Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre 
by Jacqueline Riding.
Head of Zeus, 386 pp., £25, October 2018, 978 1 78669 583 3
Show More
Show More

I visited​ the set of Mike Leigh’s Peterloo last year. Jacqueline Riding, who was acting as a consultant on the movie and has now written an account of the event it commemorates, showed me round the recreated St Peter’s Field. Actors wore the military regalia of the 15th regiment of hussars and the 13th regiment of foot; there was a wood-panelled room, like the one from which the Manchester magistrates had looked out over the crowd. I walked away from the hustings to gauge whether it would be possible to hear a speaker from five hundred yards. As an exercise in historical accuracy, it was pretty impressive, even if this wasn’t Manchester but Tilbury Fort, on the Thames Estuary. The Victorians filled the area behind what is now St Peter’s Square with grand buildings such as the Free Trade Hall (now a hotel) and Manchester Central railway station (now a conference centre). Leigh’s set designers therefore built early 19th-century Manchester in an Elizabethan fort on the Thames. The post-production editor was busy on his laptop erasing the passenger ferries, power station and wind turbines on the horizon. I have never been in a place layered with so many structures ranging from the 16th to the 21st century. But after the crowds of extras assembled and the cavalry began to charge, I was transported to Manchester in 1819.

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had exacerbated the divide between a rapidly expanding population of industrial workers and the governing elite. Unemployment surged after the demobilisation of soldiers when war ended in 1815; a severe depression in the textile industry combined with food prices kept high by the protectionist Corn Laws (introduced in 1815) brought the poor to the brink of starvation. The stark new multistorey cotton mills of Manchester and Salford employed more and more men, women and children. Textiles, however, were still mostly produced in the traditional way by handloom weavers, working at home or in small workshops in the towns and villages surrounding Manchester, which the French industrialist Léon Faucher described as the ‘industrious spider, placed at the centre of a web’. Though they were at the forefront of the industrial revolution, Manchester and Salford were still governed by a medieval structure of lords of the manor, borough-reeves and constables. Like most other centres of manufacturing in Britain, Manchester had no MPs. And in common with most of the British population, the majority of its twenty thousand residents had no vote.

To a large extent, up until 1776, no one seems to have cared all that much about this absence of parliamentary representation. The American Revolution, in which an economic argument that there should be ‘no taxation without representation’ became a political demand for liberty, changed everything. Major John Cartwright (who was later to advise the Manchester radicals) and Thomas Paine were influenced by the American programme in their arguments for domestic reform, Take Your Choice! and Common Sense. Yet it was the French Revolution that made the working classes begin to see universal manhood suffrage, equal representation for all towns, the secret ballot and other democratic reforms as a solution to their ills. Paine translated the revolutionary attack on the Ancien Régime into British terms in Rights of Man. ‘Corresponding societies’ sprang up promoting parliamentary reform among ‘members unlimited’.

The loyalist reaction against this popular agitation was severe. William Pitt the Younger’s government legislated against ‘seditious’ meetings and writings, and imprisoned leaders of reform societies and printers of the radical press. ‘Church and King’ was the watchword of magistrates and manufacturers, who employed spies to root out any evidence of radical sympathies. After 1815 a new generation of local activists began to campaign alongside veterans of the earlier struggle. Reform societies organised large-scale open-air meetings addressed by speakers, and drew up petitions to Parliament. Petitions were the unrepresented’s only legal form of complaint: the right to petition the monarch and his ministers formed the bedrock of the constitutional settlements agreed after the Restoration of 1660 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Local leaders such as Samuel Bamford of Middleton and John Knight of Manchester were supported by men of higher social status, such as Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, a gentleman farmer originally from Wiltshire. Hunt was politically ambitious and a populist in the old sense of the word. He came to national attention when he delivered rousing speeches at the mass demonstrations on Spa Fields in Islington in the winter of 1816-17. The involvement of a republican group, the Spenceans, and the rioting that followed the meeting on 2 December dissuaded moderate reformers in Parliament such as Sir Francis Burdett from supporting the popular agitation. To his credit, Hunt stuck to his principles and to the campaign. At the third meeting on Spa Fields in February 1817, commenting on Parliament’s rejection of a petition for parliamentary reform, he addressed the masses:

These persons have long been in the habit of designating the people by the opprobrious epithets of rabble, swinish multitude, and other degrading names. Now however … they call you a well-disposed, a good sort of people; but say that you are deluded: and pray what is it you are deluded by? – Why, by the truth.

