By Karyn Pomerantz, August 2019
On August 16, 1819, 60,000 men, women, and children gathered in St. Peter’s Field in the heavily industrial city of Manchester, England to demand political representation and better living conditions. It was the most massive assembly to have taken place at the time, amounting to roughly half the population of Manchester. Wearing their Sunday best and accompanied by musicians, they carried banners and signs calling for liberty, a parliament of the people and repeal of the Corn Laws. It was a peaceful, celebratory, yet emphatic crowd: little did they expect the brutal response of their “own” government. However, the ruling class was terrified of insurrection that would topple them from power, as had the French Revolution 30 years earlier. No sooner had the speeches begun than the rulers sent in the British cavalry, backed up by local volunteer militias, to strike them down, disperse the crowd, and arrest the leaders. The sabre-wielding forces wantonly murdered 18 men, women, and children, and injured 650. This pivotal incident became known as the Peterloo Massacre, and this year marks its bicentenary.
As Mike Leigh, director of the film, Peterloo, writes about its continuing significance:“Despite the spread of universal suffrage across large parts of the globe, poverty, inequality, suppression of press freedom, indiscriminate surveillance, and attacks on legitimate protest by brutal regimes are all on the rise… Peterloo is of seminal importance.” This article looks back on the events of 1819 and the lessons they hold for us today. It draws on the book, Peterloo by Jacqueline Riding and the film by Mike Leigh, as well as the contemporaneous commentary of several leaders and participants.
Economic and Political Conditions
In the early 19th Century, the British working class suffered severe deprivation due to excessive taxation, harsh labor conditions and high unemployment. Britain and France had been embroiled in a series of wars around the globe that exacted a tremendous cost in lives and depleted public coffers. Britain had passed the Enclosure Acts that privatized farm and grazing land, removing a source of livelihood and household food supply for families who depended on the land. This drove many people in the countryside to seek manufacturing jobs in cities such as Manchester where Britain’s capitalists established textile factories. The factories employed men, women, and young children who were obliged to work 14-16 hours a day under toxic conditions, operating dangerous machinery, with few breaks and little food.
In 1815, Parliament passed the so-called Corn Laws that banned the importation of cheap foreign grain, artificially inflating the price of domestic wheat. This was designed to boost profits for British landowners—those represented in Parliament—but at the same time resulted in widespread food scarcity, starvation, and unemployment. Since workers were now forced to spend most of their scant wages just to buy bread, there was little money left for anything else. Reduced demand for manufactured goods led to lay-offs, even as increased mechanization was already decreasing the need for manual labor and driving up unemployment.
Angered that only wealthy property owners were entitled to vote, be represented in Parliament, and serve in government positions, the middle and working classes organized for greater democracy, creating a group known as the Reformers. Given social norms at the time, the Reformers were predominantly male, but women in some northern towns were organized by Alice Kitchen and Mary Fildes into Female Reform Societies to support the demand for male voting rights and political reforms. The women attended meetings with men and held separate gatherings as well. The more radical men welcomed the formation of female reform.
In 1789, the French Revolution overthrew the monarchy of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie (“let them eat cake”) Antoinette. In 1792, a slave rebellion led by Touissant L’Ouverture forced the French to outlaw slavery in what is now Haiti, and in 1804, revolutionary forces under former slave Jean-Jacques Dessalines routed Napoleon’s army and won Haitian independence from French colonial rule. These cataclysmic events inspired people throughout the world while striking fear in the hearts of the ruling elite and slave owners in Britain and the U.S.
The effects of foreign wars, internal rebellions, economic hardship, and increasing political repression are all factors that spawned political unrest in Manchester and northern England during the early 19th Century.
Demands and Strategies
The Reformers demanded representation in government through the vote, safer working conditions, repeal of the Corn Laws, and an end to foreign wars. In addition, women led the fight for female suffrage. The organizers used petition campaigns involving thousands of signers and mass mobilizations or “meetings” of tens of thousands of people to deliver their demands to local magistrates and Parliament. They depended on building a mass movement of people from a wide geographic area surrounding Manchester representing a diverse group of people; entire families often participated. People marched to the “meeting” sites carrying banners representing their towns and signs identifying their demands, such as Liberty or Death and Universal Suffrage. They wore their finest clothes despite the distances and rough terrain they traveled by foot. Leaders prepared them with drills in nearby fields, attracting new marchers.
Most participants believed in reform, not radical or revolutionary change as in France. They trusted the government and never considered that its armed forces would attack them or even refuse their demands. A smaller group led by Bagguley, Stamford, Johnston, and Healey had no faith in the system or its rulers. They believed victory required militant action and armed themselves and fellow marchers with stones and guns. They knew the magistrates recruited volunteer and professional armed forces to suppress demonstrations and did not want to leave people defenseless. These differences in goals and tactics created tension among the leadership. Henry Hunt, known as the “Orator” for his powerful speeches, was a charismatic leader of the moderate Reformers who enlisted him to speak at the Peterloo rally. He believed his speeches could secure concessions and threatened to withdraw his leadership if the marchers did not adhere to non-violence. He went so far as to approve clearing the fields of all rocks that could be used to defend against the military.
The leadership of the protests — Hunt, Bagguley, Bamford, Johnston, and Stafford — had strategies that ranged from militant, armed opposition to pacifist appeals to the magistrates. Bamford strongly argued for arming the marchers to defend themselves but caved in to Hunt’s insistence on pacifism because he relied on the Orator’s fame and popularity to draw large crowds.
