The Peterloo Massacre occurred at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, England, on this date in 1819, when cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 peaceful and well dressed citizens who had gathered primarily to demand the reform of parliamentary representation, but also to protest the notorious Corn Laws. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had resulted in periods of famine and chronic unemployment, exacerbated by the introduction of the first of the Corn Laws which placed tariffs on cheap imported grains (chiefly wheat) to keep the price of British grain artificially high. By the beginning of 1819, the pressure generated by poor economic conditions, coupled with the relative lack of suffrage in Northern England, had enhanced the appeal of political radicalism. In response, the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform, organized a peaceful demonstration to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt.
Shortly after the meeting began local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400–700 were 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 Peterloo 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, with the passing of what became known as the Six Acts. It also led directly to the foundation of The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian), but had little other effect on the pace of reform at the time because vested interests were deeply entrenched.
I studied 19th century English social history for my O-level exams in England, and it was this study that changed my life course from chemistry to history and anthropology. Since that time I’ve had a constant interest in the 19th century, as regular readers will have noted. There are so many defining events – the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions, the Congress of Vienna, the 1848 revolutions, etc. – that set the stage for the monumental transformation of Europe and the world in the 20th and 21st centuries. Peterloo is a small, but important piece of the puzzle.
The proposed demonstration in Manchester touched a very raw nerve in British economic and political life. Ultimately it came down to a battle between powerful and monied factions (doesn’t it always?). In 1819, Lancashire was represented by two Members of Parliament (MPs). Voting was restricted to the adult male owners of freehold land with an annual rental value of 40 shillings or more, and votes could only be cast at the county town of Lancaster, by a public spoken declaration at the hustings. Constituency boundaries were out of date, and the so-called rotten boroughs had a hugely disproportionate influence on the membership of the Parliament of the United Kingdom compared to the size of their populations: Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs, as did Dunwich in Suffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea. The major urban centres of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Stockport, with a combined population of almost one million, were represented by either the two county MPs for Lancashire, or the two for Cheshire in the case of Stockport. By comparison, more than half of all MPs were returned by a total of just 154 owners of rotten or closed boroughs. In 1816, Thomas Oldfield’s The Representative History of Great Britain and Ireland; being a History of the House of Commons, and of the Counties, Cities, and Boroughs of the United Kingdom from the earliest Period claimed that of the 515 MPs for England and Wales 351 were returned by the patronage of 177 individuals and a further 16 by the direct patronage of the government: all 45 Scottish MPs owed their seats to patronage. These inequalities in political representation led to calls for reform.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, a brief boom in textile manufacture was followed by periods of chronic economic depression, particularly among textile weavers and spinners (the textile trade was concentrated in Lancashire). Weavers who could have expected to earn 15 shillings for a six-day week in 1803, saw their wages cut to 5 shillings or less. The industrialists, who were cutting wages without offering relief, blamed market forces generated by the aftershocks of the Napoleonic Wars. Exacerbating matters were the Corn Laws, the first of which was passed in 1815. The cost of food rose as people were forced to buy the more expensive and lower quality British grain, and periods of famine and chronic unemployment ensued, increasing the desire for political reform both in Lancashire and in the country at large. In consequence a large demonstration was called by Hunt at St Peter’s Field in Manchester. People were invited to attend from all over Manchester and surrounds. At this point the local authorities were alarmed even though it was designed as a peaceful rally.
St Peter’s Field was a croft (an open piece of land) alongside Mount Street which was being cleared to enable the last section of Peter Street to be constructed. Piles of brushwood had been placed at the end of the field nearest to the Friends Meeting House, but the remainder of the field was clear. Thomas Worrell, Manchester’s Assistant Surveyor of Paving, arrived to inspect the field at 7:00 am. His job was to remove anything that might be used as a weapon, and he duly had “about a quarter of a load” of stones carted away.
The Manchester magistrates met at 9:00 am, to breakfast at the Star Inn on Deansgate and to consider what action they should take on Henry Hunt’s arrival at the meeting. By 10:30 am they had come to no conclusions, and moved to a house on the southeastern corner of St Peter’s Field, from where they planned to observe the meeting. They were concerned that it would end in a riot, or even a rebellion, and had arranged for a substantial number of regular troops and militia yeomanry to be deployed. The military presence comprised 600 men of the 15th Hussars; several hundred infantrymen; a Royal Horse Artillery unit with two six-pounder cannons; 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry; 400 special constables; and 120 cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. The Manchester & Salford Yeomanry were relatively inexperienced militia recruited from among local shopkeepers and tradesmen, the most numerous of which were publicans. They had been recently mocked by the Manchester Observer as “generally speaking, the fawning dependents of the great, with a few fools and a greater proportion of coxcombs, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals.” They were subsequently variously described as “younger members of the Tory party in arms”, and as “hot-headed young men, who had volunteered into that service from their intense hatred of Radicalism.”
