Peterloo Massacre

views updated May 21 2018

Peterloo Massacre

Great Britain 1819


The Peterloo Massacre took place at St Peter's Fields, Manchester, England, on 16 August 1819. (The name was an ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier.) A large meeting comprising 50 to 60,000 men, women, and children had assembled to demand reform of Britain's archaic and elitist political system. The meeting was to be addressed by the leading radical figure of the day, Henry "Orator" Hunt, among others. Local magistrates, fearful of disorder, ordered the arrest of Hunt and other platform speakers. As the yeomanry charged into the crowd to effect the arrests, panic ensued. Eleven people were killed and some 400 injured. The episode aroused fierce anger among both working-class radicals and the more liberal upper classes, but Lord Liverpool's Government endorsed the action of the magistrates and passed a series of repressive measures (the "Six Acts") to suppress further protest.


  • 1798: British parson Thomas Malthus publishes An Essay on the Principle of Population, in which he maintains that populations increase geometrically or exponentially, whereas food production increases only arithmetically. Accordingly, he holds that overpopulation and a world food crisis are inevitable, and opposes social welfare programs.
  • 1801: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland is established.
  • 1802: British Parliament passes the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, an early piece of child-labor legislation, which prohibits the employment of children under nine years of age and limits a child's workday to twelve hours.
  • 1809: Progressive British industrialist Robert Owen proposes an end to employment of children in his factories. When his partners reject the idea, he forms an alliance with others of like mind, including philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
  • 1810: Revolts begin in South America, initiating the process whereby colonies will win their freedom from Spain and other European colonial powers.
  • 1815: Congress of Vienna establishes the balance of power for post-Napoleonic Europe and inaugurates a century of British dominance throughout most of the world.
  • 1818: In a decisive defeat of Spanish forces, soldier and statesman Simón Bolívar leads the liberation of New Granada, which includes what is now Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador. With Spanish power now waning, Bolívar becomes president and virtual dictator of the newly created nation of Colombia.
  • 1819: First production of chocolate for eating (as opposed to cooking), in Switzerland.
  • 1820: In the Missouri Compromise, Missouri is admitted to the Union as slave state, but slavery is prohibited in all portions of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36°30' N.
  • 1825: British Parliament enacts a law permitting workers to join together in order to secure regulation of wages and hours; however, other provisions in the law effectively deny the right to strike.
  • 1829: Overturning of the last of the "penal laws" imposed by the English against the Catholics of Ireland since 1695.
  • 1833: British Parliament passes the Slavery Abolition Act, giving freedom to all slaves throughout the British Empire.

Event and Its Context

Radical Criticisms

Britain's unreformed political system had been condemned by middle-class reformers and a growing working-class radical movement, which was influenced by the late eighteenth century writings of Thomas Paine and the American and French Revolutions. Complex franchise arrangements essentially restricted the vote to upper-class male property holders. Furthermore, constituency arrangements dating back to the Middle Ages ensured that many newly emergent towns, the products of Britain's recent industrial growth, were unrepresented in parliament while virtually depopulated centers ("rotten boroughs") retained their historic right to elect Members of Parliament (MPs).

Radicalism condemned what it saw as an essentially parasitic system that was dominated by the landed aristocracy and the Church, which controlled political power. The radicals construed that the ruling elite had suppressed the ancient constitutional rights of the "free-born Englishman" and had systematically expropriated the wealth of the "producing classes" (conceived as comprising both middle-class entrepreneurs and respectable workingmen). However, the growing extremism of the French Revolution, which culminated in the Terror of 1793-1794, anti-French patriotic sentiment during the wars with France, and fierce government repression, quashed these early protests.

Post-War Discontent and Ideology

The end of the French Wars in 1815 brought about the revival of popular discontent and organized radical protest. Demobilization, industrial and agricultural depression, and severe inflation created widespread hardship. Lord Liverpool's Tory Government further alienated reforming opinion. Income Tax was abolished in 1816 and government revenues came to depend heavily on indirect taxation (i.e., duties on consumables), which hit the poor hardest. The 1815 Corn Laws banned the import of corn until it had reached the price of 80 shillings a quarter (approximately 500 pounds). The apparent intent was to protect domestic agriculture but the impact of the law was to create high and fluctuating grain prices and confirm the impression of a land-owning class governing in its own self-interest. The wartime enclosure of common land (i.e., conversion of land held by the peasantry to private ownership by the gentry) and punitive Game Laws (1816), which prescribed seven years "transportation" for poaching, added to popular grievance.

William Cobbett's journalism became influential, and organized protest recommenced with the Hampden Club, which was established by Major John Cartwright in London in 1812. Cartwright's tour of the provinces by 1816 had influenced the formation of a number of similar societies in the industrial towns of northern England. The clubs demanded universal manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, and a secret ballot.

