200 years ago a protest in Manchester demanding democratic reform was viciously mowed down by the British establishment. Paul O’Brien—author of the newly published collection Shelley’s Revolutionary Year—takes a look at the background to the Peterloo Massacre, and the impact it had on some of the poet Shelley’s most radical work.
August 2019 is the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Peterloo in Manchester and the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Bogside in Derry. During both events a riot took place; but it was not the local people who rioted; it was the forces of the state. The demands were similar—‘one person one vote’. In both cases, the attack on the protesters was an atrocity sanctioned by the British state to silence those who were demanding reform of the voting system.
In Manchester on 16 August 1819 the local yeomanry, a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners; the antecedents of the B-Specials in Northern Ireland, attacked a peaceful demonstration demanding reform of the voting system. The horse soldiers of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry galloped through the ranks of the demonstration, sword in hand, slashing and trampling anyone in their way. The events at Peterloo as it became known, spurred Shelley into the most creative months of his life; a great outpouring of poetry and prose against one Britain’s most repressive governments. In a new book, Shelley’s revolutionary year, they are gathered together where Shelley’s sets out his analysis of the political situation in England in that dramatic year.
The Rise of the Working Class
Inspired by the revolution in France, and by books such as Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man, working-class radicalism was on the rise in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Trade Unions and secret societies were organised in defiance of the Combination Acts. When wages were cut in 1816, in the aftermath of the war with France, strikes broke out all over the country. Weavers in Lancashire who had earned fifteen shillings a week in 1803 were now being paid five shillings a week.
In 1816 the miners from Staffordshire, all of whom had lost their jobs in the post war depression decided to march to London to present a petition to the Prince Regent. They were turned back by the magistrates assisted by the armed yeomanry. The following year a huge meeting of workers, mainly spinners and weavers, assembled in St. Peter’s Field in Manchester to see off the famous ‘March of the Blanketeers’; marchers armed only with a blanket. They intended to march from Manchester to London to present their petition for better living conditions, jobs, and the restoration of falling wages. The Blanketeers march was broken up by the militia and they were forced to turn back.
The Tory Prime Minister Lord Liverpool’s administration was one of the most reactionary and repressive in British history. It represented the interests of big landowners, London financiers, and merchants. The Government was convinced that England was on the brink of revolution. The Manchester Observer wrote of conditions in 1819: ‘Everything is almost at a standstill, nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face. The state of the district is truly dreadful’. Shelley’s poem, The Ballad of the Starving Mother reflects the desperation of the times:
A Woman came up with a babe at her breast
Which was flaccid with toil and hunger;
She cried: Give me food and give me rest–
We die if we wait much longer.
By 1819 a coordinated national effort for reform and for the improvement of living conditions was well under way. Mass meetings were organised in all the major cities. By July, thousands of workers had begun drilling in the working-class districts of Lancashire. On one occasion, as many as two thousand workers paraded in semi-military formation from Manchester to Rochdale. By the beginning of August preparations were in hand all over the North of England for a mass meeting in the centre of Manchester.
On the morning of 16 August 1819, an immense crowd poured into the city. Organised contingents from all over the North West, including two hundred women from Oldham, marched to St. Peter’s Field. Banners bearing slogans such as ‘Universal Suffrage’, ‘No Corn Laws’, Vote by Ballot’ ‘Liberty and Fraternity’ and ‘Taxation without Representation is Unjust and Tyrannical’, fluttered in the breeze. Woollen red liberty caps—symbols of the French Revolution hung from the banner poles. One of the banners carried by the Stockport contingent read: ‘Success to the Female Reformers of Stockport’.
The meeting at St. Peter’s Field had been widely publicised. Its modest purpose was to consider ‘the propriety of adopting the most legal and effectual means of obtaining a reform’. They had come to hear Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, Richard Carlisle, and others put the case for reform of the voting system. Henry Hunt was one of the most powerful public speakers in the country. He had abandoned his parliamentary career in order to take part in the reform movement. Hunt had the ability to stir up the masses, but he always steered well clear of inciting his audiences to rebellion. He was always fearful of a repeat of the events at the Spa Fields meeting in central London in December 1816, when a breakaway, radical faction had started a riot in the hope of provoking a general uprising. Those plans were foiled when armed troops prevented the mob from attacking the Bank of England. He had also spoken at mass meetings in London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds in 1819 that had passed off peacefully.
A Peaceful Assembly
On the morning of 16 August the crowd began to gather. According to one report up to eighty thousand had assembled in St. Peter’s Field. The assembly was intended by organisers to be a peaceful demonstration to put forward their demands. Henry Hunt had urged everyone attending to come ‘armed with no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience’. However, the local magistrates had no intention of allowing Henry Hunt to speak, or the meeting to proceed. The area was ringed by over a thousand troops, the local yeomanry, and an artillery unit with cannon.
