August 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, on 16 August 1819, troops attacked a radical meeting held on St Peter's Field in Manchester. At least eleven of the crowd were killed, and over 600 injured. Within a few days the massacre was being ironically styled 'Peterloo'. It was an event of enormous significance, not just for the north west area but for the history of working class struggle in Britain.
The back-ground to Peterloo can be traced within the development of industrial capitalism and workers' response. Trade unions, though strictly illegal, were active during the second half of the eighteenth century (primarily among skilled workers and organised on a purely local basis), and were often reasonably successful in defending wages. Political activity among artisans and other workers grew in the 1790s, mainly aimed at reforming the antiquated electoral system by introducing manhood suffrage and annual elections. Despite the mildness of the measures proposed, the government and ruling class were unable to countenance any independent political action by workers, and they reacted with vicious repression, including charges of treason ( England being at war with France). By 1799 all the most prominent activists were in prison or in exile.
The economic depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars led to a growth of unrest and the passing of the Corn Laws to benefit the landowners by keeping up the price of wheat. From 1816 mass meetings of workers resumed for the first time since the repression of the 1790s. The government fought back with spies, agent provocateurs, and prosecutions; Habeas Corpus was suspended for a while. By 1819 there were many outdoor meetings for parliamentary reform: this was seen, even by working class radicals, as a necessary means to the economic end of a more equitable taxation system.
The new industrial cities were the centres for much of the protest. The economy of the Manchester area was based on cotton, and there was particular support for radicalism from the handloom weavers, who worked in their own homes (unlike the industry's other workers, the spinners, who worked in the mills operating spinning machines). As early as 1808, a weaver was killed by troops, at a Manchester meeting for a minimum wage bill. The depression hit the cotton trade especially hard, and by 1819 weavers could only earn half the wages of a few years before. 'Passages in the life of A Radical', by the Middleton weaver Samuel Bamford, gives a vivid account of working class political activity during this period; the clandestine meetings, the constant fear of informers, the effects of government repression. The 1817 Blanketeers' March intended to be from Manchester to London to petition for the relief of distress, was broken up by troops within a few miles of Manchester. By 1819 mass meetings were being held in Manchester as in other large Towns, and the city's magistrates were becoming alarmed, and making military preparations against what they feared might befall.
The 16 August meeting on St Peter's Field was intended to be the largest gathering of all, and men and women and children came from the cotton towns around Manchester, eventually forming a crowd of around sixty thousand. The magistrates assembled in a house overlooking the site, and had fifteen hundred troops, both hussars (regular soldiers) and yeomanry (part-time force of local merchants and factory-owners), waiting on horse back in nearby streets, even though the meeting itself was illegal. When Henry Hunt, one of the prominent radical organisers, was speaking, the magistrates decided Manchester was in danger and ordered Hunt's arrest. Troops were summoned to effect this, and the yeomanry began to ride through the packed crowd, striking out with their swords when they could not make their way forward. The hussars were then called in to disperse the crowd. In ten minutes, among scenes of unbelievable chaos and carnage, St Peter's Field were cleared, leaving the dead and injured to be taken away as best could be arranged. Bamford provides a dramatic eye-witness description of the scene:
"Over the whole field, were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress; trampled, torn, and bloody. . . . Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, - others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others never breathe more. . . . Person might sometimes be noticed peeping from attics and over the tall ridgings of houses, but they quickly withdrew, as if fearful of being observed, or unable to sustain the full gaze, of a scene so hideous and abhorrent."
The rulers had replied as decisively as they knew to working class demands.
Eleven of the main radical leaders were arrested by the troops. They were originally charged with high treason, though this was later amended to conspiracy and illegal assembly. Hunt was sentenced to two and half years in prison, Bamford and others to one year. Further repressive legislation was passed, and by 1820 working class resistance was greatly reduced. Many radicals rejected the policy of peaceful agitation promoted by Hunt and turned to violent action; the same year, five men were executed for high treason in the Cato Street Conspiracy, when they plotted to assassinate members of the Cabinet. The Government supported the actions of the magistrates at Peterloo, and refused to hold an inquiry into their conduct. Some were even given financial rewards; William Hay was a clergyman and magistrate in Salford, he was awarded a sinecure worth £1730 a year (at a time when weavers earned perhaps £25 a year).
It is impossible to believe, as has sometimes been suggested, that the events of 16 August were a chapter of accidents, leading to an outcome that nobody wanted. In an atmosphere of government repression and provocation stretching back a quarter of a century, there can be no doubt that the massacre fitted in with the strategy of the ruling class. The use of state power against those who were unprepared simply to accept their lot continued: in 1831; at least two dozen workers were killed by troops after the uprising in Merthyr Tydfil, and in 1834 six trade unionists were transported from Tolpuddle, this even after the 'reform' of the House of Commons in 1832 (which still left the vast majority of workers without a vote).
But Peterloo is probably the clearest demonstration of the viciousness of ruling class politics in the nineteenth century, of the fact that the vote and trade unions' rights were not handed to workers on a plate but had to be fought for against savage repression. The courage and commitment of those in the early working class movement remains astonishing and humbling even now.