Due to fierce competition from cheap imported foreign
corn in the early 19th century, wealthy and influential gentlemen farmers
had lobbied the ruling parliamentary party, the Tories, to prohibit
their import by the imposition of Corn Laws in 1815. With this monopoly
in place, British corn rose to prohibitive prices, making it impossible
for the poor to buy bread.
The Corn Laws were seen by ordinary people as a symbol of the dominant
ruling aristocracy's feudal power over them, and of the suppliers' unashamed
self interest, at the cost of their staple food. Protests by Lancashire
millworkers at the imposition of such severe measures soon grew.
Left to Right: The Free Trade Hall, now Edwardian
Hotel;Richard Cobden & John Bright; a
contemporary illustration of the Peterloo Massacre .
In September 1838, mill owners and local politicians
joined protesters in the formation of an Anti-Corn Law League, at the
York Hotel in King Street, Manchester, with George Wilson as its chairman.
Support grew so fast that a temporary wooden hall was built in St Peters
Street to hold protest meetings - it became known as the Free Trade
Hall. Later a stone building replaced this original wooden one. Two
major figures emerged as leaders of the Anti-Corn Law movement, Richard
Cobden , a Bolton calico manufacturer, and John
Bright, a Rochdale mill-owner and a Quaker.
Cobden and Bright, both persuasive orators with powerful local backing,
Prentice, radical editor of the Manchester Times newspaper), succeeded
in getting elected to parliament, (Cobden - MP for Stockport in 1841)
where they constantly lobbied and harassed the Prime Minister, Sir Robert
Peel (born in Bury).
Peel, under severe pressure from the League and its growing band of
ever more powerful supporters, repealed the Corn Laws in 1846, thereby
splitting the Tory party, and effectively ending his own political career
in the process. Manchester would, henceforth be associated with the
principle of Free Trade. The Free Trade Hall, the third and now a fine
permanent stone building, was built later as a monument to honour the
By the early 19th century, despite its massive growth,
Manchester had no real political representation - most parliamentary
places were held by local gentry in surrounding suburbs, who had little
or no political interest. Many of these 'constituencies' comprised no
more than a half dozen houses. The vast majority of Manchester people
had no voice, and were not represented in parliament. Many educated
businessmen of the region thought it high time that the political system
should be reformed so as to be more representative of the contemporary
demography - most constituencies and boundaries had been drawn over
400 years earlier, and bore little resemblance to actual population
distribution at the time.
The Reform Movement had begun as early as 1790, when the Manchester
Constitutional Society had been formed, under the leadership of Thomas
Walker. This "radical" movement was deeply suspected and opposed by
local churchmen and magistrates, largely conservative in their attitudes,
and in privileged positions, who were generally satisfied with the way
A public reform meeting was called, to be held on
Monday 16th August 1819 in St Peters Fields (now St Peters Street),
as there was no building thought big enough to hold the anticipated
crowd. Henry Hunt, a national
reform leader, and noted orator who had spoken elsewhere that year,
was to address the crowd. Estimates put the crowd at variously 30,000
and 150,000 people - in any case, we can be certain that there were
more people present than Manchester had ever seen in one place before.
Disturbed such large crowds, magistrates called in local militia to
Plaque on the former Free Trade Hall marking
the site of the Peterloo Massacre. Photo copyright © 2010 Gloria
Some 1500 troops assembled, comprising the 15th Hussars
(professional soldiers) and soldiers of the Manchester and Cheshire
Yeomen Cavalry (a largely volunteer force), commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel
Guy L'Estrange. Magistrates, fearing insurrection and riots, ordered
Hunt and other leaders to be arrested before they could speak, though
the meeting had been thus-far peaceful and orderly. Inadvertently a
mounted solder brushed and knocked down a mother, killing the child
she was carrying, and panic ensued.
Magistrates, and the troop commander, misread what appeared to be a
riotous outbreak, and ordered Yeomanry, who were standing ready just
off Portland Street, to go in to break up the affray.
The armed cavalry, sabres drawn, charged the crowd, cutting people down
indiscriminately. Men, women and children were hacked down or trampled
by horses or people in flight. After ten minutes of havoc and slaughter,
the field was deserted except for the broken hustings platform, bodies
of the dead, wounded and dying. A soldier of the Yeomanry company, who
had fought at Waterloo in 1815, likened the carnage to that battlefield,
and the term "Peterloo" took hold, and survives as an historic event
After news of the massacre spread across Britain, local authorities
clamped down on all public meetings, in breech of all laws to the contrary,
and took severe measures to ensure public order. It had been arguably
the most important day in Manchester's political history. Rumours spread
that the attack had been planned and may possibly have been ordered,
well in advance of the event, by the government in London.
"...a few broken and hewed
flag-staves, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping...
whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls
and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn and bloody..."
Samuel Bamford, Peterloo eyewitness.
Fears of the recent French Revolution permeated British
political awareness to such an extent, that the authorities were paranoiac
in case ordinary people followed the French example - local authorities
had been ordered to stamp out any risk at source and summarily. Another
viewpoint blames bystanders throwing stones provocatively at the troops.
Debates on the causes of the Massacre continue. Meanwhile, Hunt and
the other Peterloo leaders had been incarcerated in Lancaster Castle
prison. Thousands of supporters lined the streets when, after being
released on bail, Hunt made the return trip to Manchester. Hunt had
always insisted on peaceful and legal means to achieve political change,
despite being urged to armed protest by many of his supporters.
The Peterloo Massacre successfully stifled Manchester's bid for reform
for a decade. Stinging from the attack for many years to come, political
meetings henceforth moved into the surrounding towns of Oldham, Stockport
and Blackburn, where the predominance of millworkers saw many eager
to join the movement, and though somewhat muted for a time, the movement
gradually grew - most popular amongst the unenfranchised working people
of Northern England.
It was not to be until the 1830s and '40s that parliamentary reform
could be fully resurrected in Manchester. The Chartist Movement, begun
in London, but taken up eagerly and pioneered in Manchester, was also
a growing force.
Chartists wanted universal suffrage for all men, secret ballots and
annual elections. Political reform was in the air and the people of
Manchester and the numerous spinning and weaving towns surrounding it,
were at the vanguard of the movement.
A Chartist meeting was held at Kersal Moor in September 1838, despite
the Peterloo Massacre, and a second at the same site in May 1839. Another
was held at the Griffin Inn in Great Ancoats Street in July 1840, and
6 other meetings in Lancashire in 1841.
The Chartist Movement dominated British politics in the 1840s, and Manchester
had been the flashpoint for the chain reaction which it caused, and
for the eventual political reforms which were brought about through
the constant efforts of its supporters.
Sources: See Bibliography
- Books about Manchester