On 10 March 1817, hundreds of marchers led by the more militant Manchester reformers – John Bagguley, Samuel Drummond, John Johnston and William Benbow – set off from St Peter’s Field for London to petition the prince regent to dismiss his ministers. The radicals went out of their way to demonstrate their knowledge of legal and constitutional precedent. Taking Major Cartwright’s advice to separate into groups of ten and carry individual petitions listing only twenty names, they tried to keep within the bounds of the 1661 Act against Tumultuous Petitioning. Only a few marchers managed to get any distance from Manchester; most were arrested while still on the field and the others were rounded up on the road south, at Stockport or Macclesfield. When a stone was thrown at the prince regent’s coach on his way back from the opening of Parliament that same month, Lord Liverpool’s Tory government enacted another round of repression, suspending the Habeas Corpus Act, thus enabling imprisonment without trial. Released from solitary confinement in late 1818, the Manchester leaders, along with other radicals across the country, renewed their campaign of mass demonstrations calling for parliamentary reform.

The Peterloo Massacre has been subject to many conflicting interpretations, but the basic narrative of what happened on the day is now generally agreed. On Monday, 16 August 1819, more than sixty thousand men, women and children from Manchester and the surrounding region attended a mass meeting at St Peter’s Field. Henry Hunt joined local reformers on the hustings to give speeches considering ‘the propriety of the “Unrepresented Inhabitants of Manchester” electing a person to represent them in Parliament’. A group of local magistrates, watching from the upstairs window of a house overlooking the site, issued a warrant for Hunt’s arrest and read the Riot Act, though it is unlikely that anyone heard them. Shortly after the meeting started at one o’clock, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry (consisting of volunteers recruited from local publicans and shopkeepers) charged into the crowd, attempting to execute the arrest warrant. The inexperienced yeomanry broke their line and couldn’t extricate themselves, so the military commander, Lieutenant Colonel L’Estrange, ordered his hussars (regular troops, not volunteers) to clear the field. As many as 18 people were killed and more than 650 are recorded as having been injured, many of them severely wounded by sabres. Newspaper reporters, including John Tyas, who had been sent from London by the Times, dubbed the event the ‘Peterloo Massacre’, an ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier. The Tory government reacted by passing the Six Acts, restricting political demonstrations and other activities deemed seditious. Hunt and nine local leaders were tried at York for high treason; Samuel Bamford, John Knight, Joseph Healey and Joseph Johnson were sentenced to a year in prison on the lesser charge of seditious conspiracy; Hunt got two and a half years. The repercussions of the legislation and the trial were felt nationally, and the popular democratic movement was effectively crushed for a decade until the unrest preceding the Reform Bill of 1832, which finally brought some of the changes to the electoral system that the radicals had demanded.

