Fight for the vote: the 1819 Peterloo Massacre
On 16th August 1819 a meeting took place in Manchester which quickly became one of the most infamous in our history. Held as part of a campaign to give men the vote and reform Parliament, it became known within days as Peterloo.
What was the background to this meeting, what happened on the day, and why is it still significant to our shared history?
The electoral system before Peterloo
Today we think of the UK as a proper democracy, one in which all adults aged 18 and over can have their say in the future of the country. That is over 40 million people.
Rewind back two hundred years and hardly anybody could vote. The best guesses suggest 3 – 4% of adults had a vote, and all were men. From 20 million people, this isn’t many.
Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle and Manchester were all growing cities as the Industrial Revolution continued. Not one of these cities had a Member of Parliament to represent them.
Some people wanted to change this situation. In the late 18th Century there were attempts to reform the parliamentary system. Major John Cartwright, for example, called for universal suffrage and annual parliaments from the 1780s but without success.
Nothing happened because governments were unwilling to change. Later governments were even less willing to do anything after the French Revolution happened in 1789.
The French Revolution
Above all else, it was the French Revolution and its supporters in Britain which gave the idea of parliamentary reform a wider audience.
For the first time, reform groups were created to demand the right to vote be given to all men. The most famous example is the London Corresponding Society (LCS), founded in January 1791. LCS members read books such as The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. This was considered dangerous and Paine’s books were banned. Paine himself was charged with High Treason and fled to France.
These new reform groups ran into resistance from governments throughout the 1790s before most were banned or gave up their activities.
This didn’t mean the appeal of parliamentary reform had gone away. It was just that since even talking about reform could land you in trouble, especially as the war with France continued for two decades, people kept their opinions to themselves.
Even so, there were growing problems with strikes and machine breakers from 1811 onwards. Around the same time Major John Cartwright came out of retirement to found reform societies known as Hampden Clubs. (John Hampden was an English Civil War leader) Hampden Clubs sprang up across Britain, bringing political reformers together for the first time since the 1790s.
By 1815 Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The war was finally over. A new era was about to begin.
The country which emerged after 1815 was scarred by plots, threats of revolution, and violence.
An economic slump combined with thousands of men coming back from serving in the Army and Navy to provide the conditions for a new radical challenge to governments.
The first sign of trouble was the Spa Fields Riots of December 1816, when a London crowd attacked the Bank of England and threatened the Tower of London.
The following year a group of reformers met in London to discuss their plans for the reform of Parliament. Among their number was a Manchester weaver named Samuel Bamford. He would later play a key role in the events of Peterloo.
Meanwhile, some reformers were growing impatient. They regarded government refusal to reform Parliament as an excuse for more radical action.
On 9th June 1817 a group of armed reformers left their homes in Derbyshire and set out for Nottingham. They were poor weavers and craftsmen who believed they were part of a wider movement. (They were, but the rest of the rising had been called off following the discovery of a government spy in Yorkshire).
The Pentrich Rising failed and the leading conspirators were executed at Derby Castle in 1817. The defeat at Pentrich was to have a significant impact on the campaign to reform Parliament. It led some reformers to believe that only open campaigning would get them the vote. From then on they would hold open meetings and demand change in public.
Reform meetings were held across Britain in 1819. You can get an excellent sense of what was happening by following Peterloo 1819 News on Twitter. Meetings were usually addressed by the most charismatic speaker of the age, Henry Hunt. “Orator” Hunt, so-called because of his powerful speaking skills, was a passionate supporter of reform. He was also a great believer in persuading government through mass open action, not secretive revolutionary activities.
Hunt arrived in Manchester in early August 1819 only to discover that a scheduled meeting called by the Manchester Patriotic Union had been banned by local magistrates on the grounds that it might be an excuse for rioting. A second meeting was then postponed and a new date set: 16th August 1819.
Local magistrates were still concerned about the meeting. There had been reports of men marching on the moors outside Manchester and in Salford. Reformers claimed they were to ensure discipline and order on the day of the meeting.
The large crowd which had gathered by noon at St Peter’s Field was disciplined and organised. Groups of men, women and children, complete with their own handmade banners, had come from towns and villages around Manchester.
Samuel Bamford remembered the scene in his memoirs:
“Every hundred men had a leader, who was distinguished by a spring of laurel in his hat, and the whole were to obey the directions of the principal conductor, who took his place at the head of the column, with a bugleman to sound his orders. At the sound of the bugle not less than three thousand men formed a hollow square, with probably as many people around them, and I reminded them that they were going to attend the most important meeting that had ever been held for Parliamentary Reform.
I also said that, in conformity with a rule of the committee, no sticks, nor weapons of any description, would be allowed to be carried. Only the oldest and most infirm amongst us were allowed to carry their walking staves. Our whole column, with the Rochdale people, would probably consist of six thousand men. At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them. A hundred of our handsomest girls, sweethearts to the lads who were with us, danced to the music. Thus accompanied by our friends and our dearest we went slowly towards Manchester.” (Passages In the Life Of A Radical, 1841)
There may have been as many as 60,000 on what was a hot summer’s day. They included the first female reform societies in Britain. The overall manner and tone of the meeting was one of excited anticipation for the arrival of “Orator” Hunt.
By contrast, local magistrates were in a state of high anxiety about the meeting. Hunt’s arrival at around 1.20pm was the cue for these anxieties to burst out into the open. Magistrates immediately ordered Hunt’s arrest and called on the Manchester Yeomanry to intervene.
This is where the story becomes contested. To witnesses and (some) later historians, the yeomanry launched an indiscriminate attack on the crowd. They were quickly joined by the 15th Hussars and the Cheshire Volunteers. Within ten minutes St Peter’s Field had become a bloody battleground, littered with the dead and injured. E.P. Thompson called it “class war” in his ground-breaking survey of the period, The Making of the English Working Class (1963).
Other historians take a different view, arguing that the difficult circumstances of the day – a large crowd, untrained yeomanry, panicking horses – made a significant contribution. Neither the local magistrates nor the government wanted a confrontation. Events on the day quickly spiralled out of control.
Whatever the real story, estimates claim up to 500 people were injured and as many as 18 killed. Among those arrested were Hunt and Bamford, who would spend a year in jail for his part in the events of the day. Peterloo is arguably a defining moment in British history.
So why Peterloo?
The name came from the fortuitous combination of the location – St Peter’s Field – and the circumstances – men on horseback had also played a significant role in the Battle of Waterloo. Only this time the cavalry had attacked defenceless civilians. In this sense the name Peterloo is an ironic reference to past military glories but one which also seemed to symbolise the gulf between reformers and the violent defenders of the unreformed system.
Peterloo is an event in our history which continues to fascinate and horrify in equal measure. I expect this view will be confirmed when the latest book on the subject arrives by post – Peterloo: The English Uprising (Robert Poole, 2019) I can’t wait to read it.