) and all Manchester's special constables (400 men).

At about 11.00 a.m. William Hulton, the chairman, and nine other magistrates met at Mr. Buxton's house in Mount Street that overlooked St. Peter's Field. Although there was no trouble, the magistrates became concerned by the growing size of the crowd. Estimations concerning the size of the crowd vary but Hulton came to the conclusion that there were at least 50,000 people in St. Peter's Field at midday. Hulton, therefore, took the decision to send Edward Clayton, the Boroughreeve and the special constables to clear a path through the crowd. The 400 special constables were therefore ordered to form two continuous lines between the hustings where the speeches were to take place, and Mr. Buxton's house where the magistrates were staying.

Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the military to arrest well-known radical orator, Henry Hunt who was asked to chair the meeting, and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Arrested along with Hunt for inciting a riot and imprisoned was Samuel Bamford, who led a group from his native Middleton to St. Peter’s Field. Bamford emerged as a prominent voice for radical reform. Hunt became MP for Preston 1830-33.

To understand what happened in Manchester one must look at the period of economic upheaval between 1783 to 1846, when Britain shifted from being a predominantly agricultural and commercial society to being the world’s first industrial nation. Many of the most contentious political issues of the day, corn and currency laws for example, were really questions of whether government policy should be directed towards encouraging this shift, or trying to reverse it.

Accompanying the economic changes was the most sustained and dangerous cycle of revolutionary discontent and working-class protest in British history. This prompted a few political concessions on the part of the governing aristocracy, but more significant was the emergence of governmental machinery designed to maintain law and order, which in turn led unintentionally to the foundation of the modern centralized and bureaucratic state.

The power of the Crown declined significantly. Although George III (until he became incurably mad in 1810) George IV, William IV, Victoria, and her consort Albert, could all influence the course of political intrigue, the monarch’s power to control the policies of the state was severely reduced.

As the scope and scale of government business increased during the long French wars, less and less passed through the monarch’s hands. Except possibly where foreign policy was concerned, the Crown was being reduced to little more than a figurehead of state. Effective power remained in the hands of a territorial aristocracy, whose representatives still dominated both Houses of Parliament. They faced an active and vociferous radical movement, particularly strong in 1792 and in the economically depressed years after the end of the war in 1815, when a period of famine and chronic unemployment came into being, exacerbated by the introduction of the first of the Corn Laws.

Postwar adjustment brought depression, with agrarian disturbances, machine-breaking and revival of popular reform agitation. Two meets at Spa Fields 1816 and an attack on the Prince Regent led to suspension of Habeas Corpus and restrictions on public meetings.

After the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century, Manchester began expanding at an astonishing rate in the 19th Century as part of a process of unplanned urbanization.

Historian Robert Poole has called the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester one of the defining moments of its age. It left an enormous psychological scar on a polity which prided itself on its ability to contain discontents. Yet the aristocracy survived, largely because the middling ranks, terrified by the violence of the French Revolution, rejected any sort of revolutionary radicalism.

The Peterloo Massacre called on the Government in 1819 to pass what is known as the Six Acts which forbade training in arms and drilling, authorized seizure of arms, simplified prosecutions, forbade seditious assemblies, punished blasphemous libels and restricted the press.

Resource: The Cambridge Historical Encyclopedia of Great Britain and Ireland.
Author Website:


  1. I would think the recent, to them, events in France including the Reign of Terror, execution of the king and queen, abolition of the nobility until 1814, the rise of Napoleon, was always in the back of the aristocracy's mind. Not excusing the, to us, over-reaction, but I can see that there might have been some who saw revolutionaries around every corner, and acted accordingly.

  2. A fine explanation of how the government machinery in England came to grind the left and the right, the Crown, the aristocracy and the commons into a sluiced flow toward the present forms. Thank you, Debbie!

  3. I'm amazed that things didn't deteriorate worse than they did with so many people fearing for their livelihoods during the transition to the Industrial age.

    Very helpful for my understanding, thanks!

  4. You're welcome, Sophia, Thanks for the comment.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Katherine.


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