Peterloo massacre 'Britons Strike Home'. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Peterloo presents us with unfinished business, argues John Westmoreland 

Question: How should socialists commemorate the Peterloo Massacre? 

Answer: In exactly the opposite way to how the BBC and the liberal media will remember it. 

The story of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre is becoming known across the trade union and Labour movement thanks in no small part to Mike Leigh’s excellent recent film Peterloo. One thread of Peterloo follows ‘Joe’, who left the battlefield of Waterloo to make his way back to Manchester, and who lost his life from the injuries sustained at the mass demonstration in St Peter’s Field. Joe’s character is based on John Lees, an Oldham spinner. Lees died after three weeks of agony. Before dying he compared his three days at the battle of Waterloo to the few hours he spent on that fateful August day. He said he was “never in such danger at Waterloo as he was at the meeting. For at Waterloo it was man to man but in Manchester it was downright murder”. 

Lees was cut down by fellow Macunians in the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, and his former comrades at Waterloo the 15th Hussars.

Constitutional reform was urgent and a political movement had been inspired by America winning its independence and founding their new country on a Bill of Rights (though not for slaves); republican revolution in France; the radical literature of Tom Paine and the French Enlightenment; and the economic misery inflicted on the working poor after the end of the wars against France in 1815. 

The government used spies and imprisonment to check their critics. 1819 was the year when events came to a head. In December 1816 mass riots occurred at Spa Fields in London. In March 1817 Manchester radicals marching on London were arrested. Carrying only a blanket they became known as the ‘Blanketeers’. In June 1817 there was a rising at Pentrich in Nottinghamshire. A Pentrich leader, Jeremiah Brandreth, urged his followers:

Every man his skill must try
He must turn out and not deny;
No bloody soldier must he dread,
He must turn out and fight for bread.
The time is come you plainly see
The government opposed must be.

The government was aghast. All their security was aimed at preventing revolution in London. Now Manchester was a hotbed of radicalism. Methodists, trade unionists and members of radical clubs were working together to articulate the need for change. The oligarchy in London maintained contacts with the Manchester magistrates and advised caution while at the same time committing troops to the north.

The result, after the famous radical Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt accepted the invitation to speak in Manchester, was the massive gathering of a social movement for constitutional reform. All the affected parts that make a mass movement were there. The demonstration is often described as ‘a family day out’: the carefully sewn banners and the joyous families who participated have encouraged historians to play down their political convictions. This is an error. Young workers and women don’t figure much as speakers or leaders, but they were active participants because they were right at the cutting edge, as we shall see.

Mary Fildes of the Manchester Female Reform Group was on the Hustings on the day of Peterloo.  Within the fifteen acknowledged casualties, 4 were women and of the 654 people injured, 168 were women. This has led some historians to conclude that the high percentage of casualties suffered by women in comparison to the numbers in the crowd suggests they were deliberately targeted. As the Manchester Observer reported on 21st August: “These women seemed to be the special objects of the rage of these bastard soldiers”. 

The men on horseback felt challenged by women who had stepped beyond their traditionally defined role.  “[H]ow painful to behold [them] assembled at the ale house or club room, neglecting those sacred duties their situation as daughters, wives, or as mothers, impose upon them”, mourned the Manchester Gazette.

The magistrates who were in charge of policing the demonstration that day were from Manchester’s Church, industrial and landed elites. They were allies of the political oligarchy in London. Whether they acted through panic is beside the point. They seethed at mill operatives, who to them, were worth far less than the machines they tended, daring to make demands about things they were not supposed to understand. The demonstration (it was actually called as a meeting) could simply not be allowed to succeed. If it did more demonstrations and strikes would follow. 

The order to arrest Hunt was given after he had barely begun to speak.

When the magistrates ordered the field to be cleared they brought the sabre-wielding petty capitalists of Manchester into direct conflict with the mass. The Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry were drunk and full of hatred. “Clear the square” was really a code to chop them down. John Edward Taylor, a reporter at the scene noted that “there were individuals in the yeomanry whose political rancour approached absolute insanity”.

The result was some eighteen dead and over five hundred injured. State troops using deadly force with malicious intent most decidedly makes this a “massacre”–especially when the 60,000 in the crowd were entirely unarmed. As Sam Bamford from Middleton, one of the organisers of the demonstration, later testified: “Cleanliness, sobriety and order were the first injunctions issued by the committee. Order in our movements was obtained by … a prohibition of all weapons of offence or defence.”

Bamford described the aftermath of the massacre as follows:

In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air. The curtains and blinds of the windows within view were all closed. 

The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody. 

Several mounds of human being 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 would never breathe more.

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo ends with Joe’s parents at his graveside. We need to make sure he didn’t die in vain.

