Cowardly massacre of the innocent at Peterloo: Robert Poole’s scholarly new book delves into the bloodiest event on English soil in the 19th century
- Peterloo was the bloodiest event on English soil in the 19th century
- On August 16, 1819, 40,000 people gathered in Manchester to hear speeches
- Without provocation they were attacked by the Manchester Yeomanry
Peterloo: The English Uprising
by Robert Poole (OUP £25, 480pp)
Peterloo: The English Uprising by Robert Poole (OUP £25, 480pp)
Peterloo was the bloodiest event on English soil in the 19th century. On August 16, 1819, more than 40,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field, an open space in central Manchester, to hear speeches in favour of parliamentary reform.
Without provocation, they were attacked by the Manchester Yeomanry and then ridden down by the troops of the 15th Hussars.
Eighteen people died. Nearly 700 were injured. One man had his nose sliced cleanly off by a sabre, another his ear, which he took home in his pocket.
This was a massacre and, on its bicentenary, it should be remembered. Although the earlier chapters of Robert Poole’s scholarly new book may be too detailed for the general reader, his description of the events on the actual day is gripping and deserves a wide readership.
The 1810s were years of great economic hardship for the workers of Manchester. They pinned their hopes for improvement on reform of Parliament, and the man whom tens of thousands had come to hear that day was the most famous advocate of reform.
Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt was a gentleman farmer, but he was also a mesmerising public speaker and one of the few men ‘whose lungs were powerful enough to reach to the fringes of a large outdoor meeting’.
To many of the workers he was an inspiration, and his journey through the Manchester streets to St Peter’s Field was like a royal progress — but to the local magistrates he was a nightmare made flesh. ‘Some alarming insurrection is in contemplation,’ they had written to the Home Secretary some days earlier.
The crowd was peaceful and had obeyed Hunt’s instruction to come ‘armed with no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience’. But the magistrates feared imminent revolution.
In an act of unbelievable folly, they issued a warrant for Hunt’s arrest, which was handed to Joseph Nadin, the brutal, much-feared deputy-constable of the town. Nadin was no coward, but he could see the crowds between him and Hunt. He said he could not carry out the arrest without military assistance.
Word was sent to the troops of the Manchester Yeomanry, who were waiting in a street off St Peter’s Field. The captains ordered their men to draw their swords. ‘They then spurred their horses and galloped furiously off . . . as though they were mad.’
Some of the Yeomanry were visibly the worse for alcohol. One ‘could hardly sit on his horse, he was so drunk’.
In Poole’s words, they already ‘had blood on their hooves’: en route they had knocked over a young mother carrying her two-year-old child in her arms. The boy died later that day. As the Yeomanry tried to open a path so Nadin could reach Hunt, chaos erupted.
A scene from the 2018 Peterloo film, based on the events that occurred in Manchester in 1819
‘I saw the cavalry charge forward, sword in hand, upon the multitude,’ a journalist later reported.
‘The woeful cry of dismay sent forth on all sides, the awful rush of so vast a living mass, the piercing shrieks of the women, and the deep moanings and execrations of the men.’
The Yeomanry began to panic. The 15th Hussars were now ordered by the magistrates to disperse the ‘mob’ and rescue the Yeomanry. The pandemonium worsened. ‘The people were thrown down by hundreds and galloped over,’ a reporter wrote.
Within minutes, a peaceful demonstration had become a battlefield. Over it ‘were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls and shoes . . . trampled, torn and bloody’.
According to the reformer Samuel Bamford: ‘Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these were still groaning — others with staring eyes were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more.’
As Robert Poole notes, it is still possible to be angry about Peterloo two centuries later.
‘This was not a clumsy exercise in crowd control; it was an atrocity which requires explanation.’
His book does just that, throwing light on exactly how the day’s terrible events were allowed to happen.
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