The Peterloo Massacre

The rotten borough of Dunwich gained notoriety in Blackadder the Third when it’s most notable voters were, “a dachshund named Colin and a hen in it’s late forties.” In the early 1800s the borough was practically under the sea and had only 32 registered voters. Similarly Old Sarum was a desolate district with only one voter. Manchester, on the other hand, was a thriving city with a population of 100,000 on the cusp of boldly leading Britain into the industrial age. What did these areas have in common? Their parliamentary representation consisted of two MPs each.

The Patriotic Union Society (PUS) created by journalists of the Manchester Observer (The precursor of The Guardian), led the demands for reform. Their support swelled due to the harsh economic conditions of the post-Napoleonic age. For example the Corn Laws of 1815 forbade the import of cheaper grain from other countries to protect British producers. The result of this was a fixed high price of food at a time of severe shortages coupled with agricultural workers wages being one third of what they had been ten years before.

To address these urgent issues, a protest meeting was arranged for 16th August 1819 in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester with an expected crowd of at least 80,000. The leaders however were conscious of the somewhat negative reputation of reformers in the media, and instructions were given to all participants promoting ‘Cleanliness, Sobriety, Order and Peace’ as well as a ‘prohibition of all weapons of offence or defence’.

However only days before the meeting a government spy intercepted a PUS invitation to Henry ‘The Orator’ Hunt to address the meeting which informed him that so desperate were the people of the North West with their economic and social situation that, “nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection.” The government reaction was swift; the military were summoned which consisted of 600 men from the 15th Hussars supplemented by 2 six-pounder guns, cavalry and a locally recruited militia which bizarrely included a sizeable number of publicans infuriated that the throats of the reformers would remain dry on the day. This reaction clearly shows that the decision makers in the government, most of whom had stark memories of the French upheaval in 1789, were unable to differentiate between revolution and reform.

On the warm and clear summers day at St Peters field the sober reformers donning their Sunday finest arrived in great numbers from surrounding areas such as Oldham, Rochdale and Stockport. They carried banners proclaiming, “No Corn Laws,” and, “Annual Parliaments.” At midday the military formed a corridor through the crowd which led to the hustings upon which Hunt would address the meeting. On his heroic arrival, the crowd burst into enthusiastic cheers and woops of joy, almost smelling reform in the air.

However the magistrate William Hulton in charge of the government forces smelt only the whiff of revolt and judged this moment to be his opportunity to strike. Immediate warrants for the arrest of Hunt and the other leaders were issued and confused instructions were passed to the military to intervene. Swords drawn, the cavalry charged to the hustings while hacking at the crowd around them, meanwhile the infantry fixed bayonets and charged headlong into the pandemonium. Following ten minutes of repugnant chaos the entire field was cleared in a storm of violence, save for the bloodied victims and those tending to them. Within a quarter of an hour of Hunt’s arrival, there were over 600 injured and 11 dead.

In the immediate aftermath the Prince Regent and government commended the action of the military and concluded that every meeting for radical reform was now an act of treason, punishable by death. However privately the Lord Chancellor Earl Eldon condemned the action at St Peter’s Field and quite rightly questioned whether a crowd could as one commit an act of treason. Following his brutal arrest, Hunt was convicted of misdemeanour and sentenced to two years in prison.

Before the year was out the government passed the ‘Six Acts’ which included the banning of meetings with over 50 people (unless they were concerning church or state matters) and made the training of how to fire a weapon punishable by transportation to Australia. It must be noted however that within five years all of these acts were repealed.

The long term consequences of what became known as the ‘Peterloo Massacre’, as an ironic reference to the battle of Waterloo in 1815, were undoubtedly positive. The draconian Six Acts merely served to spur on a national desire for change. In 1832 the Reform Act ended the practice of rotten boroughs and introduced sweeping parliamentary reform. In addition the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 resulted in a body who could control crowds without, for the most part, resorting to crushing violence. Perhaps most crucially the government came to realise that acts of repression would only lead to creating the violent mobs whom they so feared and that the introduction of reform was key in the continuity of a peaceful and prosperous Britain.

Originally published for ‘History makers’ on

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