|By Richard Carlile, 1819|
Today we pay tribute to a dark anniversary in the Regency calendar; a world away from princesses, empires and poets, on 16th August, we remember the anniversary of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre.
It was a time of great social imbalance; a tiny minority of the population was eligible to vote, jobs were hard to find and people were starving as the Corn Laws of 1815 saw bread prices soar. Protests were rife among the increasingly politicised working classes and the strength of public feeling caused people take to the streets in a series of protests and demonstrations, one of which was scheduled for St Peter's Field, Manchester, on 16th August 1819.
The Manchester Patriotic Union Society organised a rally to be held at which the key speaker would be the famed orator and politician, Henry Hunt, a sure crowd-pleaser. As the summer morning drew on people from across the north of England assembled at St Peter's Field until the audience numbered over 60,000, much to the horror of watching officials. In fact, those attending did so in a highly organised manner, intent on sending a peaceful yet strong message to the government, a plea for suffrage reform. The occasion was particularly notable for the number of women in attendance, represented by members of the northern Female Reform Societies; there were women on the platform itself and they numbered among the casualties of the day.
|Henry Hunt by Adam Buck, 1810|
Thrown into a panic at the size of the peaceful crowd, local magistrate William Hulton gave the order to arrest the speakers. However, the crowd around the hustings were packed in tight and Hulton issued further orders, this time for armed intervention.
Hundreds of soldiers surrounded the rally both on foot and horseback as the Yeomanry, under the command of Captain Hugh Birley and Major Thomas Trafford, moved in to make the arrests. Eye witnesses at the time claimed that many of the yeomen were drunk and that they were using the opportunity to settle personal scores and vendettas; some among their number tried to calm the situation but the majority were already set for a fight. The crowd linked arms and held back the advancing Yeomanry who led the charge that began the massacre; interpreting the resistance as an act of aggression, Lieutenant Colonel Guy L'Estrange led the sabre-wielding Hussars into the crowd and the massacre began.
It was all over in a matter of minutes and by two o'clock St Peter's Field had become a scene of horror as members of the peaceful crowd lay dead beneath the banners of suffrage, blood staining the red caps of liberty. Journalists were arrested and those who reported on the tragedy were imprisoned. As speakers, protesters and organisers were tried for High Treason, the magistrates who had ordered the assault and the Hussars who had carried it out were lauded by the Prince Regent as heroes. The strength of public feeling was so great that a test case against some of the military leaders was brought at Lancaster Assizes three years later, but all were cleared.
|First edition of The Manchester Guardian|
Around 15 people died that day and hundreds more suffered terrible injuries, some dying after the event. Nicknamed Peterloo in ironic response to the courageous acts of soldiers at Waterloo, the atrocity led to rioting in the streets of Manchester and other northern cities. Fearing further unrest the government clamped down hard on reformers and crushed any suggestion of further demonstration or uprising.
The Massacre had a far reaching impact; Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy in response to Peterloo and John Edwards Taylor went on to found The Manchester Guardian as his own reply to attempts to stifle the free press; that newspaper still exists today. The Peterloo Massacre is commemorated to this day and remains one of the blackest days in the history of Georgian England.
|Memorial plaque on the former site of the Free Trade Hall|