In March 1819, Joseph Johnson, John Knight and James Wroe formed the Manchester Patriotic Union Society. All the leading radicals in Manchester joined the organisation. Johnson was appointed secretary and Wroe became treasurer. The main objective of this new organisation was to obtain parliamentary reform and during the summer of 1819 it was decided to invite Major John Cartwright, Henry Orator Hunt and Richard Carlile to speak at a public meeting in Manchester. The men were told that this was to be "a meeting of the county of Lancashire, than of Manchester alone. I think by good management the largest assembly may be procured that was ever seen in this country." Cartwright was unable to attend but Hunt and Carlile agreed and the meeting was arranged to take place at St. Peter's Field on 16th August. (1)
Samuel Bamford, a handloom weaver, walked from Middleton to be at the meeting that day: "Every hundred men had a leader, who was distinguished by a spring of laurel in his hat, and the whole were to obey the directions of the principal conductor, who took his place at the head of the column, with a bugleman to sound his orders. At the sound of the bugle not less than three thousand men formed a hollow square, with probably as many people around them, and I reminded them that they were going to attend the most important meeting that had ever been held for Parliamentary Reform. I also said that, in conformity with a rule of the committee, no sticks, nor weapons of any description, would be allowed to be carried. Only the oldest and most infirm amongst us were allowed to carry their walking staves. Our whole column, with the Rochdale people, would probably consist of six thousand men. At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them. A hundred of our handsomest girls, sweethearts to the lads who were with us, danced to the music. Thus accompanied by our friends and our dearest we went slowly towards Manchester." (2)
The local magistrates were concerned that such a substantial gathering of reformers might end in a riot. The magistrates therefore decided to arrange for a large number of soldiers to be in Manchester on the day of the meeting. This included four squadrons of cavalry of the 15th Hussars (600 men), several hundred infantrymen, the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry (400 men), a detachment of the Royal Horse Artillery and two six-pounder guns and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry (120 men) and all Manchester's special constables (400 men).
At about 11.00 a.m. on 16th August, 1819 William Hulton, the chairman, and nine other magistrates met at Mr. Buxton's house in Mount Street that overlooked St. Peter's Field. Although there was no trouble the magistrates became concerned by the growing size of the crowd. Estimations concerning the size of the crowd vary but Hulton came to the conclusion that there were at least 50,000 people in St. Peter's Field at midday. Hulton therefore took the decision to send Edward Clayton, the Boroughreeve and the special constables to clear a path through the crowd. The 400 special constables were therefore ordered to form two continuous lines between the hustings where the speeches were to take place, and Mr. Buxton's house where the magistrates were staying. (3)
The main speakers at the meeting arrived at 1.20 p.m. Mary Fildes sat beside Henry 'Orator' Hunt in his carriage. Two other female activists, Elizabeth Gaunt and Sarah Hargreaves remained in the carriage while Fildes and Hunt climbed onto the constructed platform. (4) It was arranged that Fildes was to present male leaders with the symbolic "cap of liberty", an emblem with Saxon as well as French connotations. Fildes also gave Hunt the "colours" of the Manchester Female Reform Society. It has been pointed out that William Cobbett patronisingly equated this action with the role of queens at jousts in blessing the participants. (5)
The people on the platform included Henry 'Orator' Hunt, Richard Carlile, John Knight, Joseph Johnson and Mary Fildes. Several of the newspaper reporters, including John Tyas of The Times, Edward Baines of the Leeds Mercury, John Smith of the Liverpool Mercury and John Saxton of the Manchester Observer, joined the speakers on the hustings.
At 1.30 p.m. the magistrates came to the conclusion that "the town was in great danger". William Hulton therefore decided to instruct Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, to arrest Henry Hunt and the other leaders of the demonstration. Nadin replied that this could not be done without the help of the military. Hulton then wrote two letters and sent them to Lieutenant Colonel L'Estrange, the commander of the military forces in Manchester and Major Thomas Trafford, the commander of the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry. (6)
Major Trafford, who was positioned only a few yards away at Pickford's Yard, was the first to receive the order to arrest the men. Major Trafford chose Captain Hugh Birley, his second-in-command, to carry out the order. Local eyewitnesses claimed that most of the sixty men who Birley led into St. Peter's Field were drunk. Birley later insisted that the troop's erratic behaviour was caused by the horses being afraid of the crowd. (7)
The Manchester & Salford Yeomanry entered St. Peter's Field along the path cleared by the special constables. As the yeomanry moved closer to the hustings, members of the crowd began to link arms to stop them arresting Henry Hunt and the other leaders. Others attempted to close the pathway that had been created by the special constables. Some of the yeomanry now began to use their sabres to cut their way through the crowd.
