"The Peterloo Massacre (or Battle of Peterloo)," published by Richard Carlile; aquatint and etching, published 1 October 1819. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, NPG D42256. (Click on the image to enlarge it. Notice that the caption also addresses the "Female Reformers of Manchester" who had suffered in the "wanton and furious attack.")

During the period 1812-22, it could be said that England suffered more, economically, socially and politically, than during the French Wars. Consequently there were a number of manifestations of discontent and distress, in the shape of riots and disaffection, which epitomised the 'Condition of England Question'. A series of demonstrations in favour of reform culminated in the deaths of eleven people in Manchester in August 1819 — the " Peterloo Massacre".

On 1 July 1817, five Lancashire magistrates wrote to Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary in the Tory government of Lord Liverpool, saying

We cannot have a doubt that some alarming insurrection is in contemplation... [We] cannot but applaud the hitherto peaceful demeanour of many of the labouring classes, yet we do not calculate upon their remaining unmoved. Urged on by the harangues of a few desperate demagogues, we anticipate at no distant period a general rising, and possessing no power to prevent the meetings which are weekly held, we as magistrates are at a loss how to stem the influence of the dangerous and seditious doctrines which are continually disseminated.

In fact, a meeting in Manchester was planned for 9 August to elect Henry Hunt as the working-man's popular representative for Lancashire; it had to be cancelled because it was declared to be an illegal gathering. On 4 August, the Home Office wrote to the magistrates in Manchester about the proposed meeting:

Reflexion convinces him [Sidmouth] the more strongly of the inexpediency of attempting forcibly to prevent the meeting on Monday. Every discouragement and obstacle should be thrown in its way... He has no doubt that you will make arrangements for obtaining evidence of what passes; that if anything illegal is done or said, it may be the subject of prosecution. But even if they should utter sedition ... it will be the wisest course to abstain from any endeavour to disperse the mob, unless they should proceed to acts of felony or riot. (PRO, HO 41/4)

The meeting at St Peter's Field, to be addressed by Henry Hunt, was reorganised for 16 August. The main aim was to demand the reform of parliament as a step towards socio-economic betterment: ordinary people wanted government by the people for the people. This is understandable when one considers that Manchester had a population of 200,000 and no M.P. This applied also to other large towns: Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds, for example. The organisers of the meeting were moderate men who wanted a peaceful event that would show that they were respectable working men, worthy of responsibility. The local magistrates brought in the Cheshire Yeomanry to control the crowd.

16 August 1819 was a glorious summer's day, and groups of people from all the satellite towns poured into Manchester. They were determined to enjoy themselves on a day out: many were dressed in their Sunday best and had taken their wives and children with them. The meeting went ahead, attended by 50,000 to 60,000 people. It was peaceful but noisy; since the crowd consisted of families, it seems clear that there was no preconceived intention of violence.

Manchester's ten magistrates, under chairman William Hulton purported to think that the meeting could be the forerunner of revolution. Watching from a house on the edge of the field, they became increasingly nervous as the size of the crowd grew. They obtained statements from a few people who claimed the meeting posed a danger to law and order: on this pretext Hulton ordered Deputy Constable Joseph Nadin to arrest Hunt and his associates. Nadin disliked the idea of forcing his way through the crowd and said it was impossible. The JPs tried to disperse crowd, but did not read the Riot Act; the magistrates called in the military, who were waiting in streets nearby.

The Manchester Yeomanry arrived first. This ill-trained militia had been raised as a direct response to the March of the Blanketeers in March 1817 and consisted mainly of middle-class shopkeepers and tradesmen, who may have been the worse for drink. These men went about their job with great enthusiasm. At the cry "Have at their flags!" they charged into the crowd, aiming not only at the flags on the wagon that held Hunt and other speakers, but at the banners carried by the various contingents. Sabres swinging, regardless of the women and children caught beneath their horses' hooves, they rode through the crowd. Eventually the 15th Regiment of Hussars arrived and their commander asked the magistrates for instructions. The reply he reputedly received was: "Good God, Sir! Do you not see how they are attacking the yeomanry? Disperse the crowd." This they did, but they seemed to spend just as much time keeping the Yeomanry in check.

The result was eleven dead including two women, and about 400 wounded. One man had his nose severed from his face. Peterloo was likened to 'Waterloo' in irony. Here was the government killing patriots. Even some of the employers were horrified. Rochdale millowner Thomas Chadwick, who was at the scene, described the massacre as: "an inhuman outrage committed on an unarmed, peaceful assembly."

