The Peterloo Massacre, 1819

Radical demands for parliamentary reform grew from the closing stages of the French Wars - ranging from the establishment of radical societies across the country and a series of reform meetings at Spa Fields, in London, to an attempted hunger march from Lancashire to the capital (beaten back by armed forces) and an abortive rising at Pentrich, in Nottinghamshire. However, one of the best-known events at this time was the political meeting that became known as 'Peterloo'.

The Manchester Patriotic Union had been formed in March 1819 and was determined to secure parliamentary reform. The Union invited a number of nationally respected reformers, such as Major Cartwright, Henry 'Orator' Hunt and Richard Carlile, to speak at a huge public demonstration in Manchester - which was to be 'a meeting of the county of Lancashire, [rather] than of Manchester alone'. Hunt and Carlile agreed to attend, and the meeting was organised for 16 August at St Peter's Field.

Responding to the general fear of democratic radicalism, local magistrates arranged for soldiers (cavalry, infantry and artillery) and the Manchester Yeomanry to be present at the time of the meeting. The crowd was immense: local magistrates estimated that it was 30-50,000 strong, while the radicals claimed it was nearer to 150,000.

Whatever the exact figure, around 1.30 pm the magistrates decided that the crowd posed a threat and the town was 'in great danger'. Orders were given for the arrest of Hunt and other leaders of the demonstration. Special constables cleared a path through which the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry made their way to the hustings. The crowd linked arms to prevent them making arrests, and the Yeomanry responded by using their sabres to cut through the crowd. The 15th Hussars were then sent in to lend a hand, and by 2 pm they had killed 11 people and wounded about 400 others.

The poster shown here demonstrates the way in which the 'Peterloo Massacre' immediately became part of positive radical propaganda. The picture had been purchased by John Jenkins, an ex-weaver and ex-Royal Marine, who 'by the aid of a magnifying glass [made the figures] appear as large as life' while he provided a suitably vivid narrative. In November 1819 Jenkins had been exhibiting the picture at Chudleigh, in Devon, when his activities came to the attention of Gilbert Burrington, the vicar of Chudleigh and an active magistrate. Burrington committed Jenkins to the Exeter house of correction as a vagrant and passed information of his seditious conduct to the Home Secretary.
Catalogue reference: MPI 1/134, no. 18 (1819)


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