On Sunday I, along with hundreds from around the greater Manchester area marched in commemoration of those who were injured and killed at what is now known as The Peterloo massacre. I walked nine miles wearing unsuitable footwear, but I felt that it was necessary to pay homage to those that passed away at Peterloo. Growing up in a town not far from Manchester, I have always been aware of the Peterloo Massacre and the injustices thrown at innocent people that day.
On the 16th of August 1819 an estimated 18 people, including a woman and a child died from cuts from a sabar and trampling. 7000 men, women and children received serious injuries, many never recovered from them and they continued to suffer for the rest of their lives.
Crowds began to gather on the morning of The 16th of August. Whole families attended from all over the north west. This was intended to be a peaceful demonstration, and many brought picnics to eat whilst sitting on what was known as petersfields Manchester. They marched great distances in protest mainly because of the disastrous corn laws which made making bread unaffordable. At that time fewer than 2% of the population had the vote, so this was their way of saying peacefully that they weren’t happy. Many were wearing their Sunday best and behaved with great dignity. They weren’t violent thugs, they were good people trying to make a peaceful stand.
They had speakers planned, the key speaker being Henry Hunt. He stood on a cart. Not everyone could hear him due to the amount of people attending. People were holding banners which said words such as equal restoration , reform, love and universal sufferage. Many of the banners contained the red cap of Liberty, which was seen as a very powerful symbol.
As you can imagine the authorities weren’t happy. Local magistrates were watching from a a window near the field. They panicked, even though the event was a very peaceful one. Without much thought they read the crowd the riot act, but the crowd was that large, not many were able to hear and they made no effort to tell people.
At that moment 600 Hussars, several hundred infantrymen, an artillery unit packed with two six pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special countable waited in reserve in buildings surrounding the field. The local yeomanry were given the task of arresting the speakers, so head by Captain Hugh Brieley and Major Thomas Trafford, who were essentially a parliamentary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners.
They then on horseback, fully armed with cutlasses and clubs proceeded to head towards the very large crowd. They were already biased against members of the crowd and wanted to settle scores this way. Issuing orders such as “There’s sexton, damn him run him through”
They proceeded further and charged towards the crowd. The crowd had stood linking arms, trying to prevent the arrests, but it was to no avail. Their banners were struck down and they moved toward the crowd striking out at people. There are reports which state that the yeomanry were drunk which I fear only fuelled their violence.
By 2pm,the field was a scene of carnage. Abandoned banners strewn everywhere and dead bodies lying on the field. Those injured waiting desperately for help. Journalists at the scene trying to report the event were arrested, and others who went in to report the days event were jailed. The businessman John Edwards Taylor went on to set up the guardian newspaper as a direct reaction as to what he had seen.
The speakers and organisers were put on trial, and were first charged with high treason, which was reluctantly dropped by the prosecution. The hussars and magistrates responsible for slaying innocent people received a message of congratulations from the prince regent and were cleared of any wrong doing.
So why do we continue to march and commemorate the day?
The battle of Peterloo played a huge part in paving the way for ordinary people to win the right to vote. It lead to the Chartist Movement from which grew the trade union movement and it established the publishing the establishment of the Manchester guardian movement. The injustices and suffering inflicted at Peterloo played a critical part in the poorest getting the freedoms that we have today.
It inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his poem The Masque of Anarchy, which due to restrictions placed on the radical press was not published until 1832, then years after the poets death.
This is a very brief overview of events, and many thanks to The Peterloo Massacre Memorial campaign for their information which has helped me write this article.
The Peterloo massacre is as important today as it was then, because we are still fighting the same battle, the battle of injustice forced upon the poorest and most vulnerable in society. I shall always remember the victims of Peterloo. So I sit here with sore feet writing this article which I feel is a very small price to pay in remembrance of those who lost their lives.