The legacy of Peterloo (4 min read)

This year marks a truly significant anniversary for Manchester: 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre. It is a date that is as important in many ways to the city as its industrial heritage, and a date that marks the birth of Manchester’s identity as a place of protest, of free speech, of human rights. Although MIF19 takes place just before the anniversary on 16 August, we wanted to mark the moment in a meaningful way – with newly commissioned works  from Anu Productions and two major artists based in the North West Emily Howard and Michael Symmons Roberts.

 Dr Shirin Hirsch is a Researcher at the People’s History Museum and a Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University talks us through the legacy of 16 August 1819.

Protest and Peterloo

On 16 August 1819, 60,000 people congregated in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, demanding the right to vote, freedom from oppression and political justice. Despite its peaceful beginning, this was a day that ended with a bloody outcome: troops, including local government forces, charged the crowds with fatal consequences. The attack became known as the Peterloo Massacre and was a turning point on the road to democracy, equal rights and universal suffrage. It was a landmark moment in British history – but its roots were planted across the English Channel.

From Waterloo to Peterloo

In 1789, the French Revolution shook the world. Most powerfully expressed in Thomas Paine’s book The Rights of Man (published 1791), the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity that fuelled the uprising spread rapidly.

In Britain, less than three percent of the population could vote and the political system was entirely corrupt. Paine’s words began to inspire ordinary people to question the systems under which they were living, systems that had been challenged across the channel. As a result, the British government prepared for war – to both defeat the revolutionary ‘menace’ in France and to destroy the revolutionary ‘menace’ at home.

Britain eventually won the Napoleonic Wars against France (1803–1815), but at great expense and with a huge national debt. Returning British soldiers, like veteran of the Battle of Waterloo John Lees, were now living not in the prosperity of victors, but in poverty. From Oldham, Lees returned to his trade as a co on spinner, but with drastically reduced wages. Lees was among the 60,000 people who protested in Manchester. Having survived the battle field, he lost his life at the hands of his own army – telling a friend that while at ‘Waterloo, there was man to man… at Manchester, it was downright murder.’

Political representation

With rising poverty and workers increasingly forced into industrial centres in and around Manchester, demands for the right to representation captured the attention of large numbers of ordinary people. Despite Manchester’s growing population, no MP solely represented the area. A demonstration was called, then postponed to Monday 16 August 1819 – which left more time for preparations. A huge effort was made, and each town had its own response. Oldham’s centrepiece was 200 women in white dresses bearing a banner of pure white silk, emblazoned with inscriptions including ‘Universal Suffrage’, ‘Annual Parliaments’ and ‘Election by Ballot’. They marched to Manchester through the moors – joining the Saddleworth group, whose banner was pitch black with the inscription ‘Equal Representation or Death’ written over two joined hands and a heart. These words were used by the magistrates to justify their actions after the massacre when they argued that the banner was evidence of revolutionary intent.

Samuel Bamford, the weaver and reform leader, wrote later of how the drilling of the Middleton contingent in the build-up to the demonstration meant that, on the day, every 100 men and women had a leader whose orders they were to obey. Each leader had a sprig of laurel in their hat as a ‘token of amity and peace’.

A peaceful protest, met with violence

On arriving in St Peter’s Field, an observer described ‘large bodies of men and women with bands playing and flags and banners… There were crowds of people in all directions, full of humour, laughing and shouting and making fun. It seemed to be a gala day with the country people, who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives..’

The crowds waited eagerly to hear Henry Hunt, the principal speaker. According to witnesses, tens of thousands of people were so tightly packed together in the square that ‘their hats seemed to touch’. Observing the scene from an overlooking building were the magistrates. After two hours, they gave orders for the protestors to be dispersed, with the reform leaders arrested. The recently-formed Manchester & Salford Yeomanry then drew their sabres and charged the crowd on horseback. The first victim was William Fildes, a two-year-old child who was thrust from his mother’s arms as she fled the cavalry.

Women at Peterloo

Historians have noted that women were disproportionately targeted at Peterloo. Their presence shocked the establishment, challenging prevailing ideas of women as subservient and domesticated wives. While the reform movement called for the vote for men (under the slogan ‘Universal Suffrage’), women were beginning to organise and even lead from within the movement, with female reform groups emerging across Lancashire. 

The most prominent woman on the day was Mary Fildes, President of the Manchester Female Reform Society, who stood on the stage next to Hunt. When the yeomanry attacked, she was slashed across her body and seriously wounded. Fildes later became involved in the emerging Chartist movement, which campaigned for political rights and influence for the working classes.


The British government was keen to cover up the massacre, imprisoning the reform leaders and clamping down on those who spoke out. Within days, the attack was being reported nationally and internationally – but with the implementation of the new Six Acts legislation, it became extremely dangerous to publish anything that discussed the events. Tax on newspapers was increased; the cost went up and working-class people were less able to read them. In response, Percy Bysshe Shelley penned the poem The Masque of Anarchy, powerfully indicting those who were accountable. With the threat of imprisonment hanging over radicals, Shelley couldn’t find a publisher brave enough to print his words. It was only in 1832, a decade after Shelley’s death, that the poem was published.

For more information on The Anvil see.

Image Credit: Commemorative glass of Peterloo Massacre, 1819, Peoples History Musuem.

End of article.