I count myself amongst those who were all in favor of the police taking a hard line against the thugs and rioters wreaking havoc up and down the country last week, but it’s important to remember that sometimes those in authority can take things a bit too far, with predictably disastrous results. Take, for example, the events of August 16, 1819, when an peaceful protest turned into what would be later known as the Peterloo Massacre.
The stage was set at St. Peter’s Field, Manchester. A group known as the Manchester Patriotic Union, which was agitating for parliamentary reform, had organized a demonstration that would be addressed by radical orator Henry Hunt. Between 60,000 and 80,000 people are said to have gathered to hear Hunt speak, many of them frustrated by high unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, coupled with periods of famine and the introduction of the first Corn Laws, which protected domestically produced cereals at the expense of the poor, who had to pay much more in order to eat. The meeting in Manchester was just supposed to be a peaceful rally, but government spies intercepted a letter to Hunt regarding the meeting, which they took to mean an insurrection was being planned, so they called up the 15th Hussars and sent them to Manchester.
The organizers of the event were determined to put on a good, peaceful show, and they not only set dress codes but also prohibited all weapons. Still, the powers that be were determined that this meeting would end in a riot, so they arranged for a substantial number of troops and militia yeomanry to be deployed, along with the 600 Hussars. Many of the yeomanry were inexperienced local shopkeepers and tradesmen, mixed with several young men who just really, really hated the radicals.
August 16 was a warm, sunny day, and people gathered by the thousands, packing tightly into an area that was only about 14,000 square yards. Manchester’s magistrates watched anxiously from a nearby building, and when Hunt arrived and was excitedly greeted, one of them, William Hulton, got a little hot headed and ordered Hunt and several other speakers arrested. The Chief Constable noted that the tightly packed crowd would make it difficult to arrest anyone, and that military assistance might be necessary. Hulton duly asked Major Trafford, the commanding officer of the Yeomanry Cavalry, and Lietenant Colonel L’Estrange, overall military commander in Manchester, to lend a hand.
The Yeomanry got their order first and immediately set out for St. Peter’s Field. They were in such a rush to get there, they knocked over a woman walking down the street and killed her young child, who was thrown from her arms. The Yeomanry tried to force their way through the crowd, and their inexperienced horses started to panic, which caused the crowd and, finally, the riders to panic. The riders inexplicably began hacking at people in the crowd with their sabers in an effort to get through. Some members of the crowd began to fight back, throwing bricks and stones, which Hulton saw as an attack on the Yeomanry. When the Hussars arrived, he ordered them to disperse the crowd. The Hussars obediently lined up and charged.
The crowd would probably have been very happy to disperse by this time, except that their main exit route was blocked by the 88th Regiment of Foot, which was standing with bayonets fixed. At least one officer of the Hussars tried to reign in the crazed Yeomanry, but they wouldn’t listen. By the time the crowd finally managed to scatter, at least 11 people were dead and as many as 600 were injured.
Rioting soon broke out in the streets, and troops fired on a crowd at New Cross that was attacking a shop. It wasn’t until the following morning that peace was restored in Manchester, and in Stockport and Macclesfield rioting continued throughout the 17th.
An exact number of casualties is difficult to come by, as many of the injured hid their wounds for fear of retribution. Based on various sources, it’s believed between 11 and 15 people died in the field itself, with more dying of their injuries later, and between 400 and 700 were injured. Of the recorded casualties, 168 were women, and there was talk that women in the crowd were especially targeted.
The public was horrified by the event, which was one of the first of its kind heavily covered by the media. Commemorative items were created, and Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a poem about it. Unfortunately this did not bring favorable attention to the cause the people were gathering for in the first place. There was a crackdown on reform; Hunt was tried for sedition in March 1820 and sentenced to 30 months in prison. The four members of the Manchester Yeomanry put on trial for their actions were acquitted, as the court ruled that their actions had been justified to disperse an illegal gathering. The Prince Regent himself sent his thanks to the magistrates of Manchester for their part in scattering a peaceful crowd of men, women, and children by essentially butchering them. The public was not happy about all this, and there were more riots and uprisings, which only resulted in further government crackdowns. Legislation, known as the Six Acts, was introduced to suppress radical meetings and publications, and by the end of 1820 every significant working-class radical reformer was in jail.
Eventually, however, public opinion could not be ignored, and over the years the demands of the reformers who gathered at St. Peter’s were met. For years, the site of the Peterloo Massacre was marked by a small blue plaque that understated the events enormously (it called the massacre a “dispersal” and failed to mention the many casualties.) After significant public pressure, a new plaque was unveiled in 2007 that gave a much fuller account of what happened the afternoon of August 16, 1819.