Historical battleground

Socialists have no truck with sanctimony, liberal hand-wringing and the compartmentalised study of history that isolates events from their economic and political causes.

Liberal historians have actually been accounting for Peterloo since it happened, and it was long ago incorporated into the narrative that still dominates history classes at school and university. It goes something like this.

Of course the bloody massacre in St Peter’s Field Manchester has to be acknowledged as a grim chapter in British history. The violence inflicted on the demonstrators cannot be expunged. But the explanation of why it happened will focus on the difficulty that the magistrates and the primitive security forces at their disposal had in dealing with a massive demonstration of some 60,000 people. The magistrates were fearful of revolution after the upheavals in France – and they panicked. The government cannot be blamed because in their correspondence with the Manchester magistrates they had advised caution, and the troops despatched to Manchester were only to be deployed if and when protest turned ugly.

Regrettable as the events on that August day in 1819 were, it was not all in vain. British governments thereafter were increasingly prepared to listen to the voice of the people in order to avoid another Peterloo. The demand of universal suffrage, central to the demonstration that day, has been met through a series of increasingly progressive reform acts. The right to protest is now defended in law, and we have a professional police force which works to preserve public safety without bloodshed when demonstrators take to the streets.

All’s well that ends well! 

But the contempt of middle class academics for those working class and common people who force their way onto the historical page is never far off.  See, for instance, S.G. Checkland’s The Rise of Industrial Society in England 1815-1885:

Protests were organised [by working class radicals] in an attempt to make vocal their sufferings, apparently in the pathetic hope that if a sufficient demonstration was made it would be followed by effective [government] action.

 The thoughts of responsible men were simplified by demagogues and agitators, increasing the concern of the government for civil peace. The mass of workers, though prepared to protest, could not be persuaded from their almost pathetic legality. For they had no real wish to bring in a revolution.

The working class, who are too ‘pathetic’ to be taken seriously, should listen to respectable men and eschew professional agitators who invariably lead them into danger!

This fairy tale account of British history has to be rejected in total. Peterloo, and the events leading up to it, was about raw class conflict. Britain was run by an oligarchy of the rich and powerful. The battle-lines were drawn up over whether the working class should be condemned to live as little more than slaves, or have their humanity acknowledged through the acquisition of political rights.

Manchester – “From this filthy sewer pure gold flows”

Alexis de Tocqueville coined this description of Manchester after he visited in 1835. The “filthy sewer” was where the working class existed. The “pure gold” was the profits rung from their toil.

Manchester was the centre of cotton cloth production. It was the largest industrial city in the world, and the working class had plenty to protest about. For free-market apologists the low wages and unemployment suffered in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars were little more than the hard facts of life which everyone had to swallow. Much is made of the fact that the protests in 1819 came after two poor harvests which had forced up the price of bread. And while they wring their hands at the suffering of the working poor, they positively salivate at the exponential economic growth that Manchester delivered. Then as now profit made poverty a price worth paying. 

However, all this begs the question of why demonstrators on that August day carried banners demanding:


In other words why did workers suffering from hunger and privation confront the issue with political idealism and the demand for electoral reform?

The answer lies in the workers’ accurate perception of their grievances as being the result of a deliberate policy concocted by their bosses and their government. 

For example, the Corn Act passed in 1815 prevented the importation of corn and protected the market for English farmers. The price of flour was bound to rise in the event of a poor harvest. Hunger and privation for the working poor was inevitable as more of their meagre income went on bread. This was to the benefit of employers, not a regrettable accident.

Poverty had long been seen as a good thing by the ruling class – the basis of a sound economic policy. The enclosure of common lands where the rural poor might otherwise raise pigs and geese, or shoot rabbits and gather fire wood, would prevent ‘idleness’. Economic independence might also link to another sin – intemperance. 

John Bellers, a Quaker and economic thinker, wrote: “Our Forests and great Commons (make the Poor that are upon them too much like the Indians) being a hindrance to Industry, and are Nurseries of Idleness and Insolence.”  The Reverend Joseph Townsend, meanwhile, advocated hunger as a means of social control:

[Direct] legal constraint [of workers] . . . is attended with too much trouble, violence, and noise . . . whereas hunger is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure, but as the most natural motive to industry, it calls forth the most powerful exertions. . . . Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjugation to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse.

As well as the deliberate creation of poverty, child labour and systematic child abuse were constant methods used to maximise profits during the industrial revolution, too. John Fielden, who later campaigned for factory reform, wrote about how the mill owners preyed upon the most vulnerable:

The small and nimble fingers of little children being by far the most in request, the custom instantly sprang up of procuring “apprentices” from the different parish workhouses of London, Birmingham and elsewhere … being from the age of seven to the age of thirteen or fourteen years old.

