The day started well. Clear skies, warm sun and a crowd later estimated at “around 60,000, with many dressed in their Sunday best” exchanging pleasantries while waiting to see and hear one of the great orators of the day, Henry “Orator” Hunt, speak on the urgent need for parliamentary reform and better working and living conditions.
The day, August 16, 1819, ended tragically with 18 dead, 650 injured, many seriously. And “Orator” Hunt got to speak but a few words before he and his entourage were arrested. Carrying out the arrest was a force described in early reports as “local yeomanry, younger members of the Tory (Conservative) Party in arms.” London’s Times reporter John Tyas and other scribes were hauled away with Hunt’s group, to the alarm of already nervous magistrates.
Earlier in the day, the meadows near St. Peter’s Church, known as St. Peter’s Fields, had been described as “full of people in good humour, shouting and laughing and making fun; it seemed to be a gala with the country people … boys and girls taking their father’s hand to walk in the procession.”
A peaceful protest but with the occasional banner proclaiming “LIBERTY and FRATERNITY,” a reminder to the government of the day that the people of France, tired of tyranny, had stormed the infamous Bastille prison and replaced their government.
A memorial piece in The Guardian (link below) describes how the scene changed from a day in the country to see and hear a legendary orator talk about future hopes, to a terrifying mob panic and death and wounds by the sword.
The huge crowd was too dense for most to notice what was later reported as Manchester Yeomanry “approaching the edge of the crowd at a fast pace. They were the first troops to be called. They had been milling in the back streets, drinking in local taverns, and were fired up, ready to unleash themselves on the subversives. They clattered down Cooper Street, knocking over a 23-year-old woman … and knocking her baby son, William, out of her arms, onto the cobbles and under their horses’ hooves. He was the first fatality of the day.”
Any signs of peaceful protest died with the baby, and the joyous crowd became a mob fleeing for its life. When 340 regular cavalrymen from the 15th Hussars joined the mass, it drove everything before it – including the crowd control yeomanry. One of the Hussar officers, Lt. William Joliffe, later explained why the death count was so low at 18 after a full battle cavalry charge into a panic stricken mob.
“The charge,” he reported, “swept this mingled mass of humans before it; people, yeomen and constables in their confused attempts to escape ran over one another … The Hussars drove the people forward with the flats of their swords, but sometimes, as is almost inevitably the case when men are placed in such situations, the edge is used … I must still consider that it redounds to the humane forbearance of the men of the 15th that more wounds were not received.”
He was saying his men were not too happy with their orders and were swinging their sabres to hit with the flat of the sword, not the sharp edge.
And why should all this be of interest to people in 2019 some 200 years after the event? Well, maybe because he was courageously telling the government of the day that their army was not in wholehearted support of its conduct. That it wouldn’t take much to persuade a switch of loyalty.
Or maybe because a journalist named James Wroe, a reporter who covered the event and coined the immortal title “The Peterloo Massacre,” published the clear, brutal story of what he saw and emphasized repeated calls for change in government’s understanding of democracy. The government certainly paid attention. In double-quick time, it closed down Wroe’s newspaper – the Manchester Observer – charged him with seditious libel and sentenced him to one year in jail with hard labour.
Or maybe, because following Peterloo and over too many years there came a steady progression of hard-fought reforms in parliament, incredible improvements in workplace conditions and, for most people, living standards far beyond the Peterloo generation’s dreams.
In Manchester this year they unveiled a new multi million dollar memorial. It features 11 concentric steps featuring the names of the 18 who died and the towns and villages they came from. It is hoped it will convey the idea of the 18 walking up the steps to a speakers podium to continue their still active fight for electoral equality and social justice.