Shortly after one o’clock, as Henry Hunt began to address the meeting, the magistrates issued an instruction to the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest Hunt and the three other speakers on the platform. They immediately drew their swords and charged towards the platform in an attempt to apprehend Hunt and the others. At first there was no panic; whole sections of the immense crowd were unaware of what was happening, or of the presence of the troops. Hunt shouted ‘Stand firm, my friends: there are only a few soldiers, and we are a host against them’; words which found an echo in the last line of The Mask of Anarchy: ‘Ye are many–they are few’.
The ensuing massacre was completely unexpected and unprovoked; and met with little organised resistance. The women’s suffrage campaigner Mary Fildes was battered around the head. The radical campaigner Samuel Bamford was arrested even though he had played no active part in the rally. James Lees, a weaver by trade who had fought at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, said that ‘at Waterloo there was man to man, but here it was downright murder’. The exact number of those killed and injured is still unknown. At least seventeen people, including four women and a child died, and nearly seven hundred men, women and children received extremely serious injuries.
Wave of Anger
Henry Hunt and the organisers were arrested and Hunt was sentenced to thirty months in prison. Following the events at Peterloo, the businessman John Taylor helped set up The Guardian newspaper as a reaction to what he’d witnessed. Peterloo was a defining moment in the fight for the vote in the way that it provided a shocking symbol of the disconnection in Britain between the rich and the poor at both a political and economic level; as reflected in Shelley’s poem Song to the Men of England
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.
Shocked responses to Peterloo were printed in newspapers across the land and in popular satires such as William Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built, Robert Shorter’s The Bloody Field of Peterloo, and Samuel Bamford’s A Song of Slaughter. But none were as powerful or as long lasting in their effect as Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy. Shelley never lived to see his great poem in print; neither Leigh Hunt who published The Examiner, nor any of the other radical publishers, were prepared to risk jail by printing Shelley’s radical poetry, or his pamphlet A Philosophical View of Reform, where Shelley set out in great detail his analysis of the situation in England and how the ‘unrepresented multitude’ are robbed by the rich and powerful. The Mask of Anarchy opens with a great burst of fury against the members of the British government.
I met Murder on the way–
He had a mask like Castlereagh–
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat: and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermine gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.
And the little Children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.
The poem finishes with the famous verse.
Rise like Lions ater slumber
In unvanquishable number–
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which had fallen on you–
Ye are many – they are few.
Peterloo and its aftermath shocked the nation, but it did not lead directly to parliamentary reform. The Government introduced the draconian Six Acts in an attempt to suppress all meetings, demonstrations, and radical newspapers. The debate between constitutionalists and revolutionaries on the way forward for the movement in the aftermath of Peterloo was never resolved. This crisis of leadership, combined with renewed government repression and an economic upturn brought this phase of mass working-class struggle to a close.
Nevertheless, the events at Peterloo transformed the mind-set of people previously hostile to reform, creating a foundation of support for the Reform Act of 1832, which gave a limited measure of parliamentary reform. Property remained the basis for the right to vote. There was a small increase in the electorate, and the number of voters attached to each parliamentary seat was evened out and the old rotten boroughs were abolished. But, the sort of working class men and women who protested at Manchester would have to wait many decades for an extension of the franchise, and women would not get the vote until 1918. The people of Derry and Northern Ireland had to wait another fifty years for reform of a corrupt voting system that had maintained Unionist control across many Nationalist areas.
The Peterloo massacre has been played out on many occasions in the last two hundred years and a direct line can be drawn from Manchester in 1819 through to Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, and the battle of Orgreave during the British miner’s strike in 1984. Each incident was followed by official denial, obstruction and contempt for the truth in order to deny any criticism of the establishment.
The events in Manchester on August 16, 1819 will remain forever inscribed in the collective memory of the international working class. Here in this book, poetry and ideas inspired by that great movement are fused together in an explosion of lyricism and anger. Shelley’s poetry, like all great works of art and literature teaches us how to think and feel, rather than tells us what we should think and feel.
Shelley has bequeathed us a body of work and access to a language that can inspire and energise people to organise and agitate for a better world. He told the truth with all his doubts, uncertainties, and personal difficulties. The famous closing lines from The Mask of Anarchy ‘Ye are many—they are few’ is more than a slogan or the title of an election programme; it is a call to action. Shelley’s poetry is the ‘trumpet of a prophesy’ that rings down the ages to give utterance to the inhumanity we see all around us, and the need for change.
Shelley’s Revolutionary Year: The Peterloo writings of the poet Shelley Introduction by Paul O’Brien Afterword by Paul Foot Redwords, Lomdon, 2019. Available from Bookmarks Bookshop, London. £7.