On the 16th August 1819, a huge crowd of people gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester to hear Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and other noted radical speakers calling for parliamentary reform. By mid-afternoon, 11 people were dead and a further 400-700 had suffered serious wounds at the hands of local armed forces. There was a popular outcry, and the radical press named the incident the ‘Peterloo Massacre’, a mocking reference to the Battle of Waterloo.
In the early 1800s, Britain was suffering serious social problems. Unemployment was widespread, particularly in Northern England, where the textile industry was in decline. Wages were low, and living and working conditions poor. This was made worse by the hated Corn Laws introduced in 1815, which artificially inflated the price of bread. Ordinary people had no official voice – there were no workers’ unions and women and working-class men were not allowed to vote. The main way ordinary people could make their voices heard was by protest.
This is what brought the huge crowd of between 60,000 and 80,000 protestors to St Peter’s Field. Their protest banners demanded universal suffrage (the right for all men to vote), annual parliaments and an end to the Corn Laws. Others, like this banner, carried more subversive messages of Liberty and Fraternity, or Unity and Strength, which echoed the words of the French Revolutionaries.
Fearful that a large-scale protest such as this could spark a revolution, like the recent French Revolution, the authorities panicked and sent for military forces to arrest the radical speakers and disperse the crowd. They arrived, armed and on horseback. When the crowd tried to prevent them reaching the speakers, some were slashed with swords, others were trampled under horses’ hooves. In the ensuing panic at least 11 people were killed and over 400 injured.
The ‘Peterloo Massacre’, as it became known, provoked greater repression in the short term, but also stimulated even greater agitation for political reform which eventually led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. Although it was by no means the largest protest or industrial upheaval in Britain during the Age of Revolution, the publicity and shock of the event ensured it had a profound legacy, and it has figured prominently in the collective memory of labour movements.
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This object is in the collection of Touchstones Rochdale