I’m writing this on the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, which took place here in Manchester on August 16th 1819.
The events of that day took place on St Peter’s Fields, close to the present day site of the former Free Trade Hall.
Much has been written about Peterloo. It is a significant event in the history of democracy. Similar events continue to take place on the world stage. It has an international dimension.
While it’s an important chapter in Manchester’s story, it’s more than local history.
Maxine Peake recently performed the poet Shelley’s work The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the shocking events of that day. Today, on the anniversary, she will read the names of those who died. Eighteen died and as many as seven hundred were injured when the cavalry charged the crowd. They had gathered to listen to the orator Henry Hunt. Intended as a peaceful demonstration, those attending were asked to wear their Sunday best clothes and conduct themselves in an orderly fashion. They did not want to present themselves as a disorderly rabble. Their concerns were pro-democracy and anti-poverty.
Local magistrates watched the assembly and meeting develop. They panicked at the numbers attending and read the Riot Act. Rather than letting the crowd disperse, the cavalry was called in to clear them. Hussars and the local Yeomanry rode towards the crowd and panic ensued. The demonstrators were helpless against armed men on horseback and couldn’t escape. There were many women and children among the crowd.
Such a significant historical event has been researched and written about for almost 200 years.There is no shortage of information and interpretation concerning Peterloo.
We also have diaries and written eye witness accounts of the events of the day.
The name Peterloo played with the image of the Battle of Waterloo.
Journalists who wrote about the event were arrested. John Edwards Taylor founded the Manchester Guardian in response.
Peterloo is seen as a significant event in the rise of the Chartist Movement leading eventually to Trade Unions and the right to vote.