Peterloo​ occupies a contradictory space in British political history and cultural memory. It has been celebrated by the left and the trade union movement, and bypassed by conservative narratives. Leigh said he made his film in part because he had not been taught about Peterloo at school. The massacre’s status in the history curriculum has waxed and waned depending on which party was in charge of the ‘national story’, and on whether what was in fashion was a British history defined by monarchs, battles and empire or one more interested in perspectives ‘from below’. In Manchester, the meaning of Peterloo has been contested from the outset. It took more than 150 years for any sort of memorial to be established on the site, a discreet plaque on the side of the Free Trade Hall. The Conservative-controlled council had declined to organise any official commemoration of the 150th anniversary in 1969. According to Terry Wyke, a local historian, this was in part an attempt to prevent the local Labour Party from using the occasion as a platform for their own political programme. It wasn’t until Labour regained control of the council that the blue plaque was finally put up, in 1972. Even then, in order to appease opposition by local business owners, its wording was bland, with no mention of the violence inflicted on the crowd: ‘The site of St Peter’s Field, where on 16 August 1819, Henry Hunt, Radical Orator, addressed an assembly of about 60,000 people. Their subsequent dispersal by the military is remembered as “Peterloo”.’ After lobbying by the Peterloo Memorial Campaign, the blue plaque was replaced in 2007 by a red one with a more forthright text: ‘On 16 August 1819, a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries.’ A stone memorial designed by the Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller has been commissioned as part of an extensive programme of lottery-funded commemorations to mark next year’s bicentenary.

Questions remain about the build-up to 16 August and who was at fault that day. Donald Read’s exposition of events, published in 1958, remains a standard text. Read regarded Peterloo as a massacre, but argued that it resulted from mistakes made by a panicked magistracy rather than from premeditation or government diktat. Robert Walmsley’s Peterloo: The Case Reopened (1969), published on the 150th anniversary, sought to exonerate his ancestor William Hulton, chairman of the Lancashire and Cheshire magistrates. Walmsley claimed the justices were the real victims of Peterloo, framed by a Radical conspiracy devised by Hunt, Samuel Bamford and the newspaper editor Richard Carlile, a ‘free-thinker’. The TLS published an acerbic review of Walmsley’s book whose anonymous author was later revealed to be E.P. Thompson. In The Making of the English Working Class, the second edition of which was published in 1968, Thompson depicted Peterloo as a bloody class conflict orchestrated by the magistrates and, most likely, by the Home Office.

More recently, Robert Poole has argued that the magistrates were given mixed messages by the Home Office. In March 1819, a few months before protesters gathered on St Peter’s Field, Henry Hobhouse, permanent under secretary to the home secretary, Lord Sidmouth, sent a private letter to Colonel Ralph Fletcher, a Bolton magistrate, informing him of ‘the opinion long since formed by his Lordship that your Country will not be tranquillised, until Blood shall have been shed either by the Law or the sword. Lord Sidmouth will not fail to be prepared for either alternative.’ When consulting the government solicitors about the legality of the August meeting, however, Sidmouth engaged in some ‘pragmatic backpedalling’, urging the magistrates to find a legal solution. But the months of correspondence between the magistrates and Hobhouse that preceded this apparent volte-face had inclined the magistrates towards the tactic of responding to mass assemblies with force. Recent doctoral research by Nathan Bend into Sidmouth’s private correspondence shows he had been preparing for a parliamentary inquiry which was to be used to justify repressive legislation. The movement was to be crushed by both the law and the sword.

Riding’s fast-paced account sticks roughly with Poole and Bend’s interpretations, but puts a little more emphasis on the home secretary’s desire to crush the popular movement. She agrees that Peterloo was a massacre. Conservative interpretations have previously indulged in some pedantry about this because the number of deaths did not reach the proportions familiar to us from the 20th century. But this fails to take into account the scale and manner of the injuries inflicted on the 654 people whose names are listed in the register of the relief fund set up soon afterwards to support the victims.

Riding relays some of the horrifying detail recorded in the relief book, though she doesn’t list the names of the 18 now known to have been killed: John Ashton, William Bradshaw, Thomas Buckley, James Crompton, Edmund Dawson, Margaret Downes, William Evans, William Fildes, Samuel Hall, Mary Heyes, Sarah Jones, John Lees, Arthur O’Neill, Martha Partington, John Rhodes, Joseph Whitworth, and two special constables, John Ashworth and Robert Campbell. There were undoubtedly many more injured people who didn’t seek medical attention or relief for fear of being arrested or dismissed for having attended the meeting. The proportion of women injured was particularly high, reflecting another significant aspect of Peterloo’s place in the story of democracy. Working-class women in Lancashire and Cheshire had formed their own political societies campaigning for parliamentary reform early in 1819; though they were not committed to female suffrage, it was a bold advance in women’s political activism. The leader of the Manchester Female Reform Society, Mary Fildes, was on the hustings of Peterloo alongside the male speakers. The high number of casualties suggests that the women, who were dressed in white, were targeted by yeomanry who saw them as transgressing their domestic role.

