16 August 1819, a protest rally of 60 – 80.000 people assembled on St Petersfield in Manchester, demonstrating against the newly introduced Corn Laws and demanding a reform of parliamentary representation, was bludgeoned down by the local yeomanry and the Army, causing the death of 15 and at least 400 men, women and children wounded, later known as the “Peterloo Massacre” in ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo, where veterans on both sides had fought.
“Stand ye calm and resolute, / Like a forest close and mute, / With folded arms and looks which are / Weapons of unvanquished war, // And that slaughter to the Nation / Shall steam up like inspiration, / Eloquent, oracular; / A volcano heard afar. // Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number, / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you- / Ye are many - they are few." (Percy Bysshe Shelley, “The Masque of Anarchy”)
|Richard Carlisle's illustration of the event from 1820|
With a steady rise of grain production after the long war ended in 1815, British landowners saw their profit in grave danger, as cheaper imports from the continent flooded the market. Forming the majority in both houses of Parliament, they passed the Importation Act already in the same year, fining grain imports with a punitive duty to raise bread prices even higher than they were during the war, with the somewhat constructed argument that a lower bread price would erode British buying power, while a high bread price ensured high wages for factory workers. Riots in London were the immediate result, since the labourers’ infamously low wages were rather not adjusted.
|George Cruikshank (1792 - 1878): "The Blessings of Peace or the Curse of the Corn Bill (1815)|
With an election system that preferred the squirearchy since it did not account for the rural exodus and gave landlords the same representation in the House of Commons as their ancestors had before the Industrial Revolution, their seat was often based on the votes of the few people still living in their pocket or “rotten” borough and those few were over and above subject to eviction if they chose to be of a different opinion – ballot voting was not common before 1832. The situation seethed and often erupted in violence, to be put down by the yeomanry, provided for by the landed gentry, and the regular army. Another executive authority did not exist until Sir Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. And despite the ambitious goal, rather withdrawn from earthly concern, to keep wages low and profits and prices high to ensure common economic growth, conditions were abysmal in 1819 and combined with a rather selective suffrage, political radicalism was appealing to many and radical orators like Henry Hunt enjoyed a large clientele. A large meeting was planned in Manchester for early August, among the demands was the insistence that at least somebody should represent the roughly 90.000 people living and working in “Cottonopolis” in the House of Commons at all. And while the crowd drilled for the assembly to be run in “Cleanliness, Sobriety, Order and Peace" and prohibiting any kind of weapons to be carried, the authorities began to concentrate troops to counter them, yeomanry, line infantry, cavalry and artillery, about 800 men.
|"Dreadful Scene at Manchester Meeting of Reformers Augt. 16. 1819" - contemporary newspaper illustration that gives an idea of the event's proportions|
Henry Hunt was scheduled to address the assembly that gathered clean, sober, orderly, peaceful and without weapons all morning at 1:15 pm, a meeting that must have included at least half of all the people living in Manchester and its surroundings. Hunt spoke for 10 minutes, when William Hulton, chairman of the magistrates, decided he’d had it, wrote warrants for Hunt and other ringleaders and ordered the yeomanry and the army to disband the assembly and arrest them. The yeomanry arrived there first and was met with a hail of stones while trying to get through to Hunt. Then Hulton urged Lieutenant Colonel L’Estrange to do something about it, since his precious yeomanry was under attack. L’Estrange drew up his command, the 15th King’s Regiment of Light Dragoons, with battle honours from Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign and Waterloo, in a long line, ordered sabres drawn and charged the crowd, while the 88th Regiment of Foot, likewise Peninsula veterans, blocked the main escape route for the people assembled with bayonets fixed. Peace was finally established the next morning.
While Home Secretary Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth, explicitly commended the authorities’ approach, most of the country was shocked and outraged over the outcome of the Peterloo Massacre, as it was dubbed by James Wroe, editor of the “Manchester Observer”, shortly after the events and the according article resulted in a shut-down of the newspaper and resulted in the founding of the (Manchester) “Guardian” in 1821.