Q&A: What was the Peterloo massacre and why is it important?

Protest in which 18 were killed led to political reform and foundation of Guardian newspaper

Alicia Turner as Sarah and Maxine Peak as Nellie in a scene from Mike Leigh’s 2018 film, Peterloo. Photograph: Amazon Studios.

Alicia Turner as Sarah and Maxine Peak as Nellie in a scene from Mike Leigh’s 2018 film, Peterloo. Photograph: Amazon Studios.

 

What was the Peterloo Massacre and how many were killed?

On August 16th, 1819, up to 60,000 working class people from the towns and villages of what is now Greater Manchester marched to St Peter’s Field in central Manchester to demand political representation. Their peaceful protest turned bloody when Manchester magistrates ordered Yeoman – a private militia paid for by rich locals – to storm the crowd with sabres.

Most historians agree that 14 people were definitely killed in the massacre – 15 if you include the unborn child of Elizabeth Gaunt, killed in the womb after she was beaten by constables in custody. A further three named people are believed to have either been stabbed or trampled to death.

Why is it called Peterloo?

The name was first coined five days after the massacre by James Wroe, editor of the Manchester Observer, the city’s first radical newspaper (no relation to the Observer of today). According to historian Robert Poole, Peterloo was “a bitter pun, comparing the cowardly attacks by the Yeomanry and soldiers on unarmed civilians to the brutality suffered at Waterloo”.

What did the protesters want?

They wanted political reform. The years leading up to Peterloo had been tough for working class people and they wanted a voice in parliament to put their needs and wants on the political agenda, inspired by the French Revolution across the Channel. Machines had begun to take jobs in the lucrative cotton industry but periodic trade slumps closed factories at short notice, putting workers out on the street. The Napoleonic Wars, which ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo, had taken a heavy toll on the nation’s finances, and 350,000 ex-servicemen returned home needing jobs and food. Yet those in power seemed more interested in lining their own pockets than helping the poor.

At that point, only the richest landowners could vote, and large swathes of the country were not represented in Westminster. Manchester and Salford, which then had a population of 150,000, had no MP, yet Oxford and Cambridge Universities had their own representation. At the time the extension of the vote to all men, let alone women, was actively opposed by many who thought the vote should be restricted to those of influence and means.

Why is Peterloo important?

It paved the way for parliamentary democracy and particularly the Great Reform Act of 1832 which created new parliamentary seats, particularly in the industrial towns of the north of England. It also led to the establishment two years later of the Manchester Guardian by John Edward Taylor, a 28-year-old English journalist who was present at the massacre and saw how the “establishment” media sought to discredit the protesters. – Guardian

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