The essence of working-class radical ideology lay in a deep constitutionalism. Reformers argued that political reform would restore traditional liberties and stressed that their tactics—the mobilization and exercise of popular opinion through petitioning and mass meetings—were peaceful and legal. This apparently passive strategy contained a double-edged challenge to the ruling class. It implied the threat of sheer force of numbers, as emphasized by the deliberately menacing platform rhetoric of leading radical spokesmen. The strategy further challenged the government to act in a restrained and constitutional way in that an overtly repressive response from the government would demonstrate its illegitimacy and would, moreover, justify defensive violence.

Popular Protest

The first mass reform meeting took place in November 1816 in Spa Fields, London, where Henry Hunt addressed a crowd of around 10,000 people. At a second meeting in December, a portion of the crowd, incited by the more radical followers of Thomas Spence, launched a futile attack on the Tower of London. In the following month, a delegate meeting of radicals met in London to forward a reform petition to Parliament, but an attack on the Prince Regent's coach ensured that the government responded only with the most severe repression. The government re-enacted wartime laws that banned seditious speech and organization and in March 1817 suspended for one year the law of habeas corpus (which requires that all detainees be properly charged or released). In the same month, mass arrests broke up the March of the Blanketeers—a procession from Manchester to London of textiles workers, each carrying a blanket and a reform petition. The apparent futility of peaceful reform methods and the brutality of government action persuaded some that the time for violent resistance had come. The evidence is clouded by the secretive nature of the planning and greatly complicated by the provocative role of government spies, but the Pentridge Rising in Derbyshire in June 1817 seems to have been part of a wider revolutionary conspiracy. In the event, a well-informed government made pre-emptive arrests well before there was any possibility of the sympathetic uprisings for which the rebels had hoped.


Agitation revived in 1819 in response to a series of mass meetings held in Birmingham, Leeds, and London. Formed in March 1819, the Manchester Patriotic Union Society organized a mass meeting to be addressed by Richard Carlile and Henry Hunt at St. Peter's Fields, Manchester, on 16 August. The meeting was planned as a gala day, attended by women and children, to demonstrate the respectability of the reform movement. Crowds from Manchester and environs began to gather at midmorning. Local magistrates, fearful of the threat of disturbance, watched apprehensively as numbers grew and determined that Hunt, Carlile, and local radical leaders on the platform should be arrested. The Manchester Yeomanry, a local militia comprising middle-class tradesmen and shopkeepers, most of whom were fiercely antagonistic to the reform movement and some allegedly drunk, surged into the crowd with sabers swinging to force a path to the platform. In the ensuing mê elé, 11 were killed and around 400 injured. Carlile escaped but Hunt and a number of local radical leaders, including Samuel Bamford, were detained.

Reforming Opinion

Reforming opinion, even among the moderate middle classes, was outraged by these actions. Highly critical reports circulated rapidly and a series of protest meetings followed. The government, while privately disconcerted by the magistrates' intemperate behavior, gave them public support. Hunt was sentenced to 30 months' imprisonment. Bamford and two others were sentenced to 12 months each. To prevent any further up-surge in protest, the government clamped down in a series of measures (the "Six Acts") passed in December 1819 that banned military drilling, gave magistrates the power to search property or persons for arms, prohibited public assemblies of more than 50 people without official permission, tightened the taxation of radical journals, and sought to expedite the legal process and strengthen punishment for "blasphemous and seditious libels." Cartwright, Carlile, and other leading reformers were also arrested and imprisoned in 1820.

Peterloo effectively marked the end of the first phase of working-class radical protest. A group of extreme radicals, followers of Thomas Spence, attempted to assassinate the Cabinet at a private dinner party in February 1820. The plot was known to the government's spy network, however, and the so-called Cato Street Conspiracy was foiled with the arrest of the conspirators and subsequent execution of its five ringleaders. Reforming opinion seized on the exclusion of Queen Caroline from the coronation of her estranged husband, George IV, in 1820 as a means of embarrassing a reactionary government and culpable monarchy, but the next major upsurge of protest did not occur until 1829.

Government repression and Home Office spies had wreaked havoc on the radical movement, and an upturn in the economy quelled more immediate discontents. Radical leaders were, in any case, unsure and divided as to how to proceed. Most believed that the mass of working-class opinion would not—or should not—be led into further, possibly bloody, confrontation with a determinedly repressive government. The program and strategy that underlay Peterloo remained the staple of radical politics into the period of reform agitation of the early 1830s and once more in early Chartism, but its essential dilemmas—how to wrest reform from an obdurate and powerful ruling elite and when the much-vaunted right of popular self-defense might be mobilized—remained unsolved.

