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Page last updated at 12:33 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 13:33 UK
Peterloo: a massacre remembered

Painting of the Peterloo Massacre
'Let the horsemen's scimitars, Wheel and flash like sphereless stars, Thirsting to eclipse their burning, In a sea of death and mourning.'

from 'The Masque of Anarchy' by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819
The poem in full

The Peterloo Massacre remains the most infamous chapter in Manchester's history. But did it, as many believe, change the country forever?

At least 15 people were hacked or trampled to death, and up to 700 injured, when sword-wielding cavalry charged a peaceful rally calling for the vote in Manchester on 16 August 1819.

Such was the public outrage at the time that the poet Shelley was moved to write his epic poemThe Masque of Anarchy in condemnation of what was seen as a government-led attack on democracy.

But this brutal attack 190 years ago is now widely regarded as having played a key role in helping to change public opinion in the extension of the right to vote and universal suffrage.

So how did an orderly meeting of men, women and children in Manchester turn into a bloodbath and why is it seen as so important?


Back in the early 1800s, just two percent of the British population had the vote.

This was a time of immense political tension and mass protests: hunger was rife with the corn laws making bread unaffordable.

Central Library
An exhibition commemorating the 190th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre is at Central Library, St Peter's Square until 26 September 2009. Mon - Thurs 9am to 8pm, Fri and Sat 9am - 5pm. Free to enter.

Yet Peterloo began, by all accounts, as a wholly peaceful demonstration.

So, when 60,000 protesters gathered on St Peter's Fields in Manchester on the morning of 16 August 1819, few expected it to end in bloodshed.

Trouble, however, flared when the yeomanry, a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners, were ordered to arrest the speakers at the rally.

Heading for the hustings, they charged when the crowd linked arms to try and stop the arrests.

The panic was interpreted as the crowd attacking the yeomanry, and the Hussars, a mounted brigade of soldiers, were ordered in, slashing the protesters with their cutlasses.

By 2pm, the carnage was over and the field lay scattered with bodies amongst the torn and bloody banners.

The massacre was dubbed 'Peterloo' to mock the soldiers who attacked unarmed civilians by echoing the term 'Waterloo' - the soldiers from that battle being seen by many as genuine heroes.


The historical importance of the Peterloo Massacre in the battle for political freedom cannot be underestimated.

Design for Peterloo memorial
A proposed design made at the time by the artist George Cruickshank

Most historians believe it led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from which grew the Trade Unions, resulted in the establishment of the Manchester Guardian and, most significantly of all, paved the way toward ordinary people being given the vote.

The outrage felt across the country led to The Representation of the People Act in 1832, commonly known as the Great Reform Act, that introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of the United Kingdom.

Jonathan Schofield, Blue Badge guide and editor of Manchester Confidential said Peterloo was an event that changed the country.

"The idea of Englishmen killing Englishmen over representation in government was repellent to the new middle-classes especially in the areas affected by the Industrial Revolution," he said.

"As the middle-class and the working class voice grew louder and Britain moved from a rural economy to a manufacturing one, Peterloo became a symbol, and helped pave the way for the Great Reform Act of 1832 when Manchester gained two MPs and Salford one."


Such is the local significance of Peterloo that it was main reason for locating the People's History Museum in the city.

The idea of Englishmen killing Englishmen over representation in government was repellent to the new middle-classes...
Jonathan Schofield, Blue Badge guide

However, until recently, the only memorial to the massacre was a blue plaque on the side of the Free Trade Hall (now the Radisson Hotel) on Peter Street - the site of St Peter's Fields.

It made no reference to a massacre but only to 'the dispersal' of the crowd, omitting that 15 people were killed - including a woman and a child.

In 2007, the Peterloo Memorial Campaign was set up to lobby for a 'prominent, accurate and respectful monument to this profound event,' describing the original plaque as 'insulting'.

Spokesman Paul Fitzgerald said: "As we near the 200th anniversary, it's vital we put an end to the long and shameful tradition of neglecting or whitewashing the memory of this turning point in the history of democracy."

Manchester City Council replaced the plaque two years ago and plans are currently underway for a more fitting and permanent memorial.

The 190th anniversary of the massacre is being commemorated with a new exhibition at Central Library until 26 September. 'Peterloo Remembered' is free to view. See above for details.

Events to mark Peterloo Massacre
16 Aug 09 |  Manchester
Group welcomes massacre memorial
13 Feb 09 |  Manchester
New memorial for massacre victims
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