Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Peterloo Massacre - Bicentenary

"In the name of Him who made us, We will perish, or be free" - Samuel Bamford

On Monday 16 August 1819, St. Peter's Field, Manchester was the site of what is known as the Peterloo Massacre.  On the orders of Magistrates for the Counties of Lancaster and Chester*, cavalry, sabres drawn, rode into a crowd of some 60,000 who had gathered to call for reform of parliamentary representation. An estimated 18 people, including four women and a child, died from sabre cuts and trampling. Nearly 700 men, women and children received serious injuries.

The word Peterloo
is a play on the hard-fought and bloody Battle of Waterloo 1815, a battle which finally brought an end to the lengthy Napoleonic Wars in which some 7 million Europeans were killed in the 23 years from 1792 to 1815. 

Today, St Peter's Field is the site of buildings such as Manchester's recently refurbished Central Library, the Midland Hotel and the former Free Trade Hall (built 1853-56 and now a hotel).  In recent years, nearby Manchester Central has hosted several political party conferences - e.g. Conservative Party 2017.  The location is shown on the map at

The Peterloo Massacre took place against a background of serious domestic problems and conflict in Europe.

Domestic background:

In 1815, fewer than 2% of the population had the right to vote.  Long working hours for pitiful wages were the norm.  Hunger was rife and "Corn Laws" made bread particularly costly. The criminal law of the day - (the "Bloody Code") - was noted for its brutality.  In 1815 some 225 offences carried the death penalty and punishments such as transportation and whipping were common.  Criminal trials were generally short even for the most serious offences and there was no system of appeals.  A Court for Crown Cases Reserved was created by statute in 1848 but dealt with points of law only on reference from trial judges.  The court could quash a conviction but could not order a retrial.  It was not until 1907 that a Court of Criminal Appeal was created.

Background - International events:

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, much of continental Europe was in turmoil due to the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars.  Following the brief and uneasy peace formalised in the Treaty of Amiens (1802), Britain resumed war against Napoleonic France in May 1803; hostilities were to continue after the escape of Napoleon from Elba until the British victory at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. The return to war required the resumption of the mass enlistment of the previous ten years, especially once fears of a Napoleonic invasion once again intensified. The Corsican general Napoleon, soon to become emperor, had made no secret of his intentions of invading Britain, and in 1803 he massed his huge ‘Army of England’ on the shores of Calais, posing a visible threat to southern England. British governments of the time were anxious to avoid spread of revolution and the government expected magistrates to take a hard line against protest and dissent generally.  Such governments had no intention of cascading rights to the population as a whole. 

Jacqueline Riding - author of the excellent account "Peterloo The Story of the Manchester Massacre" (pub. Head of Zeus Ltd 2018) - observed - "The constant threat of invasion from France, which turned into an imminent danger in the years 1798 and 1803, was finally allayed by Lord Nelson's victory at Trafalgar in 1805, establishing the Royal Navy's dominance of the seas.  However, reports of the blood-stained guillotine and rampaging working-class 'sans-culottes' mobs, women and men, provided fresh impetus to the propaganda of the government and its supporters.  The term 'Jacobin' was levelled at anyone who advocated even modest reformation in the British Parliament ..." 

Manchester and Salford Yeomanry:

Peterloo was not the first large gathering in Manchester.  On 10 March 1817, about 5,000 people met in St Peters Field, aiming to march to London to set their grievances before the Prince Regent (later George IV).  Each person carried a rug or blanket for shelter or bedding during their long arduous marches, leading them to be named Blanketeers. The march was quickly suppressed, but Manchester Tories worried that they lacked protection from the hostile masses. This fear spurred a petition with more than 100 signatures to "the Boroughreeves and Constables of Manchester and Salford" demanding a meeting to establish a yeomanry corps.

A meeting was organised by the constables for 19 June 1817. Wheeler's Manchester Chronicle reported that those present resolved "that under the present circumstances it is expedient to form a body of Yeomanry Cavalry in the Towns and neighbourhood of Manchester and Salford".

The Yeomanry in 1819 was based at St John Street which is, today, the location of several sets of barristers.

As with many yeomanry regiments of the time, it was a relatively inexperienced militia recruited from among shopkeepers and tradesmen and was responsible for the first death of the day. One trooper knocked down Ann Fildes in Cooper Street, causing the death of her two-year old son William when he was thrown from her arms.

When at St Peter's Field, the Yeomanry was ordered by the magistrates to assist in the arrest of the famous speaker Henry Hunt and others.  Commanded by Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, the Yeomanry was therefore the first military force to engage with the crowd at Peterloo. Public horror at the actions of the yeomanry grew after the massacre and the yeomanry was disbanded in 1824.

According to Jacqueline Riding - 'the panic and confusion created by the Yeomanry charging headlong and randomly into the crowd, not methodically and and in an unbroken line as the Hussars were experienced enough to do, was surely the key factor in the violence and bloodshed that ensued.'

The 15th Hussars:

The 15th Hussars were a Cavalry Regiment in the British Army from 1759 to 1922 and played a distinguished role at Waterloo 1815.  A contingent of the regiment arrived at Peterloo after the local Yeomanry had become involved.