The crowd that gathered in St Peter’s Field arrived in disciplined and organized contingents. Each village or chapelry was given a time and a place to meet, from where its members were to proceed to assembly points in the larger towns or townships, and from there on to Manchester. Contingents were sent from all around the region, the largest and “best dressed” of which was a group of 10,000 who had travelled from Oldham Green, comprising people from Oldham, Royton (which included a sizable female section), Crompton, Lees, Saddleworth and Mossley. Other large contingents marched from Middleton and Rochdale (6,000) and Stockport (1,500–5,000 ). Reports of the size of the crowd at the meeting vary substantially. Contemporaries estimated it from 30,000 to as many as 150,000; modern estimates are 60,000–80,000, which would have been about half the population of the urban area, and the largest meeting of its kind ever in England to date.
Hunt’s carriage arrived at the meeting shortly after 1:00 pm, and he made his way to the hustings. Alongside Hunt on the speakers’ stand were John Knight, a cotton manufacturer and reformer, Joseph Johnson, the organizer of the meeting, John Thacker Saxton, managing editor of the Manchester Observer, the publisher Richard Carlile, and George Swift, reformer and shoemaker. There were also a number of reporters, including John Tyas of The Times, John Smith of the Liverpool Echo and Edward Baines Jr, the son of the editor of the Leeds Mercury. By this time St Peter’s Field, an area of 14,000 square yards, was packed with tens of thousands of men, women and children. The crowd around the speakers was so dense that “their hats seemed to touch”; large groups of curious spectators gathered on the outskirts of the crowd. The rest of Manchester was like a ghost town, the streets and shops were empty.
William Hulton, the chairman of the magistrates watching from the house on the edge of St Peter’s Field, saw the enthusiastic reception that Hunt received on his arrival at the assembly, and it encouraged him to action. He issued an arrest warrant for Henry Hunt, Joseph Johnson, John Knight, and James Moorhouse. On being handed the warrant the Chief Constable, Jonathan Andrews, offered his opinion that the press of the crowd surrounding the hustings would make military assistance necessary for its execution. Hulton then wrote two letters, one to Major Thomas Trafford, the commanding officer of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, and the other to the overall military commander in Manchester, Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange. The contents of both notes were similar:
Sir, as chairman of the select committee of magistrates, I request you to proceed immediately to no. 6 Mount Street, where the magistrates are assembled. They consider the Civil Power wholly inadequate to preserve the peace. I have the honour, & c. Wm. Hulton.
The notes were handed to two horsemen who were standing by. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were stationed just a short distance away in Portland Street, and so received their note first. They immediately drew their swords and galloped towards St Peter’s Field. One trooper, in a frantic attempt to catch up, knocked down a woman in Cooper Street, causing the death of her son when he was thrown from her arms; two-year-old William Fildes was the first casualty of Peterloo.
Sixty cavalrymen of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, a local factory owner, arrived at the house from where the magistrates were watching; some reports allege that they were drunk. Andrews, the Chief Constable, instructed Birley that he had an arrest warrant which he needed assistance to execute. Birley was asked to take his cavalry to the hustings to allow the speakers to be removed; it was by then about 1:40 pm.
The route towards the hustings between the special constables was narrow, and as the inexperienced horses were thrust further and further into the crowd they reared and plunged as people tried to get out of their way. The arrest warrant had been given to the Deputy Constable, Joseph Nadin, who followed behind the yeomanry. As the cavalry pushed towards the speakers’ stand they became stuck in the crowd, and in panic started to hack about themselves with their sabres. On his arrival at the stand Nadin arrested Hunt, Johnson and a number of others including John Tyas, the reporter from The Times. Their mission to execute the arrest warrant having been achieved, the yeomanry set about destroying the banners and flags on the stand. According to Tyas, the yeomanry then attempted to reach flags in the crowd “cutting most indiscriminately to the right and to the left to get at them” – only then (said Tyas) were brickbats thrown at the military: “From this point the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry lost all command of temper”.
From his vantage point William Hulton perceived the unfolding events as an assault on the yeomanry, and on L’Estrange’s arrival at 1:50 pm, at the head of his hussars, he ordered them into the field to disperse the crowd with the words: “Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry; disperse the meeting!” The 15th Hussars formed themselves into a line stretching across the eastern end of St Peter’s Field, and charged into the crowd. At about the same time the Cheshire Yeomanry charged from the southern edge of the field. At first the crowd had some difficulty in dispersing, as the main exit route into Peter Street was blocked by the 88th Regiment of Foot, standing with bayonets fixed. One officer of the 15th Hussars was heard trying to restrain the by now out of control Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, who were “cutting at every one they could reach”: “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!”
