On 16th August 1819 a huge crowd assembled at St Peter’s Field in Manchester, they were seeking the vote. Workers poured out the mills in Manchester and the surrounding areas and formed a peaceful protest, which was met by brutal suppression and force from local yeomanry and militia. Mark Krantz, Mancunian-based campaigner and historian, explores the implications of the Peterloo massacre and the struggle for the right to vote.
A pre-emptive strike to silence the movement
Ordered from the very top by Tory ministers, soldiers were sent in to attack and kill innocent, unarmed people. Then they blamed the victims for what happened. Covered it all up. Denied any involvement. We are not talking about Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. This happened in England in 1819.
On Monday 16 August a local militia on horseback, armed with sabres, was sent in to attack a crowd of 60,000 people in St Peters Fields in Manchester, England. Eighteen people were killed, and more than 650 injured in what became known as the ‘Peterloo Massacre’.
The order to kill came from the very top. Lord Sidmouth wrote specifically to the Manchester magistrates telling them to put the yeomanry cavalry ‘in readiness to obey the first call they may receive.’ Their man on the day, the mill owner and Tory William Hulton, was in place, in charge of the magistrates. He did his job and ordered a pre-emptive strike to repress the rising workers’ movement.
The revolt of an ‘evil and most seditious people’
The ending of the Napoleonic war in 1815 had led to a severe contraction in trade, leaving Britain with massive debts. The Tories were set on paying it off by making the workers’ pay. Already malnourished and now facing more austerity, workers were desperate, resistance their only option. ‘Liberty or Death’ was written on banners held high on the march at Peterloo.
Manchester was considered by the authorities as ‘the most seditious part of the country.’ In the two years leading up to Peterloo there were bread riots and a hunger march. The spinners and weavers organised strikes under illegal conditions. They set up political organisations to campaign for reform, and night schools to learn to read and write. They read poetry, went to meetings, read and circulated radical newspapers. Strike reports and political notices from the Manchester Observer were read out loud in clubs and pubs. The workers built sophisticated networks of organisations that foreshadowed anything achieved by the labour movement for many years to come.
A nationwide movement grows in 1819
In Britain only the richest men could vote. There were no seats in parliament to represent the large, growing industrial cities like Birmingham and Manchester. A national movement calling for political reform was started at a huge meeting in London where a resolution proposed by Henry Hunt proclaiming civil and religious liberty for Ireland was carried. ‘They cannot withstand the united voice of five millions of Irishman and eleven million Englishmen in the attitude of freemen demanding their rights’, he said.
The Radicals organised meetings across the country. In Birmingham in July 30,000 people attended a meeting that ‘elected’ the popular radical Sir Charles Wolseley as their future ‘ready and waiting MP’ to take the seat for Birmingham in any future reformed parliament. The Regency government was alarmed. This was ‘seditious conspiracy’ and a serious challenge to Tory ministers set against any possibility of political reform.
For Hunt and Liberty
The Manchester rally was organised for Saturday 9 August to hear the Radical speaker Henry Hunt. Magistrates immediately ruled it illegal. Notices were posted across the city declaring the meeting illegal, attendance was banned. Hunt was detained, and released only after he promised there would be no repeat of ‘unlawful conspiracy’ voting in Manchester. Marching however was not illegal. The rally was re-arranged for Saturday 16 August.
Henry Hunt was the main speaker at Peterloo. His demands for political representation and an end to economic distress were well known and popular. The ‘orator’ Hunt was the workers’ hero. Half the population of Manchester, joined by thousands more who marched in from all the small cotton towns and villages across Lancashire, came to hear him speak.
Mary Fildes, president of the Manchester Female Reformers, joined Hunt in the lead carriage at the head of the march. When they went through the depressed slum areas of Manchester, ‘the poorest of the poor, the Irish weavers, came out and danced in the street’ to greet the procession. In tribute the band played ‘Saint Patrick’s Day in the Morning’. The banner of the contingent marching in from Middleton was decorated in green. Everywhere on the march the chant went up, ‘For Hunt and Liberty’. People wanted a better world as they assembled for the rally in St Peters Fields.
The magistrates decided that this rally had now become an unlawful gathering. Hulton gave the order to ‘arrest Hunt and the others.’ Manchester’s chief of police, Naddy Joe, struck Hunt with a baton; and as he arrested him he taunted, ‘you will surely swing for this!’ Hulton next ordered the Yeomanry Cavalry in ‘to support the constables’.
The rebellion continues
The massacre at Peterloo was a terrible blow but it failed to stop the movement. One of those detained was a journalist, his report and description of the brutality and violence unleashed on the day was published, and re-published, in all the newspapers. Word spread quickly. The next week 100,000 protesters marched in London, an even greater number marched in Newcastle. More people attended more protest meetings held after Peterloo, than before. As outrage spread the Tories struggled to both support their magistrates, and distance themselves from the massacre.
Far away in Italy the poet Percy Shelly read the daily press reports from Manchester. He stayed up all night, his blood ‘boiling with rage’, and wrote the epic poem about Peterloo, The Masque of Anarchy. Sections of Shelly’s famous have been repeated down the generations in the labour movement, and amongst people fighting for democracy and freedom. The call to unleash our collective power. And the call to resist. ‘Ye are Many! They are Few!’ Let us ‘Rise Like Lions!’
One handloom weaver, Joss Wrigley who survived Peterloo explained what it was about:
‘At Peterloo we fought for the Rights of Man, for freedom to vote, to be allowed to speak and write what we thought. To be allowed to be ourselves as honest workers. We wanted to live our own lives, but the upper classes would not let us. That is what it was about. Peterloo taught working people to stand for their rights and stand by the poor.’
Mark Krantz is a member of Manchester SWP. He is the author of the pamphlet “Rise Like Lions: The History and Lessons of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819”, and “The 1842 General Strike”, which is available here.
For more on the Peterloo Massacre there is a podcast available on the Working Class History website, and also a 2018 film directed by Mike Leigh, called Peterloo.