The Peterloo Massacre

  • Wars And Conflict
  • 8 mins

By Crusader1307

The Battle of Peterloo, or more appropriately named The ''Peterloo Massacre'', happened on August 16, 1819 – in The British City of Manchester. It was an example of ''modern'' civil unrest in which a disenfranchised people, fed up with economic and political injustice – ''stood up'' against their Government to initiate change. What they were met with was that Government's Army, armed with saber and gun. The Peterloo Massacre would stand as the worst case of such until the 1887 ''Bloody Sunday'' Riots in London of 1887.


With the final death throes of The Napoleonic Wars (which tore through Europe), at an end (1815), a massive influx of immigrants poured into an already overcrowded London. In addition to this, thousands of former British Soldiers (discharged from The War), came home to find no jobs and little affordable (and habitable) homes. To add ''fuel to fire'', mismanagement of Government caused an impromptu ''Class System'' which was not to much better that The Middle Ages. The Rich (most of whom also were Government Administrators and Lawmakers), turned a ''blind eye'' to the plight of the Poor. Little of their issues (housing, employment and basic food means), were being met.

In terms of ''basic food'' The British Government enacted the nebulous ''Corn Laws''. This agricultural referendum banned imported food stuff basics (corn, wheat, rye, etc.) and forced consumers to buy only from British Farm Merchants. These Merchants set high market prices even when the various crop blights caused production to dwindle. The average consumer could barely (if all) afford to buy even basic food stuffs (such as flour to make bread – a commodity also covered by The Laws).


''Freedom of Speech'' and to ''dissent' are not common to just The United States. A form of political activism was spreading through Great Britain as a whole. The Common person was tired of Government excess and even a lack of ''Royal intercession''. Groups were formed (Committees), which gave vocal ''Leaders'' the ability to speak to The People about changes in Government, either through ''the vote'' or if necessary ''the rifle''. Such ideology was seen as ''Radicalism'' by The Government. Various large meetings in The North and East of England were seen (again by The Government) as ''armed revolt''. These were met by not only by Constable Forces, but the increasing use of both The British Military – to include The Constabulary (Militia).


Henry Hunt was (as some Historians cite), is seen as the ''Father of Modern Working Class Radicalism''. From humble beginnings to a prosperous Farmer, he was well aware of the problems of The Workman (especially in relation to The Government). His wit and ability to captivate earned him the nickname of ''The Orator''. His main ''weapon'' was to use the sheer size of an assembled mass of people, as a type of ''intimidation tactic'' – aimed squarely at The Government. His ''tactic'' was well known by The British Government (who ''watched'' Hunt very closely).


Soon Hunt's ideology of The People could influence The Government with ''passive resistance'' spread through a vast section of Norther and Eastern Britain. Some splinter followers even took his idea of resistance a bit too far, by assembling as a type of unarmed Militia. They trained and practiced as if – if they were to ever arm, would be an effective ''Citizen Army'' (one to fight, if need be a ''heavy handed British Army''.


Manchester was a bustling ''working class'' City (since Ancient Times). It was seen as a natural meeting place for Hunt's ''Big Rally'' (planned for August of 1819). Manchester had many working class boroughs, shires and related as well. On average, 2 to 3,000 peoples could be assembled from each surrounding Town and City to ''march'' on Manchester to support Hunt. Soon, thousands upon thousands began to converge on The City of Manchester, each represented by various and multi-colored ''Morale Flags''. To a casual observer, the sight would well appear to be an ''active Army (despite the large amount of women and children that thronged as well).


The local Magistrate of Manchester was in fear. It was estimated that between 60 and 80,000 were filling up The City (which were called to assemble in a large spot of land near the center of Town called St. Peter's Field. Some (the impromptu and previously ''unarmed'' Committee Militias) were carrying ''Brickbats, clubs of all varieties and even knives'' (as reported). The City Constable (Police Force) was well over powered and under manned to even attempt to enforce The Law. Their pleas to The Magistrate left them only one action. Request additional help (in the event of a full scale riot or revolt). This ''help'' was in the form of The Military.


