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The Peterloo Massacre

This week marks the single most momentous day in Manchester’s history

Published on August 16th 2010.


The Peterloo Massacre

Monday 16 August 1819 started off a beautiful day in Manchester but it didn’t end that way. By 2pm in the afternoon fifteen people had been cut down in the present Convention area of the city centre and more than 700 had been injured.

The immediate effect was further government repression but the long-term influence was one of disenchantment with the existing electoral system. The indignation of many in the nation of all classes at British soldiers killing British people faded but never disappeared. One of the key steps to the reform of Parliament in 1832 had taken.

The event became known as the Peterloo Massacre and was the single most important Manchester moment in terms of the way it shook up British Society and made the nation rethink the way it was governed.

So how did it come about?

A meeting had been called in the town as part of a larger movement campaigning for a national extension of the vote to all adults and for representation in the new industrial centres – Manchester’s nearest MP was in Newton-le-Willows and was effectively elected by the Stanley family at Knowsley.

To have little direct influence on the government was a cause of growing anger. Thousands, in particular, of handloom weavers in the area were caught in a downward spiral of wages and a rise in the price of bread. Representation and the opportunity to address problems directly to Parliament was seen as a matter of life and death.

Words typical of the mood were incorporated in the Declaration to be sent to London by the protesters: 'Governments, not immediately derived from and strictly accountable to the People, are usurpations and ought to be resisted and destroyed '. Yet the meeting was always intended to be conducted peacefully. The leader of the meeting Henry Hunt asked people to come 'armed with no other weapon but that of a self approving conscience; determined not to be irritated or excited '.

It was the town's magistrates that became excited.Shortly before 1pm, the magistrates – a weak group of easily panicked individuals - decided to arrest Hunt. Failing to do so, they called for the troops. Unfortunately it was the semi-trained rabble of the volunteer Manchester and Salford Yeomanry who reacted first. Moving into a mass of around 60,000 the Yeomanry became separated from each other and started to lash out with their sabres.

Shortly after regular soldiers, the 15th Hussars, arrived and within 15 minutes the field was clear. The event was nicknamed Peterloo through its location at St Peter's Field and because participants on both sides had fought at the recent Battle of Waterloo.

The immediate effect was further government repression but the long-term influence was one of disenchantment with the existing electoral system. The indignation of many in the nation of all classes at British soldiers killing British people faded but never disappeared. One of the key steps to the reform of Parliament in 1832 had taken.

In a bitter irony the Central Manchester Ward has today one of the lowest electoral turnouts in the country. Maybe constituents need to be reminded of the battles that have been fought on their behalf. They could do worse than read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s celebrated commemorative poem, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, about how people engaged in a protest for basic rights, met ‘Murder on the Way’ in Manchester 191 years ago.

The best display in a Manchester Museum concerning Peterloo is at The People’s History Museum on Bridge Street in the city centre which is open between 10am- 5pm everyday and is free.

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