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The Peterloo Massacre - August 16, 1819

A satiric 1819 cartoon depicting the Peterloo Massacre by George Cruikshank, who has the soldiers saying:  "Down with 'em! Chop em down my brave boys: give them no quarter they want to take our Beef & Pudding from us! ---- & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you'll have to pay so go at it Lads show your courage & your Loyalty!"
(Wikimedia Commons)

Democracy can be a messy business. In the United States, we cannot forget the colonial revolt of 1765-1783 that forged our nation, or any of the political convulsions in the 240 years since that have further defined and refined our democracy, including our Civil War in 1861-1865, the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 giving women the right to vote, or the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968), to name but a few.

And in the United Kingdom, an incident that occurred during the Regency era has come to be regarded as a pivotal moment in the evolution of British democracy.

Here’s what happened: On August 16, 1819, about a dozen or so people were killed and hundreds more were wounded when soldiers and others (including the 15th King’s Hussars) charged into a crowd gathered at St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester, England. 

According to contemporary accounts, the crowd was a peaceful assembly; about 60,000 people had come to hear orator Henry Hunt and other speakers discuss the need for parliamentary reform, specifically about who can vote in parliamentary elections. 

At that time, less than two percent of the population was allowed to vote. And economically, times were bad, especially for rural Britain. People were feeling the effects of the first Corn Law, passed by Parliament in 1815, which taxed imported grain to keep domestic prices high. This law benefited large landowners (the only ones who could elect members of Parliament) but caused food prices for the general populace to rise, making even a loaf of bread an unaffordable luxury for many.

A colored etching of the Peterloo Massacre, also by George Cruikshank,
published by Richard Carlile in October 1819
(Wikimedia Commons)
The size of the crowd undoubtedly made the local magistrates nervous, and trouble began when the local yeomanry (consisting of about 600 Hussars stationed nearby, hundreds of infantrymen, about 800 men from the Cheshire cavalry, and a special constabulary force) were instructed to arrest the speakers. 

The crowd reacted with panic. In response, the magistrates ordered their forces to charge. The Hussars drew their sabers. Others in the yeomanry used whatever weapons they had at hand.

Accounts vary, but anywhere from 10-20 people died as a result of the melee, either at the scene or in the days and months that followed due to injuries. In addition, an estimated 500-700 others were wounded. Victims included women and children. Among the recorded causes of death were saber cuts, musket shots, trampling (by horses or people), being crushed, beaten or stabbed with bayonets.

The event was dubbed the Peterloo Massacre as an ironic nod to the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, which was still fresh in people’s memories. Also, the 15th King’s Hussars were among the soldiers who fought at Waterloo, making the mocking allusion especially appropriate for them.

Journalists who'd witnessed the carnage were arrested and others who tried to write about what they’d seen were jailed. Organizers of the event, along with the speakers, were charged with high treason, a charge that was later dropped. After an official inquiry, the Prince Regent commended the soldiers and yeomen involved in the attack on the unarmed crowd and absolved them of any misconduct.

Then, a couple of months later, a shaken Parliament passed a series of laws aimed at suppressing political unrest. (Protests had erupted up all over Northern England in the wake of Peterloo.) The Six Acts included measures to restrict public meetings like the one at St. Peter’s Fields, punish publishers of radical newspapers and grant power to local magistrates to search private houses without warrants.

Plaque commemorating Peterloo in Manchester
(Wikimedia Commons)
However, no measure could prevent the Peterloo Massacre from becoming a watershed moment in British history. The repercussions of what occurred on that August day eventually led to the Reform Act of 1832, which made the British electoral system more inclusive. For the first time shopkeepers, small landowners and tenant farmers (as long as they were male, of course) got to vote for their members of Parliament.

And, as a result of what happened that day, a blow was struck for the free press, too.  In response to Peterloo, John Edward Taylor, a local businessman, was inspired to help start a newspaper, The Manchester Guardian. (That paper still publishes today as The Guardian.)

Though almost 200 years ago have passed, the deadly melee at St. Peter’s Fields isn’t forgotten. There’s a plaque commemorating the Peterloo Massacre in the center of Manchester. A 2006 survey by The Guardian showed that people still consider the event one of the most significant moments in British history. 
Shelley, painted by Alfred Clint  in 1819
(Wikimedia Commons)

And those who haven’t heard the story will soon be able to see it on the big screen. Peterloo, the movie, is currently filming in Lincolnshire and is due for release in 2018. The director is Mike Leigh, known for other historical films including Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake.

The attack on citizens of Manchester sparked contemporary outrage, too. Here are a few verses of a poem that Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1819 protesting the massacre, titled The Masque of Anarchy. Although Shelley submitted his work for publication, his poem wasn’t published until 1832, the year of the Reform Act. 

Is that a coincidence?  I think not.

Here are a few verses (you can see the whole poem here):

"Ye who suffer woes untold,
Or to feel, or to behold
Your lost country bought and sold
With a price of blood and gold.

Let a vast assembly be,
And with great solemnity
Declare with measured words that ye
Are, as God has made ye, free.

Let the charged artillery drive
Till the dead air seems alive
With the clash of clanging wheels,
And the tramp of horses' heels.

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many - they are few."

That there’s strength in numbers – or as Shelley put it, “ye are many, they are few” is something all defenders of democracy need to keep in mind. 


  1. Good article Maureen! Kind of reminds me of some of the things that are happening here now.



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