Riding does a decent job elsewhere of filling in the gaps and her account serves as a corrective to Leigh’s departures from the record. In particular, she gives a more nuanced account of Hunt’s relationship with the provincial radical movement, drawing on the work of John Belchem, Hunt’s biographer. Leigh’s film imagines the Manchester radicals talent-spotting Hunt at a meeting in London. In fact Hunt was in Manchester for several days in January 1819 and had already addressed a meeting of eight thousand people at St Peter’s Field. Riding rightly notes that the January meeting can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the August rally. Joseph Johnson, secretary of the Patriotic Union Society, which organised both events, met Hunt in January and the two corresponded afterwards.

The 16 August meeting was not a one-off demonstration disconnected from London radicalism. It wasn’t merely a complaint about the economic conditions in the Manchester cotton district either. It was part of a much bigger programme of popular agitation: Hunt and other ‘gentleman leaders’ had already addressed several mass meetings in London, Birmingham, Leeds, Stockport and other major manufacturing towns. Riding suggests that Hunt saw the Manchester meeting as ‘the first of many such mass demonstrations across the country, increasing in strength and scale until they culminated in one great “monster” meeting in the capital’. The meeting at St Peter’s Field was scheduled for 9 August but was postponed after the Manchester leaders took legal advice in anticipation of the magistrates’ response. Their initial plan had been to emulate a meeting at Birmingham, which had voted to elect its own MPs, but this was deemed to be verging on sedition. They therefore proposed instead merely to ‘consider the propriety’ of electing a representative. The radicals were determined to stay within the law. The actions of the magistrates and military in Manchester placed them outside it.

In Riding’s book, individual members of the elite are described much more fully than any of the working-class reformers, a top-down approach that is shaped by Riding’s reliance on archival material of Home Office correspondence and published trial reports. Popular radicalism is refracted through the perspective of the brutish Joseph Nadin, the deputy constable of Manchester, and his special constables; of Sidmouth and Hobhouse; of the prince regent (whose character is sketched as if by the caricaturist George Cruikshank); of the members of the Manchester and Salford bench; and of the informers and agents provocateurs who were determined to unearth signs of Jacobinism among the starving handloom weavers of industrial Lancashire. Riding is careful to add the proviso that spies must often have been providing exaggerated information because they wanted to be paid, but she still tends to use their reports to carry the narrative forward. Challenging their veracity is crucial, however, since it is easy to be drawn in by their more salacious claims. (The informer known as ‘E.H.’, for example, reported that ‘the Jacobins are more determined than ever, either to have what they want, or to shed the blood of those who oppose them.’) Less attention is paid to the radicals’ own writings, or to witness statements, newspaper reports and speeches. Samuel Bamford’s well-crafted autobiography, Passages in the Life of a Radical (1844), is relied on for details of the radicals’ preparations for St Peter’s Field, but not used to give a fuller picture of his fellow activists.

There is much more to find out about the handloom weavers and artisans from the cotton towns of Oldham, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Stockport and elsewhere who formed a large proportion of the casualty lists. They are not understood as individuals, and not heard loudly enough as a collective, an omission that reflects historians’ current ambivalence about ascribing Peterloo’s causes to class conflict. Riding’s concluding chapter outlines the progress of the democratic movement through the Reform Acts, Chartism and the suffragettes. But on the question of whether Peterloo had ‘any lasting impact’, she merely says that it ‘certainly drew national attention to the conditions of the working man, woman and child in the manufacturing districts of Great Britain.’ Peterloo is the story of a moment of terrible repression by the few of the many, and we shouldn’t be afraid of saying that the working-class demonstrators were in the right.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences