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Soldiers on the rampage at St Peter's Square

Gigs, walks, poetry and rousing speeches to mark the day they set the soldiers on the peaceful folk of Manchester

Published on August 6th 2009.

Soldiers on the rampage at St Peter's Square

16 August 1819: a summer's day, a public holiday, and the most tragic day in Manchester history.

“Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning – others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath and others would never breathe more.”

A huge crowd, maybe as many as 60,000, walked in processional parties from mill towns such as Bury and Stockport to St Peter’s Field to campaign for the right to vote. This was a period marked by severe political repression and Mancunians had no vote. The growing town was still being run by the mediaeval Court Leet.

Bands played and banners were held high, one proclaiming ‘Equal representation or DEATH. Unite and be free.’ Men, women and children marched to the rally, instructed by the organisers to arrive peacefully, without weapons.

They expected to hear speakers discuss parliamentary reform, believing it would relieve the poverty they endured. But speakers such Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, a rabble-rousing campaigner who supported annual parliaments, universal suffrage and the secret ballot, weren’t to be heard on that fateful day.

The rally never really began. As Hunt began to speak, soldiers, some on horseback, savagely dispersed the crowd with sabres and bayonets. In a few minutes 15 had died and around 600 were injured. An eyewitness described how, “Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning – others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath and others would never breathe more.”

It was claimed that most people were injured as a result of the crush of the fleeing crowd, particularly the women, due to their ‘physical frailty’. But hundreds had serious wounds caused by weapons and/or horses hooves, and the women present, many dressed head to foot in white, were nearly three times more likely to be injured than the men. A journalist on a local paper, with the recent Battle of Waterloo in mind, soon dubbed the atrocity ‘The Peterloo Massacre’.

The result of this terrible act of political repression was yet more repression. The government supported the actions of the Manchester authorities and enacted even more repressive measures. The local Yeomanry were tried and acquitted of any wrongdoing; Henry Hunt and other organisers were jailed. Not for actually doing anything, merely for intending to; ‘assembling… for the purpose of exciting discontent.’

Peterloo Massacre – commemorations in 2009

190 years later, and Manchester is holding its biggest commemoration yet of this major event in English history. This year, there'll be a full day of activities, including walks, gigs, poetry readings and an exhibition at Central Library.

The Peterloo Memorial Campaign is organising many of the events. They persuaded Manchester City Council to replace a vaguely worded blue plaque commemorating the massacre with a red plaque that more clearly explains what happened at the protest. You can find it on the side of the Radisson Hotel on the corner of Peter Street and Southmill Street.

However, the campaigners (and many supporters) feel the red plaque still doesn't do justice to the significance of the massacre. The council are making plans to install a more appropriate memorial, and the campaigners are keen to ensure that it is prominent, explanatory and respectful to those who were injured or killed in the massacre.


Guided walk by Jonathan Schofield and Sibby
Saturday 15 August, 3pm, Sunday 16 August, 3pm
Walk in the footsteps of the protesters on the blackest day in Manchester's history. Meet at Manchester Visitor Information Centre in St Peter’s Square. The tours last 1.5-2 hours and cost £6 per person. To book for Saturday 15 August, call Jonathan Schofield on 07876235638 or click here to email. To book for Sunday 16, contact Sibby at info@newmanchesterwalks.com. For more information visit newmanchesterwalks.

Main commemoration
Sunday 16 August, 1pm
Manchester campaigners will be met on the steps of Manchester Central (formerly GMEX) by delegates who have marched in from Oldham and Middleton along the original 1819 routes. Replica Peterloo banners lent to the campaign by Procession artist Jeremy Deller will then be raised, along with 20 replica 'liberty caps' on poles.

The red and gold liberty cap is an ancient symbol of political freedom dating back to ancient Greece, and has been adopted by many movements, including the French and American revolutions. Liberty caps raised on wooden poles were a crucial icon during the 1819 protest, and were ruthlessly targeted with sabres by the yeomanry, resulting in many of the injuries.

An extract from Shelley's 1819 'Peterloo' poem, 'The Masque of Anarchy', will be read, along with the names of those who died. Guests will include Tony Lloyd MP and several Manchester councillors.

Anyone who'd like to take part in the march from Oldham and Middleton should contact Martin Gittin on mgittins@ntlworld.com or 07760 430 577.

Sunday 16 August, 3pm to 5pm
As part of the Procession exhibition, Cornerhouse on Oxford Road is inviting all those with a connection to any of these events to join them at this special, informal event to meet others and share your stories.

Hear and Now
Sunday 16 August, 7pm
Singer-songwriter Claire Mooney and guests perform at the Briton's Protection pub to commemorate Peterloo and contemporary political struggles. This event is organised by Manchester Trades Union Council. Tickets cost £3/£1.

Launch of Peterloo: Soldiers on the Rampage
Sunday 16 August, 7.30pm
Head to The Angel pub for the launch of a Radio Ballads-style collection of folk songs about the Peterloo Massacre. Stockport singer-songwriter Geoff Higginbottom has put together a powerful collection of songs and several poems that trace the story of the protest. The launch takes place at The Angel, Angel Street and tickets cost £5 in advance. Buy them from The Angel or by contacting Martin Gittins on mgittins@ntlworld.com or 07760 430 577.

Central Library Exhibition
Until 26 September 2009
This month-long exhibition commemorating Peterloo at Central Library includes period and modern items, including the mugs and liberty caps created by the campaign. Opening hours are Monday-Thursday 9am-8pm, and Friday-Saturday 9-5pm.

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7 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Orator HAugust 6th 2009.

At last! A fitting series of events to commemorate the worst day in Manchester's history. It's truly amazing to learn that 60,000 people would turn up to a political rally in the heart of Manchester. Especially as August 16th 1819 was a Monday. Staggering to think, when so many of us, shamefully, do not even bother to vote nowadays, that our ancestors turned out in such great numbers just to earn the right to be represented. The least we can do is honour them by turning up for these events this year and to keep pressing for a fitting memorial.

MartingAugust 6th 2009.

Nice to see a debate starting, It would be good to see a few people getting along to the event at The Angel, maybe that way we can develop interest further, with a view to getting this production out into a few festivals and maybe schools, so that awareness can be increased

James againAugust 6th 2009.

Oh and ultimately Peterloo was instrumental in delivering the Great Reform Act of 1832 and beginning the road to full democracy. It shaped this country, it lies at the heart of our political history.

JJAugust 6th 2009.

I don’t think it’s a narrow Manchester thing to view the Peterloo Massacre as both a tragedy and an important staging post on the road to fuller democracy. I grew up in North Wales and my Welsh board ‘O’ level History syllabus taught that Peterloo was important. I can recommend the Peterloo walks, having joined Jonathan’s walk last year.

SteAugust 6th 2009.

Excellent news, apart from being a fitting, long over due tribute to that tragic event, it may also remind mancunians of our radical traditions. Perhaps could even become our very own city-day in the future.

DrakeAugust 6th 2009.

Sorry, not being funny, genuinely interested. Did Peterloo achieve anything at all? Was it significant in any way, except in the collective memory of Manchester? Did it lead anywhere? It might have been the single worst day in Manchester's history as Orator H claims, I don;t know, but the constant steady stream of deaths in the city's factories was surely more significant and damaging in the long term?

James MasoningAugust 6th 2009.

Drake, Peterloo created a revolution amongst middle class thought and also shocked the more progressive of the landed gentry types. It thrust radical politics into the limelight and gave it a word - Peterloo - to use in its arguments.

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