In August 1819, 60,000 people marched peacefully to St Peters Field in central Manchester to hear a speech about electoral reform. The orator, Henry Hunt, addressed the crowd at 2pm – twenty minutes later eighteen were dead or dying and more than six hundred injured.
The Peterloo Massacre was a significant event changing the UK’s political structure forever, and one which more people should know about, says Dr Alison Morgan, from Warwick’s Centre for Teacher Education, who has published a collection of the poems and ballads written in the immediate aftermath of the 1819 scandal.
Here’s five things you should know:
1. England was awful
In his rage-filled sonnet, ‘England in 1819’, Shelley captures the state of the nation at this key moment in time with its ‘despised’ king, ‘Godless’ religion and a ‘stabbed and starved’ people. Under the leadership of Lord Liverpool, according to the historian Robert Reid, England came ‘closer in spirit to that of the early years of the Third Reich that at any other time in history’. Such a startling comparison serves to illustrate the ruthlessness of an unpopular government, supported by an even more unpopular monarchy in a time of unprecedented change. England was undergoing a seismic shift both economically and socially.
A prolonged period at war combined with the agricultural and industrial revolutions were resulting in an anonymous, industrialised state where the demands of factory life created an urban poor. People were disaffected and disenfranchised. Manchester epitomised this fundamental change of life for the labouring classes. It had excellent transport links, a damp climate and local coal mines which created the ideal centre for the burgeoning cotton industry. However, conditions for workers were appalling. They were housed in slums and they saw wages slump in the recession following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. By 1819, in a city which exemplified the success of the Industrial Revolution, people were starving and there was not a single MP
2. The poor were seeking a voice
On 16 August 1819, during the summer wakes season, ‘half of Manchester’, around 60,000 men, women and children gathered together at St Peter’s Field in central Manchester. They marched from many outlying districts, wearing their best clothes, carrying banners and singing songs, including such patriotic staples as ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘God Save the King’.
They came from Oldham and Bury, Stockport and Rochdale to hear the famous Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt speak on the need for electoral reform. He wanted universal male suffrage, annual elections and a secret ballot. It was to become one of the most significant events in modern British history.
Hunt took to the hustings at 2pm; twenty minutes later, eighteen were dead or dying and more than six hundred injured by the combined efforts of the the Fifteenth Hussars and Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, with their recently-sharpened sabres.
More than 300 harrowing eye-witness accounts of that day remain a powerful testimony to the sanctioned brutality of a repressive regime intent on destroying those who sought greater political freedom. This was a class war.
3. ‘Peterloo’ was a name given by the press
The event was reported widely in newspapers and journals, including The Times, a journalist from which was present at Peterloo. In his article three days later, on 19 August, he wrote in defence of the protestors, ‘Not a brick-bat was thrown at [the Yeomanry] — not a pistol was fired at them during this period — all was quiet and orderly’. Once arrests had been made, the Yeomanry began ‘cutting most indiscriminately to the right and the left.’
Five days after the event it was coined ‘Peter Loo’ in the Manchester Observer, a reference to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, where many of the protestors and troops present at Peterloo had fought side by side. The name Peterloo quickly entered into the public consciousness, creating furore on all sides of the political spectrum and generating a deluge of letters, newspaper articles, cartoons and poetry, which appeared within days of the massacre.
4. The event inspired rage conveyed through art
The anonymous poems and songs which tumbled onto the pages of newspapers, journals and printed as broadsides in the weeks and months after Peterloo convey the range of emotions felt by a downtrodden people: rage, grief, righteousness and vengeance. Through poetry and song, they wanted to continue to commemorate and condemn, arouse and avenge, their power undimmed.
Perhaps the most famous response to the Massacre is Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy, written swiftly in ten days during September 1819, yet unpublished until 1832. Comprising ninety-one fast-paced verses, fuelled by fury yet clear in its rationality, Masque is remarkably similar to the poems being written and published at that time in the radical press. Its famous refrain can still be seen on Transport House in Salford, the former regional headquarters of the Transport and General Workers’ Union:
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number —
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few
5. It changed politics, and marches are still happening
Even though the Peterloo Massacre did not lead immediately to the granting of votes for all adult males, it is of great significance throughout the nineteenth century with the establishment of the Chartist movement, trades unions and the Labour Party. In the early twentieth century, Emmeline Pankhurst continued the fight for votes – for both men and women, further evidence of Manchester as the vanguard in the fight for democracy.
Shelley’s invocation to the people to ‘shake your chains’ still speaks powerfully to us today. Despite the huge improvements in the quality and standard of living, (and the establishment of the Labour movement) we still live in a society in which some people do not have enough to eat. In the women’s marches of 2017 and protests against Trump and Brexit, we see the power of collective action. In Britain, we have a long and proud tradition of holding truth to power, using poetry, song and art as a way of reclaiming a narrative and giving voice to the unheard.
It is to be hoped that with the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre and in years to come, the voices of the anonymous balladeers will once again be heard on the streets of Manchester and beyond.
Published: 31 October 2018
Dr Alison Morgan is the Deputy Head of the Secondary Teacher Education and is the subject lead for English at Warwick's Centre for Teacher Education. She holds a Master’s degree and PhD in English literature, with her specialised field being the study of Romanticism.
Terms for republishing
The text in this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).