The Peterloo Massacre (or Battle of Peterloo) occurred at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, England, on 16 August 1819, when cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 that had gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had resulted in periods of famine and chronic unemployment, exacerbated by the introduction of the first of the Corn Laws. By the beginning of 1819 the pressure generated by poor economic conditions, coupled with the lack of suffrage in northern England, had enhanced the appeal of political radicalism. In response, the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform, organised a demonstration to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt.
Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.
Historian Robert Poole has called the Peterloo Massacre one of the defining moments of its age. In its own time, the London and national papers shared the horror felt in the Manchester region, but Peterloo’s immediate effect was to cause the government to crack down on reform, with the passing of what became known as the Six Acts. It also led directly to the foundation of The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian), but had little other effect on the pace of reform. In a survey conducted by The Guardian in 2006, Peterloo came second to the Putney Debates as the event from British history that most deserved a proper monument or a memorial. Peterloo is commemorated by a plaque close to the site, a replacement for an earlier one that was criticised as being inadequate as it did not reflect the scale of the massacre.
In 1819, Lancashire was represented by two Members of Parliament (MPs). Voting was restricted to the adult male owners of freehold land valued at 40 shillings or more – the equivalent of about £80 as of 2008 – and votes could only be cast at the county town of Lancaster, by a public spoken declaration at the hustings. Constituency boundaries were out of date, and the so-called “rotten boroughs” had a hugely disproportionate influence on the membership of the Parliament of the United Kingdom compared to the size of their populations: Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs, as did Dunwich in Suffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea. The major urban centres of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Stockport, with a combined population of almost one million, were represented by either the two county MPs for Lancashire, or the two for Cheshire in the case of Stockport. By comparison, more than half of all MPs were elected by a total of just 154 voters. These inequalities in political representation led to calls for reform.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, a brief boom in textile manufacture was followed by periods of chronic economic depression, particularly among textile weavers and spinners. Weavers who could have expected to earn 15 shillings for a six-day week in 1803, saw their wages cut to 5 shillings or even 4s 6d by 1818. The industrialists, who were cutting wages without offering relief, blamed market forces generated by the aftershocks of the Napoleonic Wars. Exacerbating matters were the Corn Laws, the first of which was passed in 1815, imposing a tariff on foreign grain in an effort to protect English grain producers. The cost of food rose as people were forced to buy the more expensive and lower quality British grain, and periods of famine and chronic unemployment ensued, increasing the desire for political reform both in Lancashire and in the country at large.
By the beginning of 1819 the pressure generated by poor economic conditions was at its peak and had enhanced the appeal of political radicalism among the cotton loom weavers of south Lancashire. In response, coupled with the lack of suffrage in northern England, a “great assembly” was organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform. The secretary of the union, Joseph Johnson, wrote to the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt asking him to chair a large meeting planned for Manchester on 2 August 1819. In his letter Johnson wrote:
Nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face [in the streets of Manchester and the surrounding towns], the state of this district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection. Oh, that you in London were prepared for it.
Unknown to either Johnson or Hunt, the letter was intercepted by government spies and copied before being sent on to its destination. The contents were interpreted to mean that an insurrection was being planned, and the government immediately responded by ordering the 15th Hussars to Manchester.
The mass public meeting planned for 2 August was delayed until 9 August. Announcing the delay, the Manchester Observer reported that the intention of the meeting was “to take into consideration the most speedy and effectual mode of obtaining Radical reform in the Common House of Parliament” and “to consider the propriety of the ‘Unrepresented Inhabitants of Manchester’ electing a person to represent them in Parliament”. The local magistrates, under the leadership of William Hulton, had already been advised by the acting Home Secretary, Henry Hobhouse, that “the election of a Member of Parliament without the King’s writ” was a serious misdemeanour, encouraging them to declare the assembly illegal.
Although banning the 9 August meeting had been intended to discourage the radicals entirely, Hunt and his followers were determined to assemble. A new meeting was organised for 16 August, after the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, had written to the magistrates instructing them that it was not the intention to elect an MP that was illegal, but the execution of that intention.
The press had frequently mocked previous meetings of working men because of their ragged, dirty appearance and disorganised conduct. The organisers were determined that those attending the meeting at St Peter’s Field would be neatly turned out and would march to the event in good order. Samuel Bamford, a local radical who led the Middleton contingent to the assembly, wrote that “It was deemed expedient that this meeting should be as morally effective as possible, and, that it should exhibit a spectacle such as had never before been witnessed in England.” Instructions were given to the various committees forming the contingents that “Cleanliness, Sobriety, Order and Peace” and a “prohibition of all weapons of offence or defence” were to be observed throughout the demonstration. Each contingent was drilled and rehearsed in the fields of the townships around Manchester, further adding to the concerns of the authorities. One spy reported that “seven hundred men drilled at Tandle Hill as well as any army regiment would”. A royal proclamation forbidding the practice of drilling was posted in Manchester on 3 August.
