‘PETERLOO’ - ENGLAND’S TIANANMEN SQUARE!

The massacre of protesting students and others in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 is unlikely to be forgotten, but it certainly was not a unique event. On August 16th 1819, a crowd of 60,000 men, women and children was charged by mounted cavalry, leaving 15 dead and about 650 injured. The establishment of the day from the Prince Regent, the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, the local magistrates and the military claimed a seditious and violent mob had been contained. It happened in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester and it has come down in history as the Peterloo Massacre.

Life at this time for the working classes was not easy. After the end of the Napoleonic wars there was much unemployment, the Corn Laws were responsible for price rises and the working classes had no representation in Parliament. There had been several protests calling for universal suffrage and other reforms before Peterloo. The establishment had concerns about several things: the role of women and Methodism, because of its affinity with the poor, were just two of them. In Lancashire women had established their own reform societies, the first being the Blackburn Female Reform Society, chaired by Mrs Alice Kitchen. These women faced much public hostility. The other so-called hotbed of sedition was the Methodist Sunday Schools where children were taught to read and write. Some of them later became preachers. A key figure in Methodist protest was Dr Joseph Healey who organised several marches. These were lively events with marchers dressing up in their Sunday best and singing rousing hymns as they marched.

The march to St Peter’s Fields was a big one, drawing folk from the industrial towns across Lancashire. The marchers had done all they could to make clear the peaceful intentions. One in eight of the marchers were women dressed in white, their accompanying menfolk in their Sunday best, They carried silk banners, they sang hymns and folk songs. They were looking forward to hearing some famous speakers who would address the crowd on their arrival, one in particular Henry (Orator) Hunt, and they were well drilled and orderly. This was to indicate to the authorities that they were well disciplined and not a disorderly rabble. Sadly the authorities did not perceive this. For some time the activities of protesters had been carefully monitored by the establishment and plans were undoubtedly laid. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry had been formed for just such an occasion as the St Peter’s Fields march and on this day they were backed up by the Hussars with their freshly sharpened sabres. The result was carnage. The injured were trampled by the horses as well as receiving sabre blows - it was indeed a massacre!

The local magistrates immediately claimed that they had put down an insurrection and the organisers of the march were accused of high treason and imprisoned. Any journalists present were also arrested and any others who reported on the events shared the same fate. The organisers and leaders of the march, including Hunt, were also imprisoned, but it did not end there. The paranoid establishment went on to pass the Six Acts bringing about a legal crackdown on press and public freedoms. Any meetings on church or state matters of more than 50 persons had to obtain permission from a sheriff or magistrate and publication laws become more oppressive. Fortunately there were folk who were prepared to come out and condemn the events in Manchester. Literary figures such as the poet Shelley and prominent figures who had observed the massacre were prepared to speak out in print. A weapon in their armoury was the use of satire which their targets could do little to contest. William Hone produced a piece entitled "The Political House that Jack Built and employed the cartoonist George Cruikshank to illustrate it and no punches were pulled! The term ‘Peterloo’ was coined by the editor of the Manchester Observer, James Wroe, a combination of Peter’s Fields and Waterloo. The outrage across the country at the events that day turned the tide of public opinion and eventually the Great Reform Bill was passed in 1832 which rooted out the most blatant corruption in the electoral process. Universal suffrage was longer in coming, the first Representation of the Peoples Act was passed in 1918.

One witness at St Peters Fields was a cotton merchant with a social conscience and a political reformer and journalist who wrote for the Manchester Gazette. He had had his brushes with politicians of the day and had come out on top. In 1821, two years after the massacre, he founded his own newspaper. His name was John Edward Taylor and his newspaper was the Manchester Guardian. It was he, with some colleagues, who had written accounts of the massacre to send down to London by the night coach after the Times journalist John Tyas had been arrested. Their version was published within 48 hours of the event, getting ahead of the ‘official’ version. The first edition of the paper was published on May 5th 1821. In his first leader column he stated that his paper was "an enemy to scurrility and slander on either side". One hundred years later C. P. Scott went on to say that "the voices of opponents no less than friends have a right to be heard". In 1959 its name changed to ‘the Guardian’, but its ethos remains the same. It is owned by the Scott Trust which was created in 1936 to "secure the financial and editorial independence in perpetuity and to safeguard journalistic freedom and liberal values free from commercial or political interference". It is still going fairly strong, and in 2019, as in 1821, it is often not popular with the establishment!!

Barbara Hothersall