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(based on what happened at a reform meeting of 60,000-80,000 people at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, UK on 16 August 1819 that became known as the Peterloo Massacre)

In the hot afternoon sun, the yeomen moved along what was left of the gap, towards the hustings. But they were unskilled in such manoeuvres and the noise of the crowd unsettled them and their horses. The people wanted nothing of them and tried to close ranks. In response the yeomen lashed out with their sabres, but missed their targets. Cries of ‘Soldiers, soldiers!’ went up among the crowd. Some of the people tried to get out the way while others stood their ground and waved sticks, which country folk often carried when they went out.

Henry and Sarah [Wakefield] weren’t far from all this and grabbed the children’s hands as people started screaming and running, though at fourteen Albert wasn’t keen to have his hand held.

From the hustings, [Henry] Hunt tried to reassure the crowd. ‘Stand firm, my friends. You see they are in disorder already. This is a trick. Give them three cheers. Hip, hip …’

A loud ‘hooray’ went up.

‘Hip hip …’

A second ‘hooray’ was louder and longer than the first.

‘Hip, hip …’

The third ‘hooray’ shook the earth, and the magistrates.

‘They’re defying us,’ Norris said.

‘More than one can play at this game,’ Hulton said. ‘Messengers,’ he called to several of them in the room, ‘get everyone on our side to cheer at the top of their voices and then get the yeomen to make the arrests.’

Much cheering followed, but it came from both sides.

The Wakefields joined in the revelry along with thousands of other families.

‘Henry, look up the back,’ Sarah said. ‘The cavalry and the constables and loyalists are cheering. They’re joining us.’

‘It may be a ploy,’ Henry said.

The cheering soon stopped as the yeomen, many abreast, rode through the crowd. At first they went slowly, but then made their horses go faster. The gap left by the constables had closed up and swarms of people were pressed between the soldiers and the hustings. Men, women and children screamed as they were trampled by the yeomen’s horses or cut by sabres. No mercy was shown by the yeomen. They lashed out at those on the hustings, some falling to the ground. The rest were forced to climb down. Less ruthless were the hussars who had now arrived. They used the flats of their swords rather than the edges as the yeomen were doing.

Captain Birley, leader of the Manchester Yeomanry, spoke to Hunt. ‘Sir, I have a warrant against you and arrest you as my prisoner.’ He waved it in front of Hunt who stayed on the platform.

‘Remain calm,’ Hunt bellowed to the crowd, ‘and don’t put up any resistance.’ He then turned to Birley. ‘I willingly surrender myself to any civil officer who shows me his warrant.’

Nadin stepped forward. ‘I will arrest you,’ he said. ‘I have information upon oath against you.’ Hunt didn’t resist, and was arrested and taken away.

Other arrests were made in the same way. But soon after Hunt’s capture, the Manchester yeomen cried out: ‘Destroy their flags,’ and began slashing at the banners attached to the hustings and then at the ones in the crowd. More people were crushed and cut.

The crowd panicked and large groups tried to flee, but all exits from the field were blocked by extra yeomen and hussars who had gathered on the perimeter. But the local yeomen panicked too, and were in complete disarray as they rode their horses wildly through the crowd. People tried to defend themselves but most were unarmed. Some had their sticks, and a number of rocks and brickbats were thrown, but these were no match against the yeomen’s horses and sabres.

Hussars leader Colonel L’Estange rode up to the magistrates’ house and called to Hulton who was at the window. ‘What do you want me to do, Sir?’

‘Good God, man! Do you not see how they are attacking the yeomanry? Disperse the crowd,’ Hulton said without consulting the other magistrates.

‘Very well, Sir.’ L’Estange led the Fifteenth Hussars into the crowd.

Cavalry rushed about in all directions and hundreds of citizens were thrown to the ground. Most got up and continued their desperate attempts to scramble free. Henry was knocked to the ground trying to protect Sarah and the children as a horse rode over the top of them. He got up holding his shoulder, only to be knocked down again. People stumbled over him trying to get away. He thought he could hear Sarah screaming ‘Catherine’ several times, but he couldn’t see either of them. As he crawled along looking for them, his face covered in blood and dirt, he saw people staggering and limping, some supported by their families and friends. And he saw other folk lying motionless as frantic loved ones tried to help them. He got to his feet but everything spun. He tripped over belongings left behind and over a number of people crawling about. He went with the general flow of those nearby, calling out: ‘Have you seen my family,’ but they didn’t know him or where his family might be.

end of excerpt

The magistrates can be seen at a window of the building on the left-hand side of the image from Peterloo on the front cover of A Weaver’s Web, below.

A Weaver's Web ebook cover 300 dpi