St Peter’s Field was a croft (an open piece of land) alongside Mount Street which was being cleared to enable the last section of Peter Street to be constructed. Piles of brushwood had been placed at the end of the field nearest to the Friends Meeting House, but the remainder of the field was clear. Thomas Worrell, Manchester’s Assistant Surveyor of Paving, arrived to inspect the field at 7:00 am. His job was to remove anything that might be used as a weapon, and he duly had “about a quarter of a load” of stones carted away.
Monday, 16 August 1819, was a hot summer’s day, with a cloudless blue sky. The fine weather almost certainly increased the size of the crowd significantly; marching from the outer townships in the cold and rain would have been a much less attractive prospect.
The Manchester magistrates met at 9:00 am, to breakfast at the Star Inn on Deansgate and to consider what action they should take on Henry Hunt’s arrival at the meeting. By 10:30 am they had come to no conclusions, and moved to a house on the southeastern corner of St Peter’s Field, from where they planned to observe the meeting. They were concerned that it would end in a riot, or even a rebellion, and had arranged for a substantial number of regular troops and militia yeomanry to be deployed. The military presence comprised 600 men of the 15th Hussars; several hundred infantrymen; a Royal Horse Artillery unit with two six-pounder (2.7 kg) guns; 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry; 400 special constables; and 120 cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, relatively inexperienced militia recruited from among local shopkeepers and tradesmen, the most numerous of which were publicans. The Yeomanry were variously described as “younger members of the Tory party in arms”, and as “hot-headed young men, who had volunteered into that service from their intense hatred of Radicalism”.
The British Army in the north was under the overall command of General Sir John Byng. When he had initially learned that the meeting was scheduled for 2 August he had written to the Home Office stating that he hoped the Manchester magistrates would show firmness on the day:
I will be prepared to go there, and will have in that neighbourhood, that is within an easy day’s march, 8 squadron of cavalry, 18 companies of infantry and the guns. I am sure I can add to the Yeomanry if requisite. I hope therefore the civil authorities will not be deterred from doing their duty.
The revised meeting date of 16 August, however, coincided with the horse races at York, a fashionable event at which Byng had entries in two races. He once again wrote to the Home Office, saying that although he would still be prepared to be in command in Manchester on the day of the meeting if it was thought really necessary, he had absolute confidence in his deputy commander, Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange.
The crowd that gathered in St Peter’s Field arrived in disciplined and organised contingents. Each village or chapelry was given a time and a place to meet, from where its members were to proceed to assembly points in the larger towns or townships, and from there on to Manchester. Contingents were sent from all around the region, the largest and “best dressed” of which was a group of 10,000 who had travelled from Oldham Green, comprising people from Oldham, Royton (which included a sizable female section), Crompton, Lees, Saddleworth and Mossley. Other sizable contingents marched from Middleton and Rochdale (6,000 strong) and Stockport (1,500–5,000 strong). Reports of the size of the crowd at the meeting vary substantially. Contemporaries estimated it from 30,000 to as many as 150,000; modern estimates are 60,000–80,000. Scholar Joyce Marlow describes the event as “The most numerous meeting that ever took place in Great Britain” and elaborates that the generally accepted figure of 60,000 would have been 6% of the population of Lancashire, or half the population of the immediate area around Manchester.
The assembly was intended by its organisers and participants to be a peaceful meeting; Henry Hunt had exhorted everyone attending to come “armed with no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience”, and many were wearing their “Sunday best” clothes. Samuel Bamford recounts the following incident, which occurred as the Middleton contingent reached the outskirts of Manchester:
On the bank of an open field on our left I perceived a gentleman observing us attentively. He beckoned me, and I went to him. He was one of my late employers. He took my hand, and rather concernedly, but kindly, said he hoped no harm was intended by all those people who were coming in. I said “I would pledge my life for their entire peaceableness.” I asked him to notice them, “did they look like persons wishing to outrage the law? were they not, on the contrary, evidently heads of decent working families? or members of such families?” “No, no,” I said, “my dear sir, and old respected master, if any wrong or violence take place, they will be committed by men of a different stamp from these.” He said he was very glad to hear me say so; he was happy he had seen me, and gratified by the manner in which I had expressed myself. I asked, did he think we should be interrupted at the meeting? he said he did not believe we should; “then,” I replied, “all will be well”; and shaking hands, with mutual good wishes, I left him, and took my station as before.
