It is perhaps difficult to envisage what the bustling Peter's Square in Manchester would have looked like 200 years ago. Nowadays it is full of commuters, visitors to the magnificent Central Library and loud with the hooting of trams. 200 years ago though it was called Peter's Fields named after a nearby church. Who would think that even amidst the city bustle that this was the scene of an outrage against over 60,000 peaceful protesters in August 1819. As Waterloo had happened in 1815 and that was soldier against soldier by September 1819, The Manchester Meeting became known as Peterloo where it had been soldiers against innocent civilians. By the end of the day, the local hospital, The Royal Infirmary was full of casualties and 17 people died from their wounds.
To understand better what happened in the lead up to the event, we need to take a look at the Corn Laws. The Corn Laws were passed between 1815 and 1846, and set restrictions on imported corn. The aim was to keep grain prices high to help the home economy. The laws raised food prices and were very unpopular. After the Napoleonic Wars ended with Waterloo in 1815, corn prices went down, and so the government passed the Corn Laws to keep bread prices high. There were riots nationally. There was also discontent about voting rights and representation. Lancashire only had two MPs to represent the whole county.
The Manchester Meeting had been planned August 2nd but was forced to be cancelled. It was then set for August 9th but again was cancelled. On 16th August though, the meeting went ahead. Thousands of people walked to Manchester for a peaceful day out to hear the speakers including Mary Fildes and Henry Hunt speak about voting and the Corn Laws. The Manchester magistrates met at about 10.30 am at "The Sun Inn” on Deansgate to discuss how to stop the meeting which was due to start at 1pm.
The organisers went to great pains to ensure that the rally was a peaceful one and did not provoke a reaction. Henry Hunt arrived at about 1.00pm and he with some supporters stood on 2 carts which had been roped together as a platform. Banners bearing slogans such as “Love ", “No taxation without Representation ", " No corn Laws" . As the crowd gathered, the magistrates version is that they wanted to see the Stage. Whatever the reason, they sent the militia in on horses to clear the way. They were soon joined by soldiers, cavalry, and special constables to arrest the speakers. There were shouts and groans from the crowd who linked arms to protect their speakers. The troops waving sabers charged on the 60,000 crowd trampling people with their horses. Peter's Field was a scene of carnage. The main organisers including Henry Hunt were arrested.
A year later Henry Hunt was in gaol. He was still angry, hurt and traumatised that his meeting had had such devastating consequences. His journal entry for that day reads,
“I eat no meat this day.
I sincerely pray that I may live to witness the condeign punishment of every Scoundral that was instrumental and accessory or principal or in any remote degree concerned in the infamous, cruel, cowardly, unprovoked and pre-meditated assassinations, cuttings and murders of peaceable men, women and children at Manchester on this day twelve months."
Below is a list of The Peterloo dead. For their sake it should never be forgotten and I hope Manchester City Council acknowledges it in 4 years’ time.
The Peterloo Dead