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The Peterloo Massacre, 1819

[Colby Introduction]: The French Revolution postponed in England many reforms which had been rendered necessary by rapid industrial progress. Radicalism was associated in the public mind with a French origin, and that killed it politically. After Waterloo the tide turned and agitators gained a hearing. The landed interests wished to maintain the late war prices, and the artisan population desired cheap bread. Hence discontent, oratory, and riots which resulted in the loss of life. The most celebrated disturbance of these years is the "Peterloo Massacre" of 1819. On August 16th a mass meeting was arranged by the Manchester radicals to hear Henry Hunt, a speaker who advocated annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and the ballot. A crowd gathered in St. Peter's Fields, and trouble arose between it and the Lancashire militia who were present on the plea of preserving order. The troops charged and killed several persons, to the intense indignation of radical sympathizers in every part of the island.

The adjournment of the preceding meeting, the considerable interval of preparation which had been allowed; a vague feeling perhaps, that such assemblages would not much longer be permitted,---all conspired to render the concourse great beyond all former example. A little before noon on the 16th of August, the first body of reformers began to arrive on the scene of action, which was a piece of ground called St. Peter's Field, adjoining a church of that name in the town of Manchester. These persons bore two banners, surmounted with caps of liberty, and bearing the inscriptions: "No Corn Laws," "Annual Parliaments," "Universal Suffrage," "Vote By Ballot." Some of these flags, after being paraded round the field, were planted in the cart on which the speakers stood; but others remained in different parts of the crowd. Numerous large bodies of reformers continued to arrive from the towns in the neighborhood of Manchester till about one o'clock, all preceded by flags, and many of them in regular marching order, five deep. Two clubs of female reformers advanced, one of them numbering more than 150 members, and bearing a white silk banner. One body of reformers timed their steps to the sound of a bugle with much of a disciplined air; another had assumed to itself the motto of the illustrious Wallace, "God armeth the Patriot." A band of special constables assumed a position on the field without resistance. The congregated multitude now amounted to a number roundly computed at 80,000, and the arrival of the hero of the day was impatiently expected.

At length Mr. Hunt made his appearance, and after a rapturous greeting, was invited to preside; he signified his assent, and mounting a scaffolding, began to harangue his admirers. He had not proceeded far, when the appearance of the yeomanry cavalry advancing toward the area in a brisk trot, exciting a panic in the outskirts of the meeting. They entered the inclosure, and after pausing a moment to recover their disordered ranks, and breathe their horses, they drew their swords, and brandished them fiercely in the air. The multitude, by the direction of their leaders, gave three cheers, to show that they were undaunted by this intrusion, and the orator had just resumed his speech to assure the people that this was only a trick to disturb the meeting, and to exhort them to stand firm, when the cavalry dashed into the crowd, making for the cart on which the speakers were placed. The multitude made no resistance, they fell back on all sides.

The commanding officer then approaching Mr. Hunt, and brandishing his sword, told him that he was his prisoner. Mr. Hunt, after enjoining the people to tranquility, said, that he would readily surrender to any civil officer on showing his warrant, and Mr. Nadin, the principal police officer, received him in charge. Another person, named Johnson, was likewise apprehended, and a few of the mob; some others against whom there were warrants, escaped in the crowd.

A cry now arose among the military of "Have at their flags!" and they dashed down not only those in the cart, but the others dispersed in the field; cutting to right and left to get at them. The people began running in all directions; and from this moment the yeomanry lost all command of temper: numbers were trampled under the feet of men and horses; many, both men and women, were cut down by sabers; several, and a peace officer and a female in the number, slain on the spot. The whole number of persons injured amounted to between three and four hundred. The populace threw a few stones and brick bats in their retreat; but in less than ten minutes the ground was entirely cleared of its former occupants, and filled by various bodies of military, both horse and foot. Mr. Hunt was led to prison, not without incurring considerable danger, and some injury on his way from the swords of the yeomanry and the bludgeons of police officers; the broken staves of two of his banners were carried in mock procession before him. The magistrates directed him to be locked up in a solitary cell, and the other prisoners were confined with the same precaution. The town was brought into a tolerably quiet state before night, military patrols being stationed at the end of almost every street.


From: Charles W. Colby, ed., Selections from the Sources of English History, B.C. 55 - A.D. 1832 (London: Longmans, Green, 1920), pp. 298-300

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg.

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Paul Halsall June1998