As previously discussed, Britain's ''standing Army'' was greatly diminished by years of Wars with The French (Napoleon) and it's Colonial concerns. Much of any local needs were assigned to The Constabulary Forces. Made up of ''titled'' Aristocrats, they resembled more a ''Rich Man's Social Club'' that their intended purpose of Reserve Militia Force. Added to this, the rise of The Middle Class, gave formally ''Common People'' the ability to rise to a more socially acceptable position with their ability to join The Constabulary. In most cases, these were ''habitual drinkers and inebriates, masquerading as Gentlemen''.


The City Administrators begged London for help. They dispatched 600 of The 15th Hussar (Mounted) Regiment, a Battalion of The 31st and 88th Regiments of Foot (Infantry) and several Batteries of Artillery. 400 Special Constables were deployed to augment The City Police Forces. Finally, 120 Mounted Constabulary were deployed. No real command and control was established between The Forces.


Manchester Authority determined to end any assembly before it could get out of control. It was determined that an arrest warrant be issued for ''Orator'' Hunt for sedition. Constables were uneasy when they had to force their way into the already gathering and massive crowds of people, all shouting their displeasure at The Police. Slowly, The 31st Regiment took up positions North of St. Peter's Field, with The 88th Regiment, to their Front (flanked) – several City blocks forward.


The 15th Hussars was under orders to ''stand fast'' until ordered to move by their Commanders. They took up a mounted position to the far East of The Field (within attack distance, but somewhat ''out of view'', lest The Crowd become agitated. The Batteries of Royal Artillery established their positions to the Southeast of The Field (well within view of The Crowds).


Finally, 120 of The Manchester Constabulary was divided to The South and East of The Field. These Forces appeared ''agitated'' and by some contemporary accounts, may even have been intoxicated.


Several factors contributed to the forthcoming attack. The first, Constables did reach Hunt on a stage erected for his speech – and serve their warrant for His arrest. This agitated the front ranks of The Crowd. Some began to push and fight with The Constabulary – who used their batons in self-defense. The Crowd began to hurl stones and Brickbats. Soon, rank after rank began to stir (no doubt they were indeed trying to leave, but the massive Crowd would not move in any one direction under an orchestrated move to evacuate. To the rear rank, it may have appeared that the ''riot'' had begun.


Word was sent for The Manchester Constabulary to move forward. Perhaps they were to be used (with their horses), to move (guide) The Crowd off The Field. Reports came that several Constabulary had run down a ''Mother with an infant Child'' (killing the baby). Angered, The Crowd began to fight.


Some began to try and leave. Those heading towards The Infantry were met by twin Ranks arrayed with ''bayonets at The Ready'' (the sign of an impending charge). The Crowd was not allowed to pass these points, and bottlenecked. Those in the rear began to fight and push.


Who exactly gave the order to ''Charge The Crowd'' with ''Sabers Drawn'' is unclear. Perhaps it was seen that The Constables in The Crowd needed help. Elements of The 15th Hussars and the majority of The Manchester Constabulary charged the Crowd, hacking and slashing The Crowd with their weapons.


The resulting chaos and panic was legendary. It took the majority of the day to clear St. Peter's Field, leaving only the dead and dying on the ground. Some looting and fires were set in other portions of Manchester as well as those surrounding Boroughs. By the 17th, Manchester Authority were back in control.


Great press was given by The News of The Era about was was now called ''The Peterloo Massacre'' The name ''Peterloo'' was taken from two sources and combined to form the word. The first ''St. Peter's Field'' (the location of the fight) and the epic Battle of Waterloo (which happened in 1815). Hence ''Peterloo''. The name echoed throughout not only England, but The World.


The event's casualties will never be officially known – as both The Government and Protester's each claim the other lowered the actual number of dead and injured. It is widely accepted that while only 15 died as a direct result of Peterloo (with several dying from their injuries days even weeks later), as many as 700 were injured.


Peterloo did attract the attention of The Government, although without the sweeping reforms the Massacre should have brought. Instead The British Government set forth harsh Laws giving Police the ability to outlaw any ''radical meetings'' or ''purposed Militia training'' as a means of curbing Radicalism. While some lessening of The Corn Laws went into effect, it would not be until 1849 that they were repealed. Much of the ''status quo'' (sadly) remained the same for many years.