Not for the last time, Britons would discover that winning a prolonged war was no guarantee of good times. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 was soon followed by an economic slump.
This encouraged the growth of political radicalism, particularly among Lancashire’s suffering textile workers. They deeply resented the rotten borough system that deprived them of parliamentary representation – resentment that reached fever pitch in 1819 when the Manchester Patriotic Union organized a great protest meeting.
The government feared armed insurrection and immediately dispatched the 15th Hussars to Manchester. The meeting took place on a sunlit Monday in mid August on St Peter’s Field, a space cleared for the imminent extension of St Peter’s Street. The well-turned-out crowd assembled with military precision, travelling in from surrounding towns to join native Mancunians in hearing impassioned speeches by the likes of leading radical orator Henry Hunt.
As 80,000 protesters assembled, Manchester’s magistrates were watching from a nearby house, primed to deal with possible trouble. At their disposal they had special constables, cavalry, infantrymen, an artillery unit and yeomanry – the latter being an inexperienced militia consisting mainly of tradesmen and publicans. Although it was a peaceful gathering, the magistrates issued arrest warrants for platform speakers, enlisting the help or both yeomanry and hussars to enforce their ill-judged action. The Manchester and Salford Yeoman Cavalry charged the crowd, hacking to right and left with their sabres, soon to be followed by the regulars of the 15th Hussars.
In ten minutes it was all over. The terrified crowd had fled in all directions, leaving only the dead, dying and wounded behind on St Peter’s Field. The speakers were in custody and it would not be long before the day’s events were christened the Peterloo massacre, in ironic reference to the bloody Battle of Waterloo.
When: August 16 1819
Where: Manchester, UK
Death toll: 15 are said to have died and between 600 and 700 protesters were injured, many seriously (both sets of figures are estimates).
You should know: Despite outrage expressed in liberal circles, the Peterloo massacre made little difference to the pace of reform in Britain, indeed, the process actually suffered a set back when a panic-stricken government passed the Six Acts to prevent future demonstrations, thus gagging radical newspapers and labelling any meeting held to promote reform as ‘an overt act of treasonable conspiracy’.