It is reported that, on arriving at the scene, the commander of the Hussars (Lieutenant Colonel L'Estrange) said to the Chairman of the Magistrates (William Hulton), 'What am I to do?'  Hulton replied, 'Good God, Sir, don't you see how they are attacking the Yeomanry?  Disperse the mob.'  Even if that exact wording was not used, there is no doubt that the Magistrate ordered L'Estrange to disperse the crowd and rescue the inexperienced Yeomanry. 'And so they rapidly advanced, sweeping the 'mingled mass of human beings' before them.'

The Riot Act:

'Reading the Riot Act' is a long-standing phrase in the English language.  It stems from the Riot Act 1714 which survived until its repeal by the Criminal Law Act 1967.

On the day of Peterloo, William Hulton and nine other magistrates assembled at a house in Mount Street close to the crowd.  Contemporaneous accounts note that the Riot Act was read from the 1st floor window of the house by a Mr Charles Ethelston who had a powerful voice. It also appears that, on the day, very few people actually heard it being read.

The 1714 Act applied where 12 or more persons were "unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously assembled together, to the disturbance of the public peace."  A Justice of the Peace (or certain other officials) could command the assembly to disperse by reading a proclamation set out in the Act.

Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their
lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.

The Act provided for an hour following the proclamation and required the authorities to "seize and apprehend" those 'continuing together' after that time. Such persons could have been found guilty of a felony which was declared to be ''without benefit of clergy' and was, at the time of Peterloo, a capital offence.

The Act also indemnified the magistrates for any death or injury arising from the dispersing of the assembly.

From the various accounts of Peterloo, it does not seem that anyone was actually charged with the felony created by the Riot Act. 

The last time the Act was definitely read in England was at Birkenhead, Cheshire, on 3 August 1919, during the second police strike, when large numbers of police officers from Birkenhead, Liverpool and Bootle joined the strike.

Events on the day:

On the day the weather was fine and, during the morning, the essentially good-natured crowd of men, women and children, gradually gathered culminating in an attendance in the region of 60,000.  (Estimates vary considerably).  People had marched there from 26 places in the Manchester district such as Oldham, Ashton-under-Lyne, Middleton and Rochdale.

Reports of the time show the marches to have been peaceful with people carrying banners referring to REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION, LOVE.  There were however some banners said LIBERTY or DEATH which, in those nervous times, were capable of being seen as a symbol of revolution.

An account of the events by the Reverend Edward Stanley included his comment that he saw no 'symptoms of riot or disturbances' before the meeting.  The people, he said, were 'sullenly peaceful.'  Stanley's account is perhaps the most objective surviving record of the day but it is his contemporaneous recollection of what he saw and heard from his location at the same building as the magistrates.

A hustings was constructed from two carts lashed together and speakers were to address the crowd.  The most famous of the speakers was Henry (Orator) Hunt who had addressed other meetings across the country.  Hunt believed in things seen as dangerous by the establishment: equal rights, universal suffrage, parliamentary reform and an end to child labour, all things that would threaten the profits of business establishments.

Perhaps acting out of fear that property would be damaged, the assembled magistrates decided to issue a warrant for the arrest of Hunt and others.  The magistrates had received depositions from various citizens who were concerned that their buildings might be damaged.  William Hulton explained that he and the other magistrates issued the warrant because the gathering inspired 'terror in the minds of the inhabitants.'  At least this offers an explanation, even if not a justification, for the arrest warrant.

The decision to order in the Yeomanry appears to have come about because senior constables, including Joseph Nadin and Jonathan Andrew, requested additional support for the safety of the constables when executing the warrant.  They considered that military aid was needed.  Thus it came about that the Yeomanry moved forward to effect the arrests and Hunt was indeed arrested.  Then came the involvement of the 15th Hussars.

Breaking up the meeting resulted in deaths and appalling injury to many.  The number of deaths caused by the military action remains uncertain but is probably in the region of 18 with around 700 people seriously injured.  Not all died at the scene.  For example, John Lees (a veteran of Waterloo) died at Oldham on 7 September and a doctor certified the death was due to violence. An inquest was held before a Coroner undoubtedly biased toward the establishment position.  No criminal charges in respect of the death were ever brought.

The Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, sent a message to the magistrates thanking them "for their prompt, decisive, and efficient measures for the preservation of the public peace".  Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, sent a letter of congratulations to the magistrates for the action they had taken.Clearly the establishment was concerned only with the status quo and unconcerned by the human misery it resulted in.

Trial of Hunt:

No less a lawyer than the Lord Chancellor, John Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon, was of the clear opinion" that the meeting "was an overt act of treason."

September 1819 saw the appearance of Hunt and others at Lancaster Assizes.  Ten defendants were tried, not for treason, but for conspiracy to overthrow the government and unlawful assembly.  All were granted bail.  The trial was set for March 1820 at York Assizes.  Hunt had petitioned to have the trial held there.