When Captain Hugh Birley and his men reached the hustings they arrested Henry Hunt, John Knight, Joseph Johnson, George Swift, John Saxton, John Tyas, John Moorhouse and Robert Wild. As well as the speakers and the organisers of the meeting, Birley also arrested the newspaper reporters on the hustings. John Edward Taylor reported: "A comparatively undisciplined body, led on by officers who had never had any experience in military affairs, and probably all under the influence both of personal fear and considerable political feeling of hostility, could not be expected to act either with coolness or discrimination; and accordingly, men, women, and children, constables, and Reformers, were equally exposed to their attacks." (8)
Samuel Bamford was another one in the crowd who witnessed the attack on the crowd: "The cavalry were in confusion; they evidently could not, with the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings; and their sabres were plied to cut a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads... On the breaking of the crowd the yeomanry wheeled, and, dashing whenever there was an opening, they followed, pressing and wounding. Women and tender youths were indiscriminately sabred or trampled... A young married woman of our party, with her face all bloody, her hair streaming about her, her bonnet hanging by the string, and her apron weighed with stones, kept her assailant at bay until she fell backwards and was near being taken; but she got away covered with severe bruises. In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody. Several mounds of human flesh still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe again." (9)
Lieutenant Colonel L'Estrange reported to William Hulton at 1.50 p.m. When he asked Hulton what was happening he replied: "Good God, Sir, don't you see they are attacking the Yeomanry? Disperse them." L'Estrange now ordered Lieutenant Jolliffe and the 15th Hussars to rescue the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry. By 2.00 p.m. the soldiers had cleared most of the crowd from St. Peter's Field. In the process, 18 people were killed and about 500, including 100 women, were wounded. (10)
It was claimed that the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry attempted to murder Mary Fildes while arresting the leaders of the demonstration. One eyewitness described how "Mrs. Fildes, hanging suspended by a nail which had caught her white dress, was slashed across her exposed body by one of the brave cavalry." The heavily pregnant woman, Elizabeth Gaunt was badly beaten and later thrown into the New Bailey Prison, where she was kept in solitary confinement and physically abused. (11)
Mary Fildes survived but at least 18 people were killed, of whom four were women. These were named as: Margaret Downes (sabred), Mary Heys (trampled by cavalry), Sarah Jones (truncheoned) and Martha Partington (crushed in a cellar). (12)
Although badly wounded Mary Fildes survived and continued her campaign for the vote. Fildes, who was living at 3 Comet Street, went into hiding for a fortnight to avoid imprisonment. Eventually she was awarded 40/- (£2) by the Peterloo Relief Fund. (13)
Mary Fildes survived but at least 18 people were killed, of whom four were women. These were named as: Margaret Downes (sabred), Mary Heys (trampled by cavalry), Sarah Jones (truncheoned) and Martha Partington (crushed in a cellar). (14)
Some historians have argued that Lord Liverpool, the prime minister, and Lord Sidmouth, his home secretary, were behind the Peterloo Massacre. However, Donald Read, the author of Peterloo: The Massacre and its Background (1958) disagrees with this interpretation: "Peterloo, as the evidence of the Home Office shows, was never desired or precipitated by the Liverpool Ministry as a bloody repressive gesture for keeping down the lower orders. If the Manchester magistrates had followed the spirit of Home Office policy there would never have been a massacre." (15)
E. P. Thompson disagrees with Read's analysis. He has looked at all the evidence available and concludes: "My opinion is (a) that the Manchester authorities certainly intended to employ force, (b) that Sidmouth knew - and assented to - their intention to arrest Hunt in the midst of the assembly and to disperse the crowd, but that he was unprepared for the violence with which this was effected." (16)
Richard Carlile managed to avoid being arrested and after being hidden by local radicals, he took the first mail coach to London. The following day placards for Sherwin's Political Register began appearing in London with the words: 'Horrid Massacres at Manchester'. A full report of the meeting appeared in the next edition of the newspaper. The authorities responded by raiding Carlile's shop in Fleet Street and confiscating his complete stock of newspapers and pamphlets. (17)
James Wroe was at the meeting and he described the attack on the crowd in the next edition of the Manchester Observer. Wroe is believed to be the first person to describe the incident as the Peterloo Massacre. Wroe also produced a series of pamphlets entitled The Peterloo Massacre: A Faithful Narrative of the Events. The pamphlets, which appeared for fourteen consecutive weeks from 28th August, price twopence, had a large circulation, and played an important role in the propaganda war against the authorities. Wroe, like Carlile, was later sent to prison for writing these accounts of the Peterloo Massacre. (18)
Moderate reformers in Manchester were appalled by the decisions of the magistrates and the behaviour of the soldiers. Several of them wrote accounts of what they had witnessed. Archibald Prentice sent his report to several London newspapers. When John Edward Taylor discovered that John Tyas of The Times, had been arrested and imprisoned, he feared that this was an attempt by the government to suppress news of the event. Taylor therefore sent his report to Thomas Barnes, the editor of the newspaper. The article that was highly critical of the magistrates and the yeomanry was published two days later. (19)
Tyas was released from prison. The Times mounted a campaign against the action of the magistrates at St. Peter's Field. In one editorial the newspaper told its readers "a hundred of the King's unarmed subjects have been sabred by a body of cavalry in the streets of a town of which most of them were inhabitants, and in the presence of those Magistrates whose sworn duty it is to protect and preserve the life of the meanest Englishmen." As these comments came from an establishment newspaper, the authorities found this criticism particularly damaging.