John Tyas, The Times' correspondent who was at St. Peter's Field, found himself on the hustings with Hunt and was accidentally arrested. His unbiased account was the main basis for The Times editorial on 19 August:

It appears by every account that has yet reached London, that in the midst of the Chairman's speech, within less than twenty minutes from the commencement of the meeting, the Yeomanry Cavalry of the town of Manchester charged the populace sword in hand, cut their way to the platform, and with the police at their head, made prisoners of Hunt and several of those who surrounded him - seized the flags of the Reformers - trampled down and cut down a number of the people, who, after throwing some stones and brickbats at the cavalry in its advance towards the hustings, fled on all sides in the utmost confusion and dismay. Of the crowd ... a large portion consisted of women. About 8 or 10 persons were killed, and, besides those whom their own friends carried off, above 50 wounded were taken to the hospitals; but the gross number is not supposed to have fallen short of 80 or 100, more or less, grievously wounded...

Was that [meeting] at Manchester an 'unlawful assembly'? Was the notice of it unlawful? We believe not. Was the subject proposed for discussion an unlawful object? Assuredly not. Was any thing done at this meeting before the cavalry rode in upon it, either contrary to law or in breach of the peace? No such circumstance is recorded in any of the statements which have yet reached our hands.

Hunt, Bamford — who had led the Middleton contingent but had taken no part in the speeches — and several others were arrested. Hunt, Bamford and two others were convicted of "being persons of a wicked and turbulent disposition" they had "conspired together to create a disturbance of the peace ...in a formidable and menacing manner, with sticks, clubs and other offensive weapons." Hunt was sentenced to two and a half years' gaol, the others, to a year each.

On the evening of 16 August, the Manchester magistrates wrote to Sidmouth, justifying their actions:

There was no appearance of arms or pikes, but great plenty of sticks and staves... Long before [Hunt's arrival] the magistrates had felt a decided conviction that the array was such as to terrify all the King's subjects, and was such as no legitimate purpose could justify ... While the cavalry was forming, a most marked defiance of them was acted by the reforming part of the mob.

The Government completely endorsed the magistrates' actions and decided it was an illegal meeting anyway.In a letter to Canning on 23 September 1819, Lord Liverpool said:

When I say that the proceedings of the magistrates at Manchester ... were justifiable, you will understand me as not by any means deciding that the course which they pursued on that occasion was in all its parts prudent. A great deal might be said in their favour even on this head; but, whatever judgement might be formed in this respect, being satisfied that they were substantially right, there remained no alternative but to support them.

No public inquiry was allowed until 1820, giving time for the furore to die down and wounds to heal. The Yeomanry was cleared of blame. Canning commented that:

to let down the magistrates would be to invite their resignation, and to lose all gratuitous service in the counties liable to disturbance for ever. It is, to be sure, very proviking that the magistrates, right as they were in principle, and nearly right in practice, should have soilt the completeness of their case by half an hour's precipitation.

In December 1819 the Government decided that a revolution was afoot and applied repressive policies without enquiring why conditions were as they were. They passed the Six Acts in 1819.

Related Materials

A Relevant Recent Publication

Poole, Robert. Peterloo: The English Uprising. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Based on detailed research, his book examines the background to both the mass meeting itself and the authorities’ response, making the important point that to understand a massacre one needs above all to understand the context within which that violence was inflicted. With extensive use of the Home Office archives - and offering substantial quotation from the sources - he evokes the world of intelligence gathering, spies and agents provocateurs, the exchanges between the government in London and the forces of law and order in the northwest of England, and the attempts to document the activities of radicals and assess the threat they posed. Extracts from the reports come liberally underlined as in the originals, with those passages identified as “sedition”.

One of the important features of Poole’s account is to put place back at the centre of the story. His analysis is especially strong in exploring the specific local economies, cultures and employment of the areas around Manchester, home to so many of the casualties at Peterloo. He is acute in discussing the world of the magistrates, the constables, the yeomanry and the military, and paints a devastating picture of the corruption and other deficiencies of local government in Manchester.” — Clare Griffiths, “The Manchester Massacre: 200 Years Since an Infamous Episode in English History,” TLS (16 August 2019)

Created 2000

Illustration added 2 November 2018; bibiographical item added 2 November 2019