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The nearest run thing you ever saw: the Battle of Waterloo

The Peterloo Massacre

While the ‘dandies, beaux, bloods and swells’ of Boyd Hilton’s description enjoyed the whirl of pleasure in London and Bath, the post-war economic slump hit Britain’s rural and industrial working classes hard. The decline in government orders for military equipment and supplies fuelled increasing unemployment, especially in the industrial towns and cities of the North.

Economic hardship, coupled with a growing political awareness and anger at the concentration of political representation in the hands of the few, led to a wave of strikes and protests, culminating in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

Title page of the ProceedingsTitle page of the ProceedingsOn 16 August 1819 thousands of workers, mainly from the Lancashire cotton mills, gathered in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, for a peaceful demonstration. Radical campaigner Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt gave a powerful speech, calling for universal male suffrage and annual parliaments. The crowd was vociferous in its support, calling also for the repeal of the Corn Laws, in operation since 1815; these laws restricted grain imports by means of tariffs, protecting domestic farmers but causing hardship to the urban poor.

The Manchester magistracy responded by despatching the local yeomanry to St Peter’s Field to arrest Hunt and disperse the crowd. When this failed they sent in reinforcements in the form of a troop of hussars; 11 demonstrators were killed and hundreds injured. 

The Peterloo Massacre polarised opinion. Many people hitherto unsympathetic to the radical cause were appalled by the use of armed force against peaceful demonstrators, as well as fearful that it might prove the spark to light a national revolt similar to the French Revolution.

Some members of Lord Liverpool’s Tory government privately felt that the magistrates had deployed excessive force, but publicly the government sided with the Manchester authorities, congratulating them for their ‘prompt, decisive and efficient measures for the preservation of the public peace’ and introducing a raft of measures including banning public meetings of over 50 persons without prior permission of a magistrate, and increasing stamp duty on newspapers and pamphlets to curb the radical cause.

Fold-out frontispiece plan of St Peter’s Field Manchester with the avenues leading theretoPlan of St Peter’s Field Manchester with the avenues leading theretoThe images shown here are from an illustrated verbatim transcript of the coroner’s inquest on John Lees, one of the victims of Peterloo.

The radicals had been infuriated by the earlier inquests of victims, which had generally found the cause of death to be accidental, thus making legal proceedings impossible, and two radical solicitors offered their services to the Lees family without charge in a largely fruitless attempt to secure official acknowledgment of the cause of death.

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