The Peterloo Massacre of 1819

The Peterloo Massacre took place on the 16th of August 1819, in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The occurrence demonstrated official reaction, oppression and killing of innocent people, with its influence leading to the event ultimately being coined ‘one of the most radical events of British history’.[1] It is a widely contested and discussed event, however the causation of the event is fairly unanimous in the event’s historiography. A mass group of around 60,000 people gathered, from various areas of the North of England but mainly Manchester, in order to demand representation within Parliament.[2] This stemmed from the fact that although Manchester was large city, and of central importance to the industrial revolution, they did not have a single MP to represent the area.[3] Although the gathering was large, it is widely noted that they were peaceful in nature, and had simply gathered in St Peter’s Fields in order to listen to the radical politician Henry Hunt.[4] Frustration, particularly amongst workers, was not solely political in nature. Economic and social changes within Britain had overshadowing impacts on many aspects of life, and with the industrial revolution occurring, wages and conditions were on the decline.[5] ‘Massive economic downturn’ was of central significance in the north, made worse still in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.[6] It is also worth noting that the Napoleonic Wars have further association with the Peterloo Massacre, as it was a contemporary journalist to the event who named it ‘Peterloo’, to mirror the Battle of Waterloo.[7] The ‘massacre’ element of the event came from the reaction to what had meant to be a peaceful demonstration against Government. In order to deal with the mass of people they were facing, the British sent in forces to deal with those they saw as troublesome. As a result, ‘yeomanry and horseguards hewed down and trampled to death eighteen people’.[8] Overall, the Peterloo Massacre held great significance in its own time, as well as our own. Contemporary reaction to the killings were that of outrage and frustration. The narrative has differed little, with many still pointing out the fact that those who were killed were innocent and killed purely because of the fears of the elite. Peterloo encapsulates not only the impact the masses are able to achieve when a common grievance and cause is identified, but also the destructive nature that those in a position of authority are able to exercise over those beneath them when they feel threatened. Destructive authority, willing to kill innocent people to return to order, is unfortunately not a unique phenomenon to the Peterloo Massacre, and will likely continue for decades to come.

(Image credit Bettmann Archive) 


[1] Geisinger, G. (2018, Oct 23). Peterloo Movie: Is Peterloo Based on a True Story? What is the Peterloo Massacre? Express (Online) Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk/docview/2124334630?accountid=11526.

[2] The Peterloo Massacre. (2019, Aug 17). The Week, 13. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk/docview/2292898366?accountid=11526.

[3] The Peterloo Massacre. (2019, Aug 17).

[4] ‘Peterloo massacre (16 August 1819)’ (2015). In Kerr, A., & Wright, E. (Eds.), A Dictionary of World History. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2 Mar, 2020, from https://www-oxfordreference-com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk/view/10.1093/acref/9780199685691.001.0001/acref-9780199685691-e-2857.

[5] Remembering The Peterloo Massacre, 200 Years on: Letters. (2019, Aug 14). Irish Independent, 21. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.libaccess.hud.ac.uk/docview/2272618854?accountid=11526.

[6] Remembering The Peterloo Massacre, 200 Years on: Letters. (2019, Aug 14).

[7] Remembering The Peterloo Massacre, 200 Years on: Letters. (2019, Aug 14).

[8] Fairclough, M. (2019). Peterloo at 200: The Radical Press, Simultaneous Meetings and the Mask of Anarchy. The Keats-Shelley Review, 33(2), 159-174. doi:10.1080/09524142.2019.1659016.

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