The cover of my historical novel A Weaver’s Web depicts a scene from the Peterloo Massacre. You can see Henry Hunt, who led the meeting, in white trousers near the centre of the picture. The painting was first published by Richard Carlile, who supported freedom of the press and universal suffrage, in October 1819.
The Peterloo Massacre took place when magistrates ordered the cavalry to break up a peaceful meeting of at least 60,000 people in Manchester, UK, demanding parliamentary reform. About 18 people died and an estimated 500 or more were injured. The meeting was held at St Peters Field in Manchester on 16 August 1819, a Monday.
In Manchester, there had been quite a bit of unrest in the 1810s with workers complaining about machinery taking their jobs, and people protesting about poor economic conditions and the city’s lack of parliamentary representation. Lancashire had two members of parliament, but only males and only those who owned land could vote and only then in Lancaster, fifty miles north of the county’s main population centres. Some other areas of the country had hardly any people but had two representatives. Manchester was the second largest city in England, after London. Weavers’ pay had fallen to five shillings in 1819 from 15 shillings in the early 1800s, and food prices were rising. Thousands were starving.
There had been demonstrations in Manchester and surrounding towns, which escalated in 1819 and culminated in a huge gathering at St Peter’s Field, now St Peters Square. Vast numbers of Mancunians turned out as well as large groups who marched to Manchester from surrounding towns up to 17 miles away on a fine and warm day. New female reform societies were also involved. It was a family occasion and many were dressed in their Sunday best.
Four magistrates were to monitor proceedings. They can be seen barking orders out of a window of the building at the left of the painting. They arranged for about 2000 military and constables to be present.
People arrived throughout the morning and by soon after 1pm, Hunt was on the speakers’ stand, two wagons tied together for the occasion. He spoke to the crowd but soon the magistrates panicked, perhaps due to the size of the crowd and the noise and a fear there would be a riot and maybe a revolution against the establishment as France had seen 20 years earlier. Also, the magistrates took fright at the presence of journalists from newspapers around the country, who hadn’t been at previous reform meetings.
An arrest warrant was issued for Hunt and other leaders of the meeting. But the crowd was so dense that the chief constable felt that military action would be required to make the arrests. Soldiers, many on horseback, made their way through the crowd. Horses reared with fright as people tried to get out of the way. Soon soldiers were chopping and hacking at the crowd with their sabres.
Some of the crowd responded with sticks and stones and the situation descended into turmoil. By now, most people were trying to leave the field but troops blocked the main exit. Other soldiers kept attacking. The field was cleared in ten minutes but angry crowds hit the streets and the military shot at them. Most of the deaths and injuries at Peterloo were from being trampled or sabred.
News of the massacre spread quickly and people were appalled. But the government cracked down. Reform leaders and journalists were arrested and jailed, including Hunt for two and a half years and Carlile for three, and the Manchester Observer closed. So-called radical meetings and publications were banned and by the following year, 1820, every leading reformer was in jail and the lot of the ordinary people was even worse than before Peterloo.
It took another half a generation for Manchester to get its own parliamentary representation when two member positions for the new borough were created under the Great Reform Act of 1832.