16th January 2023 – Peterloo Massacre – John Hull

Cavalry charge the crowd

John is a retired academic and former history teacher and headteacher in Sheffield, but was raised in Manchester.  His interest in the Peterloo Massacre is because he knows the place where it happened.

In Saxon times each village had three fields for the villagers to grow food crops.  One field was for Spring use, one for Summer use and the third was left Fallow.  They were rotated each year.

In 1750 the Enclosure Act came into force and the wealthy landowners took over fields and common lands from the village people, who could not prove that they owned them.  Village people had to move into cities to find work, often for very low pay.

Manchester became a cotton town, full of mills where weavers and spinners worked long hours for low pay.  The life expectancy of these workers was around 38.5 years. They began to demand the right to vote and for access to education. (At that time only about 4500 people out of 2 million had the right to vote and they were often the wealthy people.)

The French Revolution gave the workers the idea of protesting and the Methodists and Disenters and the Female Reform Society, headed by Mary Fildes, encouraged this.

In Manchester protesters planned a peaceful mass demonstration to demand a reform of parliamentary representation to allow more people to vote.  They were meeting  in St. Peter’s Field on Monday, 16th August 1819. (The name ‘Peterloo’ came from blending the Peter of the meeting place and the Battle of Waterloo.)

In Manchester the magistrates were in charge of keeping local order.  With the backing of higher authority they planned to stop the demonstration.

The Authority gave them an extra 1500 yeomanry, several hundred cavalry and two cannons!

About 60,000 protesters carrying banners, from Manchester and neighbouring towns, gathered in St. Peter’s Field.  Mary Fildes and Henry Hunt mounted the podium to open the meeting but William Hutton, who was in charge of the controlling forces, read the Riot Act.  Then the yeomanry and the cavalry were ordered to disperse the protesters.

They charged into the crowd carrying sabres and truncheons forcing the protesters to flee.

There were 645 casualties and 15 people died during the charge.  Thirteen people died later, some from stab wounds, one was shot, some others were trampled or crushed.

The authorities said later that many of the casualties suffered from previous illnesses, and inquests on the dead were altered so that they had not been killed by the infantry.

Demands to get the vote for a wider population were not achieved for another 90 years!

The Bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre was in 2019 and a memorial by Jeremy Deller is in place at Peterloo.

John is surprised that Peterloo is not mentioned in the O Level History syllabus, so it is only talked about if the History teacher thinks it should be!

We still get Authority trying to curtail the rights of the people – now our Government is trying to alter the laws about strike action, hopefully without the help of cavalry!

This was a very good talk by John, which contained a wide range of information.