Peterloo: How Manchester took to Napoleon’s terror and the British Army

Now this his is something I produced for my personal Facebook account a day or so after the Manchester arena attack as I do with many of the attacks of recent. The second attack in London has since pushed me to post it here for many would be mistaken to find the past much more peaceful than our current climate. What I am trying to really get at here is that time and time again the world, the UK and Manchester in this case have had their liberties defied by fellow people we are forced to humanize. No matter how much solidarity you wish to partake in, those who brought you there will try to go the extra mile and in doing so will make you and your community go the extra mile too. Peterloo is a defining trope of this idea as those who participated did something very few 19th century working class men or women could do, they not only changed the minds of the country but they faced down the government too. The radicals of Peterloo may not have succeeded despite their reformative action but at least it shows that the extremists today will fall upon their backwards thoughts.

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The Peterloo Massacre, Manchester 16 August 1819

Political radicalism is nothing but a pool of fiery tempers and violent potential but what lead to a crowd of 60-80,000 Manchestians facing a charge by British army cavalry?

Napoleon had not only left a reign of political turmoil in his wake but also a Britain disenfranchised with the state and security of her empire. Metropolitan domination of mercantilist trade put the industrial urban areas of Britain into a strained downturn. This can be seen in the boom of Manchester’s textile manufacture which inevitably came with severe economic collapse as industrialists began to cut wages in order to stay afloat. Weavers who’d you expect to earn 15 shillings (£0.119 GBP today) for a 6 day week in 1803 saw their wages cut to 5 shillings (£0.0373 GBP today) by 1818. The Corn Laws introduced in 1815 only went on to push the breeches further with families struggling to pay the increasing food prices that would go on to plague Ireland and her potato blight in 1845-52. Political reform was needed but with 4 MPs taking on 1 million constituents and voting restricted to adult males freehold landowners with an annual rental value of 40 shillings (£80 GBP today) or more, it’s easy to see why groups like the Blanketeers sought public demonstrations.

Meeting after meeting in 1819 of the Patriotic Manchester Union was deemed illegal and disbanded by local magistrates and later the government through spies who had intercepted a communique between Manchester Observer founder/union secretary Joseph Johnson and the radical politician Henry Hunt. The authorities were obviously worried about the violent intent such a meeting like on the 16th could hold as they saw it as an insurrection to appoint a new Member of Parliament which was strictly a royal duty. However Henry Hunt and the organisers saw it as an open forum to discuss a legal and effectual means to parliamentary reform with the only weapon to be brought being self-approving conscience.
So if the true intentions were that of peaceful discussion than how did it turn so deadly?

In misconstruing the enthusiasm of the gathered masses towards the arrival of Henry Hunt as an armed uprising waiting to happen, William Hulton who was chairman of the magistrates ordered arrest warrants for Hunt and his fellow hustings leaders. Chief Constable Jonathan seeking military assistance to take on the press of the crowd surrounding the hustings asked Hulton to a alert Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Calvary who in the rush to attend, knocked down a young woman-killing her two year old child making him the first fatality (William Fildes).

Hunt’s arrest- Printed 27th of August 1819

The logistical nightmare of the warrants execution is now clear as the path made for the yeomanry on horseback was narrow enough to push the panicked horses into the crowd and as the yeomanry attempted to remove banners and flags from the crowd after the arrests, they were seen to be swiping indiscriminately with their sabres. Of course the Yeomanry’s loss of commanded temper and the masses!s attempts to defend themselves from sabre blows excited Hulton to order the 15th Hussars and the Cheshire yeomanry to charge at the crowd from opposite ends of the field in defence of their horseback brothers. The 88th regiment of Foot stationed at the main exit with bayonets fixed made crowd dispersion difficult and so after 10 minutes the 600 wounded were left clear to witness the 11 dead left behind by the cavalry’s charge. Those numbers are only estimates pertaining to the field alone but the socio-political consequences were resounding.

The word of the massacre spread as far into Europe despite the government ordering the police and courts to pursue the press and publications of the Manchester Observer. Their concern grew rapidly after Autumn 1819 with unrest in Huddersfield and Burnley which made armed rebellion a possible threat and so by the end of the year the government introduced the Six Acts legislation. These aimed to suppress meetings seeking radical reform and were only fully repealed in 2008 when the 1819 Unlawful Drilling Act was overturned. The government did cave in to one demand of the Union’s interest in the Great Reform Act of 1832 when the newly established Manchester parliamentary borough elected two MPs alongside becoming a municipal borough in 1837.

See adjacent text

The current plaque unveiled in 2007 by the lord Mayor to commemorate thw nassacre

Most interestingly, the Manchester Observer was disbanded soon after the massacre and was soon replaced in 1821 with the Manchester guardian founded by the Little Circle group of non-conformist Manchester businessmen headed by John Edward Taylor who witnessed the massacre. A prospectus announcing the new publication proclaimed that it would “zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty … warmly advocate the cause of Reform … endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy and … support, without reference to the party from which they emanate, all serviceable measures.”
This Newspaper came to be known as The Guardian which we still see support the Centre-left to this day.

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