200 years on from the Peterloo Massacre

The Point V9N4

Looking back at the history of our own union reminds us of the important lessons of the past – and so  we are launching a regular column which will focus on an important moment in union history. We’re  kicking off with a tragic but pivotal event which took place almost exactly 200 years ago in Manchester.

On the morning of Monday 16 August 1819, a large crowd gathered in Manchester for a massive regional meeting, a peaceful rally to call for political reform. The gathering was organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform.  Henry Hunt, a well-known orator and pioneer of working-class rights, was scheduled to address the crowd. It is estimated that between 60,000-80,000 of mainly working-class people gathered at St Peter’s Fields from surrounding towns – to put it into perspective, at that time Manchester’s population was around 120,000. The crowd consisted of men, women and children – families gathered for a non-violent and peaceful protest for universal male suffrage. The women were there to assist the men to get their vote, as it was considered that the man’s vote was a vote for the family.

Voting was restricted to adult male owners of freehold land with a minimum annual rental value of 40 shillings. The crowd wanted a reform of the parliamentary system for universal suffrage and to give Manchester proper parliamentary representation for the first time, so that the so-called ‘rotten boroughs’ like Dunwich in Suffolk (almost disappeared into the sea by the 19th century) and Old Sarum (an area outside Salisbury largely abandoned since the Middle Ages) would no longer send two MPs to Westminster. The constituency boundaries were out-dated and the ‘rotten boroughs’ had a disproportionate influence on the membership of the Parliament in comparison to their population.

Conversely, the major urban centres of Manchester, Salford and Stockport, for example, had a combined population of almost one million and were not proportionately represented in Parliament.

There were 18 volunteer magistrates and a paid full-time magistrate who took charge of law and order in the Manchester area. These men owned valuable property and held professions in law, business and even as Church of England clergymen.  They were unlikely to be sympathetic to the political reform proposed by the predominantly working-class people.  The magistrates sat watching the crowds gather in a private building near the field. They had signed up around 400 armed special constables, deployed troops from Manchester, regular cavalry and infantry as well as two six-pounder cannons. In total, there were more than 1,500 soldiers and constables.

At about noon, several hundred constables formed two lines in the crowd to make a corridor between the house where the magistrates were watching to the hustings where the speakers would address the crowds. At around 1.15pm Hunt arrived to great cheers – soon after, he was arrested by warrant authorised by the magistrates. In the process, soldiers and constables launched into the crowd injuring children, men and women. The exact number of fatalities on the day is not confirmed; however, it is believed to be between 11-18 people, including an infant. Between 400-600 people were injured.  Some died on the spot, others died weeks after. Death and injuries resulted from deep sabre cuts to the head and arms, or being trampled and ridden over by cavalry. Hunt was imprisoned for two years following the Peterloo Massacre on a charge of unlawful and seditious assembling for the purpose of exciting discontent.

Sadly, the gathering at Peterloo did not lead directly to the parliamentary reform the crowds were seeking. After the massacre, the authorities closed ranks against any change. It would take another 13 years for limited parliamentary reform. It would be many decades later that working-class men would get their vote – and, as you know, women would wait another century for theirs.

The legacy of Peterloo and the struggle of working people continues today. Because of the efforts of the working-class in the past and the mobilising of the masses, today we enjoy rights that were limited in the past to a small group of people who owned and controlled land and industry. Although we are not completely free from this control today, we enjoy more freedoms than our counterparts in the past.  

All working people today should be reminded of the great sacrifice that working-class people made at Peterloo, and throughout history.
We must always remain alert to any infringement on the rights of working people, whoever they may be, wherever they may be or whatever industry or profession they work in – because an attack on any worker’s rights, is an attack on all workers’ rights.

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number--
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you--
Ye are many -- they are few.
– Percy Shelley