1819: The Peterloo Massacre
On this day in 1819, 60,000 to 80,000 people gathered on St. Peter's Field in Manchester to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. Constituency boundaries had failed to keep pace with the profound effects of industrialisation, with the burgeoning cities bereft of representation, while so-called rotten boroughs, which returned MP’s form just a handful of voters, held a disproportionate sway over government. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, high unemployment, depressed wages and famine, exacerbated by the punishing effects of the Corn Laws, had resulted in a strong desire among the working classes for change.
Previously planned meetings had been banned by local magistrate, who feared rioting or even a full insurrection; the events of the French Revolution and its aftermath were still fresh in the memory of the ruling classes. The meeting on the 16th of August was therefore held with the declared aim “to consider the propriety of adopting the most LEGAL and EFFECTUAL means of obtaining a reform in the Common House of Parliament“.
Among others, the crowd was there to hear the radical speaker Henry Hunt. However, no sooner had Hunt arrived at the hustings, constables assisted by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry pushed through the crowd to arrest him; the charge would be sedition. The day had already seen its first casualty when 2-year old William Fildes was knocked from his mother’s arms by a galloping rider as he raced to catch his fellow Yeomanry on their way to the field. Now, having carried out the arrest, the inexperienced and possibly drunk riders of the Yeomanry began destroying the banners and flags of the hustings before turning on those in the crowd. In the ensuing melee, the Yeomanry began striking indiscriminately at the crowd with their sabres and trampling them with their horses. Hemmed into the field by its narrow exists as well as the bayonets of 88th Regiment of Foot, who blocked the main thoroughfares, the crowd was unable to disperse effectively.
The Corn Laws were tariffs and other trade restrictions on imported food and grain enforced in the United Kingdom between 1815 and 1846. They were designed to keep grain prices high to favour domestic producers. While they enhanced the profits and political power associated with land ownership, they also raised food prices and the costs of living for the British public.
As a result 18 people would lose their lives and a further 400-700 injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier. Historian Robert Poole has called the Massacre one of the defining moments of its age. In its own time, the London and national papers shared the horror felt in the Manchester region, but Peterloo's immediate effect was to cause the government to crack down on reform, not embrace it. It would not be until the Great Reform Act of 1832 that Manchester would be able to elect MPs of its own.
Peterloo 200 years on
Furthermore, in a partnership with the Age of Revolution and The University of Kent, the authors and publishers have created a free twenty-page schools’ version of the graphic novel specially adapted for teachers wishing to explore the events in the classroom. Its aim is to help students to understand the event, and to identify links and symbols that bridge periods and topics. It will provoke insights into the nature of political protest in British history, its representation in art, and its relevance to the world today. Find out more and download the schools' version at:
Our model, which will depict the massacre and the local landmarks that existed in 1819, will go on display at the Great Western Brick Show in Swindon on the 5th and 6th October. Find out more and buy tickets at:
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