Although some observers, like the Rev. W. R. Hay, chairman of the Salford Quarter Sessions, claimed that “The active part of the meeting may be said to have come in wholly from the country”, others such as John Shuttleworth, a local cotton manufacturer, estimated that most were from Manchester, a view that would subsequently be supported by the casualty lists. Of the casualties whose residence was recorded, 61% lived within a three-mile radius of the centre of Manchester. Some groups carried banners with texts like “No Corn Laws”, “Annual Parliaments”, “Universal suffrage” and “Vote By Ballot”. The only banner known to have survived is in Middleton Public Library. It was carried by Thomas Redford, who was injured by a yeomanry sabre. Made of green silk embossed with gold lettering, one side of the banner is inscribed “Liberty and Fraternity” and the other “Unity and Strength”.
At about noon, several hundred special constables were led onto the field. They formed two lines in the crowd a few yards apart, in an attempt to form a corridor through the crowd between the house where the magistrates were watching and the hustings, two waggons lashed together. Believing that this might be intended as the route by which the magistrates would later send their representatives to arrest the speakers, some members of the crowd pushed the waggons away from the constables, and pressed around the hustings to form a human barrier.
Hunt’s carriage arrived at the meeting shortly after 1:00 pm, and he made his way to the hustings. Alongside Hunt on the speakers’ stand were John Knight, a cotton manufacturer and reformer, Joseph Johnson, the organiser of the meeting, John Thacker Saxton, managing editor of the Manchester Observer, the publisher Richard Carlile, and George Swift, reformer and shoemaker. There were also a number of reporters, including John Tyas of The Times, John Smith of the Liverpool Echo and Edward Baines Jr, the son of the editor of the Leeds Mercury. By this time St Peter’s Field, an area of 14,000 square yards (11,706 m ), was packed with tens of thousands of men, women and children. The crowd around the speakers was so dense that “their hats seemed to touch”; large groups of curious spectators gathered on the outskirts of the crowd. The rest of Manchester was like a ghost town, the streets and shops were empty.
William Hulton, the chairman of the magistrates watching from the house on the edge of St Peter’s Field, saw the enthusiastic reception that Hunt received on his arrival at the assembly, and it encouraged him to action. He issued an arrest warrant for Henry Hunt, Joseph Johnson, John Knight, and James Moorhouse. On being handed the warrant the Chief Constable, Jonathan Andrews, offered his opinion that the press of the crowd surrounding the hustings would make military assistance necessary for its execution. Hulton then wrote two letters, one to Major Thomas Trafford, the commanding officer of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, and the other to the overall military commander in Manchester, Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange. The contents of both notes were similar:
Sir, as chairman of the select committee of magistrates, I request you to proceed immediately to no. 6 Mount Street, where the magistrates are assembled. They consider the Civil Power wholly inadequate to preserve the peace. I have the honour, & c. Wm. Hulton.
Letter sent by William Hulton to Major Trafford of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry
The notes were handed to two horsemen who were standing by. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were stationed just a short distance away in Portland Street, and so received their note first. They immediately drew their swords and galloped towards St Peter’s Field. One trooper, in a frantic attempt to catch up, knocked down a woman in Cooper Street, causing the death of her child when he was thrown from her arms; two-year-old William Fildes was the first casualty of Peterloo.
Sixty cavalrymen of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, a local factory owner, arrived at the house from where the magistrates were watching; some reports allege that they were drunk. Andrews, the Chief Constable, instructed Birley that he had an arrest warrant which he needed assistance to execute. Birley was asked to take his cavalry to the hustings to allow the speakers to be removed; it was by then about 1:40 pm.
The route towards the hustings between the special constables was narrow, and as the inexperienced horses were thrust further and further into the crowd they reared and plunged as people tried to get out of their way. The arrest warrant had been given to the Deputy Constable, Joseph Nadin, who followed behind the yeomanry. As the cavalry pushed towards the speakers’ stand they became stuck in the crowd, and in panic started to hack about them with their sabres. On his arrival at the stand Nadin arrested Hunt, Johnson and a number of others including John Tyas, the reporter from The Times. According to Tyas the yeomanry’s progress through the crowd had provoked a hail of bricks and stones, and caused them to lose “all command of temper”. Their mission to execute the arrest warrant having been achieved, they then set about destroying the banners and flags carried by the crowd.
From his vantage point William Hulton perceived the unfolding events as an assault on the yeomanry, and on L’Estrange’s arrival at 1:50 pm, at the head of his hussars, he ordered them into the field to disperse the crowd with the words: “Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry; disperse the meeting!” The 15th Hussars formed themselves into a line stretching across the eastern end of St Peter’s Field, and charged into the crowd. At about the same time the Cheshire Yeomanry charged from the southern edge of the field. At first the crowd had some difficulty in dispersing, as the main exit route into Peter Street was blocked by the 88th Regiment of Foot, standing with bayonets fixed. One officer of the 15th Hussars was heard trying to restrain the by now out of control Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, who were “cutting at every one they could reach”: “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!”