Hunt was a wealthy landowner and businessman. He never worked in the factories or fields of England but became outraged by the lack of representation of the weavers, farmers, and others in the country. He joined the Reformers and became one of their major leaders. Although an ardent believer in the cause, he could not shake the paternalism of his class: in his vanity and arrogance he ignored the opinions and concerns of the people he represented, believing that he knew best.. Arriving in Manchester for the rally, he threatened to leave when he found it had been postponed a week and treated other organizers with disdain. He demanded to be the sole speaker at the demonstration and when he witnessed the attacks by soldiers from the podium, he continued speaking as if the sound of his oratory would quell the chaos, offering no strategic leadership to the panicked throng frantically fleeing horses hooves and sabre blows. Soldiers ultimately swept him off the stage, beat him, and dragged him to jail. The court sentenced him to a two-year prison term, where he continued to write and organize and build his cult of personality.
Women’s Involvement and Leadership
Women played a powerful role before, during, and after Peterloo. They organized their own reform associations, held meetings, and demanded equality for women in political and domestic arenas. Government loyalists treated the women as pariahs, characterizing the activists as “whores” and “descendants of witches”; a reporter referred to Mary Fildes as an “Amazon” who did not fulfill the traditional role of women. A political cartoon of women addressing the crowd at Peterloo depicted them with large breasts holding long poles between their legs.
Within the reform movement, some men disparaged them and rejected their leadership. Others, however, decried the disparities in the status and treatment of women and welcomed them to their meetings. Bagguley wrote:“…it seems too long that the female part of the nation has been kept in a state of slavish inferiority…”Hunt invited Fildes to ride into Manchester in his coach and join him on the platform (although not to speak), defending her right to accompany him despite protests by male reformers.
Armed troops dragged Fildes from the podium and struck her with their swords. She survived and went into hiding to avoid arrest. Other women fought back and were mercilessly attacked. Eyewitnesses at Peterloo acclaimed their courage and commitment, reporting that the troops attacked women with the greatest ferocity.
The courts tried and jailed many leaders of the Peterloo rally. The brutal suppression of a peaceful protest and murder and wounding ofwomen and children especially shocked the general public and even some of the elite. Nonetheless, in the immediate aftermath there was severe government repression with laws limiting the number of people at gatherings, prohibiting meetings, criminalizing criticism of the state, and charging exorbitant taxes on newspapers. Nonetheless, reformers persisted. The Chartist movement was launched in 1838 to press for electoral reforms, and over the years held successive national conventions and petitioned Parliament (in one instance, collecting six million signatures). Despite the failure of Chartism per se, the movement inspired eventual political change. In 1846, the state reduced the taxes in the Corn Laws and repealed it in 1849. All men—not just property owners—and a select group of women won the vote after WWI, in 1918. A legacy of the Female Reform Society was the suffragist movement that finally won the vote for all women over the age of 21, regardless of status or education, in 1928.
The reform movement mobilized tens of thousands of people: farmers, laborers, factory workers, city dwellers and those living in the countryside. True to their name, the Reformers pressed the monarchy and its local magistrates to change the rules of the system by granting the middle and working classes greater participation and representation in government. At the other end of the spectrum, the radicals believed that a wholesale overthrow of the government was the only way to achieve these ends.
Peterloo holds many lessons for us and also represents many mistakes of reform movements.
The Peterloo organizers relied on masses of ordinary people to protest. They arranged forums for thousands of people to discuss demands and strategies, taking time to listen to and convince people to join the movement. They did not rely on politicians to enact change. Nonetheless, they did have faith in the government to listen to their arguments and demands and refrain from attacking them. These assumptions made them more vulnerable to the severe repression and brutality they suffered.
The Peterloo experience demonstrates the power of the state. The monarchy and the Parliament served the needs of the English capitalists who owned the mills and the land. The Corn Laws were passed to serve the narrow business interests of the landowners who dominated the seats in Parliament. At the same time, the state took preemptive measures to guard against rebellion. In 1817, they approved the Suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus, which allowed the state to arrest and detain people without charge. In 1819, Parliament made it illegal to hold meetings and gatherings deemed “seditious”—meaning any assembly that counted more than 50 people. They imposed an onerous tax on newspapers and print publications to inhibit the flow of information. These laws enraged and emboldened the radicals.
Internal divisions also weaken movements. In the Reform movement, members disagreed over the role of violence and the participation of women. Excluding the use of weapons left the crowd vulnerable to violent suppression. Women proved instrumental in involving other women and their families, and demonstrated militancy as they confronted troops to rescue people under attack at the demonstration.
Today we face many of the problems Peterloo protestors faced, such as increasing unemployment, dangerous working conditions, and trade policies that increase the price of goods. Despite the ultimate repeal of repressive legislation and the passage of voting rights and electoral reform laws in Western “democracies” in the years since Peterloo, we find ourselves still battling exploitation, discrimination, and inequality. We cannot let ourselves be lulled into believing that any reform or “lesser evil” politician will be able to eliminate what are essential features of capitalism: imperial conquest, exploitation of labor, povertyand racism. The only solution is through a militant, inclusive movement that aims to abolish the capitalist system. The crumbs of reform will never be enough to nourish a fair, just, equitable society.
Commemorate Peterloo and the lessons it gives us on its 200th anniversary!