How the massacre of peaceful protesters helped to progress the democratic rights of the working class
Within the UK, there is a pride of belonging to a nation with a history of strong democratic roots. Of course, there are many factors of life here which would not be possible in many places around the world, but we are far from a perfect country when it comes to giving people in all social classes a good standard of life. In 2020 society is fragmented, but 200 years ago an event took place which helped to move the UK closer to being a fairer society; even though it may not feel that way at the moment.
On 16 August 1819, the Peterloo Massacre took place around an area of Manchester now known as St Peter’s Square. Over 60,000 protesters gathered to, peacefully, display their anger at the government and demand parliamentary change. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 triggered an economic slump in Britain. Towns and cities in the northern powerhouse had been badly affected, but at the time only 11% of adult males across the whole country were eligible to vote.
The economic downturn led to mass unemployment, failed crops created a food shortage which was exacerbated by the Corn Laws (trade restrictions on imported goods and kept the price of bread high). The workers wanted change, and planned the gathering in the north west of England. Local orator Henry Hunt was a main speaker at the event; he would be one of the first targets when Magistrates sent yeomen and soldiers in to disperse the crowd.
The Yeomanry were sent in first to arrest the key speakers, but they were not alone. Over 600 Hussars, several hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables waited in reserve.
An initial charge for the speakers was followed by a second aimed at the crowd, only after they linked arms to protect the speakers. The soldiers, on horseback and with sabres and clubs in hand, smashed through the ranks of the protesters. The aggression was determined to be from the protesters towards the Yeoman, and the Hussars were sent in to assist.
By 2pm the violence had ended. 18 protesters were dead and hundreds more were injured. The name ‘Peterloo’ was coined to mock the soldiers who took part in the massacre. Many had fought at the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier and were viewed as heroes, but here they had attacked unarmed civilians. Despite this, they received congratulations from the Prince Regent and would be later spared any charge of wrongdoing.
As for the leaders of the demonstration, they were placed on charge of high treason which was reluctantly dropped by the prosecution.
Although the soldiers were spared any prosecution, the Peterloo Massacre had a lasting impact on society. It helped to change public opinion on how the nation was governed and to put into motion political reform the likes of which had never been seen before.
Peterloo was arguably the most significant political event on UK soil in the 19th century. It helped to infuriate a ruling class which had exploited the working class for centuries and helped to set the UK on the long path to suffrage. In the next 200 years the conditions and rights of workers improved drastically, but the UK remains in a rigid class structure.