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 and social reform. Fearful that the protest could spark a revolution, the authorities panicked and sent for armed forces to disperse the crowd. At least 17 people would die of injuries received on the day, and around 700 suffered serious wounds at the hands of these forces, 200 of them from sabres (a curved sword). There was a popular outcry, and the radical press named the incident the ‘Peterloo Massacre’, a mocking reference to the Battle of Waterloo.
Following the Peterloo Massacre, a range of memorabilia was produced to commemorate the event and to further the cause for political reform and social justice. Items including prints, cartoons, banners, poems, plaques, jugs, bowls and other household items were available but there were fears that showing support could lead to arrest, so many of these items were hidden – like the Skelmanthorpe flag. It is thought this handkerchief may have been produced because it was easy to conceal.
The handkerchief depicts a detailed scene from the Peterloo Massacre. Armed forces are using swords to fight with the crowd and a number of protestors have been badly injured. Liberty Caps and banners can be seen with slogans such as ‘Unite and be Free’. The scroll at the top reads:
A representation of the Manchester reform meeting dispersed by the civil
and military power Aug 16th 1819.
The scroll also acts as a key to important landmarks in the story. The palm branches and laurel leaves on the ribbon around the outside represent the peaceful intentions of the crowd, who were respectably dressed and non-violent. The slogan on the ribbon reads:
Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments and Election by Ballot.
Did you know..?
John Lees of Oldham, died of injuries sustained at Peterloo, on 9 September. As a soldier at Waterloo he had survived the battle relatively uninjured.
Download or order a FREE copy of the Peterloo graphic novel, created specially for schools.
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Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.