Within ten minutes the crowd had been dispersed, at the cost of eleven dead (several died later of wounds) and more than six hundred injured. Only the wounded, their helpers, and the dead were left behind. For some time afterwards there was rioting in the streets, most seriously at New Cross, where troops fired on a crowd attacking a shop belonging to someone rumored to have taken one of the women reformers’ flags as a souvenir. Peace was not restored in Manchester until the next morning, and in Stockport and Macclesfield rioting continued on the 17th. There was also a major riot in Oldham that day, during which one person was shot and wounded.
The Peterloo Massacre has been called one of the defining moments of its age. Many of those present at the massacre, including local masters, employers and owners, were horrified by the carnage. One of the casualties, Oldham cloth-worker and ex-soldier John Lees, who died from his wounds on 9 September, had been present at the Battle of Waterloo. Shortly before his death he said to a friend that he had never been in such danger as at Peterloo: “At Waterloo there was man to man but there [Peterloo] it was downright murder.” When news of the massacre began to spread, the population of Manchester and surrounding districts were horrified and outraged.
Peterloo was the first public meeting at which journalists from important, distant newspapers were present and within a day or so of the event, accounts were published in London, Leeds and Liverpool. The London and national papers shared the horror felt in the Manchester region, and the feeling of indignation throughout the country became intense. James Wroe, editor of the Manchester Observer was the first to describe the incident as the “Peterloo Massacre”, coining his headline by combining “St Peter’s Field” with the “Battle of Waterloo” that had taken place four years earlier. He also wrote a pamphlet entitled “The Peterloo Massacre: A Faithful Narrative of the Events”. Priced at 2d each, they sold out every print run for 14 weeks and had a large national circulation. Sir Francis Burdett, a reformist MP, was jailed for three months for publishing a seditious libel.
Naturally all of the militia were acquitted of any wrongdoing by biased judges. Things don’t change much – money and power trump grievous wrongs.
It’s hard to “celebrate” a truly heinous crime, but I can celebrate the city of Manchester, home of fine Lancashire cooking. Here’s Manchester tart. If you want to be grim you can think of the jam as the blood of Peterloo.
butter, for greasing
500g/1 lb 2oz shortcrust pastry (see Hints)
plain flour, for dusting
200g/7oz raspberry jam
3 tbsp desiccated coconut, plain
3 tbsp desiccated coconut, toasted in a dry skillet until golden-brown, to serve
300g/11 oz fresh raspberries (frozen will do at a pinch)
500ml/17 fl oz full-fat milk
1 vanilla pod, split, seeds scraped out with a knife
5 egg yolks
125g/4½ oz caster sugar
2 tbsp cornflour
icing sugar, for dusting
400ml/14 fl oz double cream, whipped until soft peaks form
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F.
Grease a 24 cm/10 in tart pan with butter.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured work surface to a 0.5cm/¼in thickness. Line the prepared tart pan with the pastry. Prick the pastry base all over with a fork, then chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
Place a sheet of baking parchment into it and half-fill with baking beans. Transfer the pastry case to the oven and bake for 15 minutes, or until pale golden-brown. Remove the baking parchment and baking beans and return the pastry case to the oven for a further 4-5 minutes, or until pale golden-brown.
Spread the raspberry jam on the pastry base in an even layer. Sprinkle over the three tablespoons of non-toasted desiccated coconut and half of the fresh raspberries (thawed if frozen). Set the pastry base aside.
Bring the milk, vanilla pod and vanilla seeds to the boil in a pan, then reduce the heat to a simmer and simmer for 1-2 minutes. Remove the vanilla pod.
In a bowl, beat together the egg yolks and sugar until well combined.
Pour a small amount of the hot milk and vanilla mixture over the egg and sugar mixture and whisk vigorously. Slowly add the rest of the milk, whisking continuously, until the mixture is smooth and well combined.
Return the mixture to the pan over a medium heat. Whisk in the cornflour, a little at a time, until well combined, then heat, stirring continuously until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Transfer the custard mixture to a clean bowl and dust with icing sugar then press plastic wrap over the surface (this prevents a skin from forming on the surface of the custard). Set aside to cool, then chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or until needed. You can make the custard the day before.
Fold the whipped double cream into the chilled custard mixture until well combined.
Spoon the custard and cream mixture into the pastry case in an even layer. Sprinkle over the remaining fresh raspberries.
To serve, sprinkle over the toasted desiccated coconut.