Remembering Peterloo after 199 years

Posted by The Skibbereen Eagle | August 16, 2018 0



Today 16th August marks the 199th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre at St Peters Field in Manchester. As once again in Britain workers rights and their ability to organise and strike are being attacked we should remember Peterloo, one of the darkest days in Manchester’s history it is a milestone in our hard fought & won freedoms for peaceful assembly.

The numbers of dead and injured when the Manchester Yeomanry rode into a peaceful crowd protesting for the vote has never been finally substantiated, but aside from those killed it ran into hundreds in terms of those who received injuries from sabres or horses hooves. Peterloo had several lasting impacts. One was the 1832 Reform Act. Another was the Manchester Guardian. The founder of the paper, John Edward Taylor, was a  witness to and a persistent critic of the Magistrates actions at Peterloo.  peterlootodayblue-plaque-small

In the England of 1819 workers had no rights, there was no “One man, One vote.” The country was divided into “Rotten Boroughs” where only the property owners  elected the MP’s and the country was run for the benefit  of the wealthy and the landowners. They were “represented” in a sham democracy by the Tory Party which, then as now, operated as a conspiracy against those who actually created the wealth, the workers who included many women and children as well as men. What united them is they had short, wretched lives in appalling conditions manipulated by those who controlled the productive resources, the Law and the Armed Forces, and used them shamelessly to feed their greed and their conspicuous consumption.

That is why I get angry at the uninformed who claim all political parties are the same, a tune happily played by the Right but also by the divisive sectarian Left whose barren agenda has never attracted the support from working people that they endlessly verbalise about while the rest of the world and the “workers” yawn their heads off. For Modern Britain, the 5th richest economy in the world, is very much a product of the Labour Party which has created a land with a diverse mixed economy, cultural richness and diversity, universal education, healthcare and social safety net, to create a “Land fit for Heroes” where there was a common social consensus that the people who fought and suffered together to create and defend freedom deserved fair and equitable share of the land and its economy as of right. From the Peterloo Massacre, the struggle of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and many more grew the Labour and Co-operative movements which changed Britain and created the Labour Party to represent the values of working people. Despite the spin and detractors, unlike its political opponents, it is still the same mass democratic party representing working people and the values of their honest labour.

The ceremony in Manchester is organised each year  was by the Peterloo Memorial Campaign. It takes place under a plaque commemorating the massacre on Peter Street. The charge which also saw 700 injured, was commemorated im Percy Bysshe Shelley’s protest poem

The Masque of Anarchy.

‘Men of England, heirs of Glory,

Heroes of unwritten story,

Nurslings of one mighty Mother,

Hopes of her, and one another;

‘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.’

On the 16th of August 1819 the huge open area around what’s now St Peters Square, Manchester, played host to an outrage against over 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters; an event which became known as The Peterloo Massacre. An estimated 18 people, including a woman and a child, died from saber cuts and trampling. Over 700 men, women and children received extremely serious injuries. All in the name of liberty and freedom from poverty.


Notice “to the inhabitants of the Hundred of Salford”, published by the magistrates the day after the massacre

The Massacre occurred during a period of immense political tension and mass protests. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote, and hunger was rife with the disastrous corn laws making bread unaffordable.


On the morning of 16th August the crowd 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 GMEX centre, and the space was filled with banners – REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION and, touchingly, LOVE. Many of the banner poles where topped with the red cap of liberty – a powerful symbol at the time. peterloobanner

Local magistrates watching from a window near the field panicked at the sight of the crowd, and read the “Riot Act”, effectively ordering what little of the crowd could hear them to disperse.

As 600 Hussars, several hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables waited in reserve, the local Yeomanry were given the task of arresting the speakers. The Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Birley and Major Thomas Trafford, were essentially a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners. peterloobanner1

On horseback, armed with cutlasses and clubs, many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. (In one instance, spotting a reporter from the radical Manchester Observer, a Yeomanry officer called out “There’s Saxton, damn him, run him through.”) Heading for the hustings, they charged when the crowd linked arms to try and stop the arrests, and proceeded to strike down banners and people with their swords. Rumours from the period have persistently stated the Yeomanry were drunk.

The panic was interpreted as the crowd attacking the yeomanry, and the Hussars (Led by Lieutenant Colonel Guy L’Estrange) were ordered in. As with the Tiananmen Square Massacre, there were unlikely heroes among the military. An unnamed cavalry officer attempted to strike up the swords of the Yeomanry, crying – “For shame, gentlemen: what are you about? The people cannot get away!” But the majority joined in with the attack.

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.


By 2pm the carnage was over, and the field left full of abandoned banners and dead bodies. Journalists present at the event were arrested; others who went on to report the event were subsequently jailed. The businessman John Edwards Taylor went on to help set up the Guardian newspaper as a reaction to what he’d seen. The speakers and organisers were put on trial, at first under the charge of High treason – a charge that was reluctantly dropped by the prosecution. In the best traditions of the Establishment the cowardly Hussars and Magistrates who had attacked an unarmed, peaceful civilian protest with military force received a message of congratulations from the Prince Regent, and were cleared of any wrong-doing by the official inquiry.


Historians acknowledge that Peterloo was hugely influential in ordinary people winning the right the 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.  According to Nick Mansfield, director of the People’s History Museum in Salford, “Peterloo is a critical event not only because of the number of people killed and injured, but because ultimately it changed public opinion to influence the extension of the right to vote and give us the democracy we enjoy today. It was critical to our freedoms.”

“Ye are many – they are few”


The Skibbereen Eagle

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