Peterloo 16th August 1819: why it is important to remember

In Uncategorized on August 16, 2015 by kmflett

Peterloo 16th August 1819- why it is important to remember


16th August marks the 196th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre at St Peters Field in Manchester.


As EP Thompson noted in the Making of the English Working Class Peterloo, even in an age when the internet, mobiles and social media had never been thought of, was an event of national significance.

The numbers of dead and injured when the Manchester Yeomanry rode into a peaceful crowd protesting for the vote has never been finally substantiated, but aside from those killed it ran into hundreds in terms of those who received injuries from sabres or horses hooves.

Peterloo had several lasting impacts. One was the 1832 Reform Act. Another was the Manchester Guardian. The founder of the paper, Taylor, was a persistent critic of the Magistrates actions at Peterloo.

The detail of what took place on St Peters Field on Monday 16th August 1819 between 1.15pm and 1.45pm is well known but still argued about in terms of, for example, who might be a reliable witness to the events and what they might reliably have seen take place. The nub of this discussion is whether the Yeomanry could possibly have had any justification at all for their violent action.

The Government certainly saw justification. No one on the side of the authorities was ever jailed for their part in the massacre. The principal speaker on that day, Henry Hunt, was on the other hand sent to jail as were others involved such as Samuel Bamford.

Commemorations of Peterloo have been somewhat limited. What took place remains quite a sensitive matter.

Fortunately there is now excellent work being in Manchester in preparation for the 200th anniversary

In that context it’s interesting to take a view on what Peterloo represented.

In The Making EP Thompson speculated as to why the Government did not reach some form of agreement with the protesters for the vote to at least consider change. His view was that Peterloo represented the newly organised and growing forces of the world’s first working class. If the Government was to make concessions it would have been to this force. Hence it preferred force. By the time concessions were made in 1832 the middle class reform movement was much stronger than it had been in 1819.

In that reading Peterloo was about what balance of class forces would have political influence in the world’s first capitalist economy as it started to develop.

In a review of books published on the 150th anniversary of Peterloo in the Times Literary Supplement in 1969 Thompson made a further interesting point.

He sought to understand why the magistrates acted as they did and determined to disperse the, for the location and time, unprecedently large crowd with physical force.

Of course crowds of workers were not unknown- at festivals and so on. But such a large gathering for a political purpose was outside the experience of the Magistrates- and indeed the Government. As Thompson notes the frame of mind of the Magistrates was likely to have been not that this was something that would be settled with a Reform Act in 1832 but rather that it looked something uncomfortably like the French Revolution of 1789.

The nature of the demonstration no doubt underlined that perspective. One banner for example read ‘equal representation or death’ on a black background.

In reality though the demonstration was entirely peaceful on the protesters side. Henry Hunt had been in Manchester and environs for a week beforehand briefing key activists on what was intended on 16th August and how they should conduct themselves.

Peterloo should be remembered for the brutal massacre it was but also because it did much to shape the form of political democracy that still exists in the UK




2 Responses to “Peterloo 16th August 1819: why it is important to remember”

  1. Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    A perspective on the Peterloo Massacre, which took place on this day in 1819.
    P.S. For those of you unfamiliar with the location of Peterloo, it’s in the Midlands.

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