At York Assizes, Hunt conducted his own defence but, it seems, to the relief of the royal household and the government, he was found guilty.  On 15 May 1820 he was sentenced to 30 months’ imprisonment and bound over for £2,000 to keep the peace for a further five years.  The trial is described in Hunt's own book - The trial of Henry Hunt .... and others for an alleged conspiracy to overturn the government, before Mr Justice Bayley, ... Jury, at the York Lent Assizes, 1820.

Prosecution of Birley:

In 1822 at Lancaster Assizes a case was brought by Thomas Redford against Hugh Birley (commander of the yeomanry) and three other members of the yeomanry.  The defence argued that the assembly at St Peter's Field was unlawful and that the magistrates had therefore acted lawfully and that the defendants had performed their duty in accordance with the magistrates' orders.  They also encouraged witnesses to say that members of the crowd had provoked and attacked the yeomanry.  In the event, all defendants were acquitted.

The Six Acts:

It cannot be claimed that Peterloo resulted in any amelioration of the criminal law.  On the contrary, the reaction of Parliament was to enact what became known as the SIX Acts enacted during the Premiership of Lord Liverpool. When Parliament reassembled on 23 November 1819, Sidmouth announced details of the Six Acts. The main objective of this legislation was the "curbing radical journals and meeting as well as the danger of armed insurrection."

  • Training Prevention Act - made any person attending a gathering for the purpose of training or drilling liable to arrest. People found guilty of this offence could be transported for seven years. 
  • Seizure of Arms Act - gave power to local magistrates to search any property or person for arms.
  • The Seditious Meetings Act - prohibited the holding of public meetings of more than fifty people without the consent of a sheriff or magistrate.
  • Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act - provided much stronger punishments, including banishment for publications judged to be blasphemous or seditious.
  • Misdemeanours Act - attempted to reduce the delay in the administration of justice.
  • Newspaper Stamp Duties Act - subjected certain radical publications which had previously avoided stamp duty by publishing opinion and not news, to such duty.  For many people, this effectively put many publications beyond their means to pay. 

Parliamentary reform came only gradually and in a piecemeal way.  The Reform Act 1832 brought about significant changes to representation of the people in Parliament.  A change of government from Tory to Whig occurred in 1830 with Lord Grey becoming Prime Minister. The Whig Party was pro-reform and though two reform bills failed to be carried in Parliament, the third was successful and received Royal Assent in 1832.

The Bill was passed due to Lord Grey's plan to persuade King William IV to consider using his constitutional powers to create additional Whig peers in the House of Lords to guarantee the Bill's passage. On hearing of this plan, Tory peers abstained from voting, thus allowing the Bill to be passed but avoiding the creation of more Whig peers.

Further reforms came in 1867 and in 1884.

It was not until 1928 that universal suffrage was achieved following a lengthy campaign by Suffragettes and Suffragists to secure votes for women - see post 6 February 2018.


Peterloo resonates down the generations. The desire of working people to achieve fundamental democracy by representation in Parliament is a timely reminder of the long, hard struggle against the vested interests of powerful people opposed to change.

Rights have never been readily granted and can be easily lost by apathy in the face of clever political campaigning for change. Vigilance is essential.  The lesson of our island history is there on our own streets if only we will see it.

Media coverage:

iNews 15 August 2019 - Two centuries on from one of the darkest days in British political history, Manchester prepares to remember the Peterloo Massacre

The Guardian 16 August - Peterloo was the massacre that led to a new democratic era

BBC News 16 August - Peterloo Massacre: Tracing the relatives of the Failsworth Reformers 

National Archives - First account of Peterloo 


* Magistrates - the magistrates in 1819 were appointed for the Counties of Lancashire and Cheshire.  The City of Manchester obtained its own Commission of the Peace in 1839.  This lasted until the Courts Act 2003 which created a single Commission of the Peace for England and Wales.

The Manchester Guardian - John Edward Taylor was a successful businessman who was radicalised by the Peterloo Massacre. Taylor felt that the newspapers did not accurately record the outrage that the people felt about what happened at St. Peter's Field. Taylor's political friends agreed and it was decided to form their own newspaper. Eleven men, all involved in the textile industry, raised £1,050 for the venture. It was decided to call the newspaper the Manchester Guardian.

The first four-page edition appeared on Saturday 5th May, 1821 and cost 7d. Of this sum, 4d was a tax imposed by the government. The Manchester Guardian, like other newspapers at the time, also had to pay a duty of 3d a lb. on paper and three shillings and sixpence on every advertisement that was included. These taxes severely restricted the number of people who could afford to buy newspapers.

Poetry and music -  Peterloo is commemorated in both poetry, music and film.  The Masque of Anarchy by Shelley: 

`Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number--

Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you--
Ye are many -- they are few.'

See also Samuel Bamford's The Song of Slaughter -

Chains, but forgèd to degrade us,
Oh, the base indignity!
In the name of Him who made us,
We will perish, or be free.

Sir Malcolm Arnold's Peterloo Overture is a powerful musical impression of the day.

The 208 film PETERLOO is a graphic illustration of the events of the day.  Extracts are at the Video Gallery.

Memorial in Manchester - 2019

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