He was the first person to die. Knocked from his mother’s arms and trampled as the horsemen rode in, freshly-sharpened sabres slashing.
It was Monday, 16 August 1819. A sunny day in Manchester.
Why did a blameless young child die that day?
Well, it’s a long story, but I’ll try and condense it.
In 1815, victory at Waterloo ended the Napoleonic wars. For years they’d been a drain on the British economy. But when the war ended life didn’t become any easier for the poor.
The price of bread was often beyond them, kept high by the infamous Corn Laws. They’d been introduced to protect the income of farmers and landed gentry when, with the new-found peace, cheap imports threatened to flood in from abroad.
There was no-one to represent directly the interests of the poor, of the workers. Almost certainly not a Member of Parliament – even if they lived in a place that had one.
Manchester, already a booming city of new, industrial England, had not a single MP to represent it.
Yet, elsewhere in the country, a rich man might ‘own’ a ‘pocket borough’ that returned a man to parliament on his behalf.
A ‘rotten borough’ might return two MPs – the choice of the local landowner – for a mere handful of inhabitants.
Very few men and no women had the vote. There was no secret ballot – landowners and other manipulators of the system could easily impose their choices on voters.
The system was highly corrupt and far from democratic.
Henry Hunt was a campaigner for parliamentary reform and a popular orator. On 16 August he was to address the crowds gathered on St Peter’s Field, Manchester.
Banners flew. Red ‘Liberty Bonnets’ adorned tall staffs.
Picnics were brought.
Some of the women – members of the Manchester Female Reform Union – wore white dresses.
Some of the men wore top hats.
Later, a commentator remarked on the ‘impudence’ of the working men who wore top hats that day. But worse things happened than the uppity wearing of the wrong kind of hat.
Local magistrates were anxious. Despite the fact that the gathering was peaceful. Despite that fact that the field had been cleared of stones and sticks. Despite the families dressed in their Sunday best, hardly suggesting a rabble ready to be roused. And despite Henry Hunt’s exhortation to people to come,
“armed with no other weapon than that of a self-approving conscience”.
To be fair, it was a huge crowd.
An eye witness agreed with the Times reporter’s estimate that 80,000 men, women and children had assembled to hear Hunt speak. The Manchester Observer, more scientifically, worked out likely numbers per square yard – the field was 14,000 square yards (11,700 sq m) – to arrive at an estimate of 153,000.
And, it was a meeting about reform – a word guaranteed to strike terror into establishment hearts. It wasn’t long, after all, since the French Revolution had turned the tables on France’s established order. One banner in the crowd even read ‘Liberty and fraternity’.
But local officials had taken no chances – they’d prepared for the worst.
Several hundred infantrymen, 600 Hussars, an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables were on hand to keep the peace.
When Hunt arrived, to the crowd’s obvious delight, the chairman of the magistrates decided it was time to arrest him – and sent in the local yeomanry.
Mounted on horseback, armed with cutlasses and clubs, they rode into the crowd.
That’s when it all went horribly wrong.
The way through the crowd was narrow and the yeomen began hacking. Some said many yeomen were drunk.
The magistrates, reportedly under the impression the crowd was attacking the yeomen, sent in the Hussars.
As the horsemen slashed and hacked an officer of the 15th Hussars called out:
“For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear!
The people cannot get away!”
The dead died of sabre wounds and of beatings with truncheons. One woman died when she was thrown into a cellar and suffocated, another ‘rode over’ by the cavalry.
One man was ‘inwardly crushed’. Another, struck by a sabre, owed his life to the bread and cheese he had tucked in his hat.
To modern ears a massacre is a thing of many deaths, we’ve become so blasé about mass killings. Only 15 – and I write that sadly – died on that day. Or so the best estimates have it.
But more than 600 were injured. It’s probable that many others hid their injuries to avoid losing their livelihood – or worse.
Some doctors refused to treat the victims.
Soon after the event the term ’Peterloo’ was coined. The reference was clear, an inglorious twin to the glorious victory of Wellington at Waterloo.
John Lees, who died of his wounds on 9th of September, had been at Waterloo. Before he died he said of Peterloo,
“At Waterloo there was man to man but thereit was downright murder”.
Henry Hunt was imprisoned. Next day he wrote, appealing against his arrest and defending the crowd:
‘”by far the greatest number I ever witnessed together, and the least disposed to commit any breach of the peace. “
He was not released. Three days later he wrote to the Manchester magistrates:
“ … the real murderers are endeavouring to wipe the bloody stain from their remorseless, guilty souls, by casting imputations and suspicions upon others that they know had no hand, directly or indirectly, in the foul and cowardly deed …. The eye of the whole country will shortly be fixed with a scrutinizing penetration upon every step you take in this bloody affair. – I am, Gentlemen, your Prisoner, Henry Hunt.”
He was incarcerated for two more years, but he was right about the eye of the country.
Peterloo itself did not change anything immediately, except that most important thing – public opinion.
A crackdown on reform followed. By the end of the year the ‘Six Acts’ were passed, suppressing radical meetings and publications. Working class radicals were imprisoned. Journalists arrested. Newspapers went out of business.
But the wave of public opinion was rolling. And even kings, as Canute discovered centuries before, can’t stop the tide from coming in.