Key Players

Bamford, Samuel (1788-1872): A Lancashire weaver and moderate reformer. On his release from prison after Peterloo, he became a journalist and memoirist. His Passages in the Life of a Radical (1843) and Early Days (1849) were influential in subsequent interpretations of the working-class movement, but Bamford himself urged working-class respectability and became estranged from later radical politics, which he criticized for its extremism.

Carlile, Richard (1790-1843): Radical London journalist and publisher, Carlile was imprisoned after Peterloo for seditious libel (for his report on the massacre) and blasphemy (for his publication of Paine's Age of Reason). His wife and sister were also jailed for their roles in the unstamped press and Carlile became an advocate of women's political and personal rights and a campaigner against child labor. Jailed in 1830 for his support of protesting agricultural laborers, Carlile died in poverty.

Cartwright, Major John (1740-1824): English landowner and former naval officer, discharged for his support of the American rebels. He wrote Take Your Choice (1776), which outlined a radical political reform program and subsequently formed the Society for Constitutional Information. The Hampden Club network of radical societies, which he helped establish in 1812, played a significant role in the postwar upsurge of radicalism. Cartwright sought to engineer an alliance of middle-and working-class radicals.

Cobbett, William (1763-1835): A self-taught journalist whose homespun, direct style in the Political Register (published from 1802) made him the most powerful voice of English working-class radicalism. Cobbett himself looked back to an idealized rural past but his eloquent critique of the contemporary political corruption became the mainstay of radical analysis. He served a brief, unsuccessful stint as MP for Oldham from 1832-1835.

Hunt, Henry ("Orator," 1773-1835): A landed gentleman converted to radical politics in 1800 and subsequently an inspirational and demagogic speaker at reform rallies. Elected MP for the popular constituency of Preston in 1831, he lost his seat in 1835 for his opposition to the 1832 Reform Act, which he believed did not go far enough.

Paine, Thomas (1737-1809): A former exciseman who emigrated from England to America and became, through his pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), a leading advocate of U.S. independence. Back in Europe, The Rights of Man(1791), which defended the French Revolution and condemned hereditary rule, sold 1.5 million copies in his lifetime. Paine became a French citizen but, after a brief imprisonment, he returned to the U.S. where he died. Paine's lively coruscating style made him one of the most influential radical writers of his day.

Spence, Thomas (1750-1814): Newcastle schoolmaster, radical journalist and pamphleteer. Spence was unusual in advocating women's rights and sweeping economic reform including parochial ownership of land, the rents of which were to provide for public education. He favored a decentralized revolutionary organization to harness and foment popular discontent and incite insurrection.

Thistlewood, Arthur (1774-1820): An ex-soldier and failed farmer, Thistlewood moved to London in 1811 where he became active as a follower of Thomas Spence and advocate of insurrection. An instigator of the Spa Fields riot in 1816 and an organizer of protests after Peterloo, Thistlewood led the attempt to assassinate the Cabinet at Cato Street in 1820, but he and four others were arrested before the attack on the evidence of a government spy and executed for high treason.



Marlow, Joyce. The Peterloo Massacre. London: Rapp and Whiting, 1970.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. London: Penguin,1991


Belchem, John. "'Orator' Hunt, 1773-1835: A British Radical Reassessed." History Today (March 1985): 21-27.

Hewitt, Martin. "Radicalism and the Victorian Working Class: The Case of Samuel Bamford." The Historical Journal 34, no. 6 (1991): 873-892.

Additional Resources


Belchem, John. "Orator" Hunt: Henry Hunt and English Working-class Radicalism. Oxford and New York: Clarendon Press and Oxford University Press, 1985.

Read, Donald. Peterloo, the Massacre and Its Background. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.

Reid, Robert. The Peterloo Massacre. London: Heinemann,1989.


"Peterloo." Spartacus Educational. 30 June 2002 [cited 11July 2002]. <>.

"The Peterloo Massacre." Cotton Times [cited 11 July 2002].<>.

—John Boughton

Peterloo massacre

views updated May 14 2018

Peterloo massacre an attack by Manchester yeomanry on 16 August 1819 against a large but peaceable crowd. Sent to arrest the speaker at a rally of supporters of political reform in St Peter's Field, Manchester, the local yeomanry charged the crowd, killing 11 civilians and injuring more than 500.

Peterloo Massacre

views updated May 14 2018

Peterloo Massacre (August 16, 1819) Violent suppression of a political protest in Manchester, nw England. A large crowd, demonstrating for reform of Parliament, was dispersed by soldiers. Eleven people were killed and 500 injured.

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