The gathering and protest that became known as the Peterloo Massacre took place in Manchester, England on August 16th 1819.
Unrest had been growing among working people in manufacturing areas since the end of the Napoleonic war. When the war ended, these people had hoped their lives would improve, however they still were faced with high taxes, rising food prices, and unemployment. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote, and hunger was rife with the disastrous corn laws making bread unaffordable.
In Manchester, people sympathetic to reform began to organize into local clubs. They wanted less waste of public money by both the government and the Church of England, fair taxation, and an end to restrictions on trade. In order to do that, they knew they needed to have a voice in government with workers’ interests represented in Parliament. At the time, Manchester did not have representation in the House of Commons. They knew they needed to change that.
On the morning of 16th August a crowd p 60,000 began to gather, conducting themselves, according to contemporary accounts, with dignity and discipline, the majority dressed in their Sunday best.
The key speaker was to be famed orator Henry Hunt, the platform consisted of a simple cart, located in the front of what’s now the Manchester Central Conference Centre, and the space was filled with banners such as:
– REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION, LOVE –
Many of the banner poles were topped with the red cap of liberty – a powerful symbol at the time.
Local magistrates watching from a window near the field panicked at the sight of the assembly, and read the riot act, effectively ordering what little of the crowd could hear them to disperse. Arrests were attempted by the local Yeomanry, the police of their day. However, the crowd began linking arms preventing the arrests from taking place.
400 cavalry men were marched in and ordered to break up the crowd, supported by several hundred infantrymen and an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns. On horseback, armed with sabres and clubs, rather than peacefully bring the protest to an end, the calvary charged at the mass of people.
Inevitable violence occurred as the calvary attacked the peaceful protesters. A known 18 people, including four women and a child, died from sabre cuts and trampling. Quite possibly more died but remain unknown. Nearly 700 men, women and children received extremely serious injuries.
A nearby Quaker Meeting House helped tend to injured and provided a place of refuge in the aftermath.
The first death of the Peterloo Massacre was two-year-old William Fildes. He was flung from his mother’s arms and hit the ground when a trooper, running through a nearby street to catch up with his men, collided into parent and child.
Historians acknowledge that Peterloo was hugely influential in ordinary people winning the right to vote, led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from which grew the Trade Unions, and also resulted in the establishment of the Manchester Guardian newspaper.
The term ‘Peterloo’, was intended to mock the soldiers who attacked unarmed civilians by echoing the term ‘Waterloo’ – the soldiers from that battle being seen by many as genuine heroes.
This year, in Manchester, a commemorative plaque was unveiled for the 199th anniversary naming the 18 known people who died.