The Peterloo Massacre is a landmark event that happened in August 1819. Here are five must-know facts about Peterloo that will get you brownie points from your history teacher when the new academic term begins.
At that time, only very wealthy men who owned property were allowed to vote in elections. This meant that only a tiny proportion of the population had a say in the how the country was governed – less than 5%, in fact. What’s more, many ordinary people felt unhappy with the lack of representation in Parliament. The cities of Manchester and Salford, for example, had a population of over 150,000 people, but didn’t have their own MP to speak up on their behalf.
Don’t forget that this was also the era of the Industrial Revolution. Life had changed significantly for ordinary people in the last half century or so – and rarely for the better. There had been crop failures, too, which affected food prices and availability, as well as an expensive war against Napoleon.
Feeling angry about the social situation and their lack of political rights, around 60,000 working-class people from in and around Manchester marched to an area in the city called St. Peter’s Fields. Their demands were simple: they wanted the vote for every man, regardless of income, elections to be held every year, and a secret ballot, meaning that nobody knew who an individual voted for.
Although the protesters were peaceful, local magistrates were terrified by their numbers. So terrified, in fact, that they shouted from nearby windows for the protestors to disperse and go home. The problem was that hardly anybody heard their demands; the crowd was far too big. The magistrates then took the radical step of calling in the Army to arrest the leader, Henry Hunt, and physically remove the protestors.
Once the Army arrived, it took only minutes for the peaceful scene to descend into a bloodbath. The soldiers, many of whom were on horseback, were well-armed, and the innocent protestors were no match for them. Historians estimate that there were 18 deaths at Peterloo, including the tragic death of an unborn child. There were also more than 650 injured.
You’ve probably heard of the famous battle that Britain fought against Napoleon in 1815: the Battle of Waterloo. Like Waterloo, the protest at St. Peter’s Field was violent and bloody, so journalists quickly nicknamed the protest the “Peterloo Massacre.”
Although it ultimately failed in its mission to bring about better political representation, Peterloo brought this issue to public attention and is remembered today as the beginning of the suffrage movement.
Kaye Jones is a teacher and freelance writer, with a passion for history and education.