However, within ten minutes the crowd had been dispersed, at the cost of 11 dead and over 600 injured. Only the wounded, their helpers, and the dead were left behind. A woman living nearby said she saw “a very great deal of blood”. For some time afterwards there was rioting in the streets, most seriously at New Cross, where troops fired on a crowd attacking a shop belonging to someone rumoured to have taken one of the women reformers’ flags as a souvenir. Peace was not restored in Manchester until the next morning, and in Stockport and Macclesfield rioting continued on the 17th. There was also a major riot in Oldham that day, during which one person was shot and wounded.
The exact number of those killed and injured at Peterloo has never been established with certainty. Sources claim 11–15 killed and 400–700 injured. The Manchester Relief Committee, a body set up to provide relief for the victims of Peterloo, gave the number of injured as 420, while Radical sources listed 500. The true number is difficult to estimate, as many of the wounded hid their injuries for fear of retribution by the authorities. Three of William Marsh’s six children worked in the factory belonging to Captain Hugh Birley of the Manchester Yeomanry, and lost their jobs because their father had attended the meeting. James Lees was admitted to Manchester Infirmary with two severe sabre wounds to the head, but was refused treatment and sent home after refusing to agree with the surgeon’s insistence that “he had had enough of Manchester meetings”.
A particular feature of the meeting at Peterloo was the number of women present. Female reform societies had been formed in north west England during June and July 1819, the first in Britain. Many of them were dressed distinctively in white, and some formed all-female contingents, carrying their own flags. Of the 654 recorded casualties, at least 168 were women, four of whom died either at St Peter’s Field or later as a result of their wounds. It has been estimated that less than 12% of the crowd was made up of females, suggesting that women were at significantly greater risk of injury than men by a factor of almost 3:1. Richard Carlile claimed that the women were especially targeted, a view apparently supported by the large number who suffered from wounds caused by weapons.
Eleven of the fatalities listed occurred on St Peter’s Field. Some, like John Lees of Oldham, died later of their wounds, and others like Joshua Whitworth were killed in the rioting that followed the crowd’s dispersal from the field.
Fatalities resulting from Peterloo
Name Abode Date of death Cause Notes Ref(s).
John Ashton Cowhill, Oldham 16 August Sabred and trampled on by crowd Carried the black flag of the Saddleworth, Lees and Mossley Union, inscribed “Taxation without representation is unjust and tyrannical. NO CORN LAWS”. The inquest jury returned a verdict of accidental death. His son, Samuel, received 20 shillings in relief.
John Ashworth Bulls Head, Manchester Sabred and trampled Ashworth was a Special Constable, presumably attacked unintentionally by the cavalry.
William Bradshaw Lily-hill, Bury Shot by musket
Thomas Buckley Baretrees, Chadderton Sabred and stabbed by bayonet
Robert Campbell Miller Street, Salford 18 August Killed by a mob in Newton Lane Campbell was a Special Constable
James Crompton Barton-upon-Irwell Trampled on by the cavalry Buried 1 September
Edmund Dawson Saddleworth Died of sabre wounds at the Manchester Royal Infirmary.
William Dawson Saddleworth Sabred, crushed and killed on the spot.
Margaret Downes Manchester Sabred
William Evans Hulme Trampled by cavalry Evans was a Special Constable
William Fildes Kennedy St, Manchester 16 August Ridden over by cavalry Two years old, he was first victim of the massacre. His mother was carrying him across the road when she was struck by a trooper of the Manchester Yeomanry, galloping towards St Peters Field.
Mary Heys Oxford Rd, Manchester 17 December Ridden over by cavalry Mother of six children, and pregnant at the time of the meeting. Disabled and suffering from almost daily fits following her injuries, the premature birth of her seven-month-old child resulted in her death.
Sarah Jones 96 Silk St, Salford No cause given by Marlow but listed as “bruised in the head” by Frow. Mother of seven children. Beaten on the head by a Special Constable’s truncheon.
John Lees Oldham 9 September Sabred Lees was an ex-soldier who had fought in the Battle of Waterloo.
Arthur Neil Pidgeon St, Manchester Inwardly crushed
Martha Partington Eccles Thrown into a cellar and killed on the spot.
John Rhodes Pits, Hopwood 18 or 19 November Sabre wound to the head Rhodes’s body was dissected by order of magistrates wishing to prove his death was not a result of Peterloo. The coroner’s inquest found that he had died from natural causes.
Joshua Whitworth 20 August Shot at New Cross.
In her 1969 book, The Peterloo Massacre, Joyce Marlow suggests that William and Edmund Dawson of Saddleworth may have been the same individual.
Although i live in Manchester now, i am not from these parts. Maybe it’s becouse i’m a Londoner!!. I do know many of these place’s and have been to them many times when my husband was alive. I particularly love Saddleworth Moor.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in