A House of Commons Select Committee in 1816 likewise heard from a seventeen year old factory girl from Manchester who testified: “I never worked for a master yet but what he beat me. One master used to beat me of all colours if I was two minutes late. I’ve gone off from home half-dressed he used to be so very savage”.

Is it any wonder that so many women and children took part in the demonstration that day?

Poverty, violence and contempt was part of everyday life for Manchester’s working class. The Peterloo demonstrators were not “pathetic”. They were not crying and begging for help. They were demanding to have their humanity recognised in law, by gaining constitutional rights. The magistrates who ordered the massacre were no doubt infuriated that the ‘mob’ they expected were well ordered and disciplined.

The government in 1819 – ‘Old Corruption’

Old Corruption was the name given to the way Britain was governed, a political system where government offices were sold and sinecures (jobs which paid a salary for little or no work) were offered to favourites along with pensions. Elections were held every seven years, but only a tiny and wealthy elite had the vote. Bribery was used openly at elections to secure the choice of wealthy patrons. Parliament was dominated by wealth and privilege, then as now.  As Trevor Fisher wrote in History Today

Exploiting power for financial gain was accepted practice. The concept of disinterested professionalism was weak and the idea of the public interest virtually non-existent. Parliament, court circles and the embryonic civil service saw the gaining of public office as a means to private wealth. 

The two parties, the Tories and the Whigs, existed as loose parliamentary formations and at local level as little more than election labels. MPs were the lynchpin of the parliamentary system, but parliamentary contests were not about the manifestoes of the candidates; for all parties concerned, it was about the pursuit of crude, immediate gain.

The House of Commons was a talking shop full of toffs, religious cranks and egotists. MPs often slept on the benches, ate oranges or cracked nuts during “debates”. The government may have presided over the people, but it was in no sense a government of the people.

In the aftermath of Peterloo there was no apology. The government congratulated the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry on their resolute action. The entire establishment was in agreement that the carnage in Manchester had prevented “anarchy” and “lawlessness”. The government immediately introduced legislation to weaken their opponents.

Prosecutions were brought against the victims such as Hunt and Bamford rather than the Magistrates or the Yeomanry. In fact the perpetrators of the violence were richly rewarded. Reverend Hay, one of the magistrates, was given the sinecure of vicar of Rochdale with a salary of £2,400 per year.  While William Hulton, chairman of the magistrates grew rich from the 7 coal seams beneath his land whilst paying his workers the lowest wages in Lancashire. He continued to insist that only two people were killed on the day of Peterloo.

The notorious Six Acts increased the powers of local magistrates to prevent “drilling” (marching), search houses for weapons, and also silenced the radical press with further laws to clamp down on “blasphemous and Seditious libel”. This latter power prevented meetings that might criticise the government at local or national level.

Established historical opinion, that depicts workers’ struggle as a “knife and fork” issue, where hungry and uneducated masses rise up only to settle down when their diet improves, cannot explain the fantastic idealism workers display when they fight back. Nor is it concerned with the obvious role reversal they see as the norm – workers leading the march to progress and the elites seeking to crush it.

The vision of a better future, and the clarity of political thought that could bring it about, was more evident on the streets of Manchester than in Westminster. The ideals of the philosophers of the Enlightenment were in the hearts of the workers, and the hard-hearted determination to crush those ideals was in the government.

The crushing of human hope on the altar of profit and power in 1819 gives us a clue about how we should commemorate Peterloo today.

Unfinished business

There is a very strong parallel between the government today and that of 1819. The current Prime Minister has just been chosen by his own rotten borough of 160,000 people!

Free-market liberal economic policy is the orthodoxy today just as it was then, and capital enjoys rights and government support while the working class are told to fend for themselves. The contempt for working people, concealed by the welfare state after the Second World War, is now exposed by the privatisation of public services. The main working class organisations to defend pay, rights and conditions – trade unions – are legally constrained and marginalised, then as now. The deliberate creation of poverty through low pay, precarious work and slashing benefits is once again a central feature of economic policy, with the Tories using the same perverse language of “incentivisation”. 

We have a government, a state and indeed a constitution which once again presides over and against us. In fact the situation is much worse now than then. Our economy is often dominated by unaccountable corporations, banks and governments. Our defence and foreign policy are not in our name but virtually dictated by the US. 

The leadership we need is much more likely to be found on the streets protesting against war, racism and poverty than it is in Westminster. And in that sense Peterloo is our unfinished business. The demonstration at the Tory Party conference in Manchester this year has to be driven by the same political idealism and commitment as was seen in 1819. 

John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.