On 16 August 2019, it will be the bicentenary of the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819.
In this dismal episode in British history, the part time militia of the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry charged a peaceful crowd of 60,000. This gathering was in fact a large part of the then population of Lancashire, many of whom were impoverished cotton workers who had come to St Peter’s Field to hear reformers, led by the notorious Henry Hunt, talk on the issue of parliamentary reform. Through this means,they hoped to improve their living conditions.
Such were the vagaries and injustices of the electoral system in Britain at the time, that not only were the majority of the working population not allowed to vote , but there was not even an MP in Manchester.
On seeing such a massive crowd gathering, the local magistrates, watching from a nearby building, panicked. The normal procedure for dispersing a supposedly disorderly crowd was to have the Riot Act read, and if they crowd had not dispersed in an hour, to send in troops.
Professional mounted troops would move slowly into a crowd, using their horses and the flats of their swords to part them. However, on St Peter’s Fields on that day, the local militias charged into the crowd, using the sabres to cut down men, woman and children alike. Women holding babies were sabred, and the horrors of the day were vividly reported by the before then unsympathetic journalist from The Times, who was standing on the platform as the massacre began, and who was mistaken for a radical and arrested.
It may astonish people to read that the official death toll was only 15, with about 700 people who either were reported as injured. However, it has to be remembered that many of those injured, however severely, would not have dared to report it. After the massacre the victims, and not the aggressors, were treated as criminals, and feared discrimination by their employers. Lord Livepool’s government supported the local magistrate’s foolhardly decision to send in the inexperienced (and possibly drunken) local militias.We only have the figures of those injured from the numbers of those incapacited who applied for funds for relief from a charitable fund set up by sympathizers.
No doubt many of those injured subsequently died as a result of their injuries some weeks or even months later. In those days of primitive medical care and lack of welfare provison, a serious injury was often a death sentence, and for a wage earner in the family to be incapacitated equalled the threat of starvation for a family. Many handloom weavers and spinners at this time were living in a state of semi starvation already.
One of those who later died of injuries received on the day was 21 year old John Lees, a spinner and Waterloo veteran from Oldham, whose father had disapproved of his attending the meeting, and who did not at first realise the serious nature of his son’s injuries. When John Lees died on 7 September, his father demanded an inquest. The jury was ready to return a verdict of wilful murder against the militia, when the coroner took advantage of a legal loophole to dissolve the whole proceedings.
Subsequently, the repressive Six Acts were rushed through parliament, which effectively muzzled radical newspapers, political meetings, marching and any form of dissent.
Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford and the other radical leaders were arrested for treason. This capital offence was latter commuted to a a lesser one, and they served prison sentences of severaql yesrs.
This was the outrage which inspired the poet Shelley to write his famous ‘Masque of Anarchy’ (so subversive that it wasn’t in fact published until 1831, a couple of years after his own death).
‘Rise like lions after slumber;
Rise in unvanquishable number,
Cast your chains to earth like dew,
Which in your sleep hath fallen on you,
Ye are many; they are few.’
It is a grim enough episode in British history. However, I felt that I ought to write a story based about the Peterloo Massacre. I didn’t actually know at the time when I began work on my novel, that there is in fact an epic feature film coming out about it, and I thought that the occasion of the bi-centenary should not slip by without someone writing of the appalling suffering of the Lancashire cotton workers at this time, and particularly, the injustices meted out on that day.
With luck there will now be many articles, books, blog posts and television posts over the next year on the bi-centenary of this shameful episode, which shows the neglected dark side of Regency history and the repressive nature of the state.