Other journalists at the meeting were not treated as well as Tyas. Richard Carlile wrote an article on the Peterloo Massacre in the next edition of The Republican. Carlile not only described how the military had charged the crowd but also criticised the government for its role in the incident. Under the seditious libel laws, it was offence to publish material that might encourage people to hate the government. The authorities also disapproved of Carlile publishing books by Tom Paine, including Age of Reason, a book that was extremely critical of the Church of England. In October 1819, Carlile was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel and was sentenced to three years in Dorchester Gaol. (20)
Carlile was also fined £1,500 and when he refused to pay, his Fleet Street offices were raided and his stock was confiscated. Carlile was determined not to be silenced. While he was in prison he continued to write material for The Republican, which was now being published by his wife. Due to the publicity created by Carlile's trial, the circulation of The Republican increased dramatically and was now outselling pro-government newspapers such as The Times. (21)
In the first trial of those people who attended the meeting at St. Peter's Field, the judge commented: "I believe you are a downright blackguard reformer. Some of you reformers ought to be hanged, and some of you are sure to be hanged - the rope is already round your necks." (22)
James Wroe was at the meeting and he described the attack on the crowd in the next edition of the Manchester Observer. Wroe is believed to be the first person to describe the incident as the Peterloo Massacre. Wroe also produced a series of pamphlets entitled The Peterloo Massacre: A Faithful Narrative of the Events. The pamphlets, which appeared for fourteen consecutive weeks from 28th August, price twopence, had a large circulation, and played an important role in the propaganda war against the authorities. The government wanted revenge and Wroe was arrested and charged with producing a seditious publication. He was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months in prison, plus a £100 fine. (23)
First were selected twelve of the most decent-looking youths, who were placed at the front, each with a branch of laurel held in his hand, as a token of peace; then the colours: a blue one of silk, with inscriptions in golden letters, 'Unity and Strength', 'Liberty and Fraternity'; a green one of silk, with golden letters, 'Parliaments Annual', 'Suffrage Universal'.
Every hundred men had a leader, who was distinguished by a spring of laurel in his hat, and the whole were to obey the directions of the principal conductor, who took his place at the head of the column, with a bugleman to sound his orders. At the sound of the bugle not less than three thousand men formed a hollow square, with probably as many people around them, and I reminded them that they were going to attend the most important meeting that had ever been held for Parliamentary Reform. I also said that, in conformity with a rule of the committee, no sticks, nor weapons of any description, would be allowed to be carried. Only the oldest and most infirm amongst us were allowed to carry their walking staves.
Our whole column, with the Rochdale people, would probably consist of six thousand men. At our head were a hundred or two of women, mostly young wives, and mine own was amongst them. A hundred of our handsomest girls, sweethearts to the lads who were with us, danced to the music. Thus accompanied by our friends and our dearest we went slowly towards Manchester.
The morning of the 16th of August came, and soon after nine o'clock the people began to assemble. From the windows of Mr. Baxter's house in Mosley-street, I saw the main body proceeding towards St. Peter's Field, and never saw a gayer spectacle. There were haggard-looking men certainly, but the majority were young persons, in their best Sunday's suits, and the light coloured dresses of the cheerful tidy-looking women relieved the effect of the dark fustians worn by the men. The "marching order," of which so much was said afterwards, was what we often see now in the processions of Sunday-school children and temperance societies. To our eyes the numerous flags seemed to have been brought to add to the picturesque effect of the pageant. Slowly and orderly the multitudes took their places round the hustings, which stood on a spot now included under the roof of the Free Trade Hall, near its south-east corner. Our company laughed at the fears of the magistrates, and the remark was, that if the men intended mischief they would not have brought their wives, their sisters, or their children with them. I passed round the outskirts of the meeting, and mingled with the groups that stood chatting there. I occasionally asked the women if they were not afraid to be there, and the usual laughing reply was - " What have we to be afraid of?" I saw Hunt arrive, and heard the shouts of the sixty thousand persons by whom he was enthusiastically welcomed, as the carriage in which he stood made its way through the dense crowd to the hustings. I proceeded to my dwelling-house in Salford, intending to return in about an hour or so to witness in what manner so large a meeting would separate. I had not been at home more than a quarter of an hour when a wailing sound was heard from the main street, and, rushing out, I saw people running in the direction of Pendleton, their faces pale as death, and some with blood trickling down their cheeks. It was with difficulty I could get any one to stop and tell me what had happened. The unarmed multitude, men, women, and children, had been attacked with murderous results by the military.
The magistrates had resolved, at the last moment, that Hunt, and the friends who accompanied him to the hustings, should be apprehended in the face of the meeting. It was a great assemblage, and, no doubt, they thought the capture of the ringleaders in the presence of sixty thousand persons would produce a salutary effect. There was abundance of force at hand to render resistance hopeless. The number of special constables had been greatly increased, two hundred additional having been sworn in for the occasion; a portion were stationed round the hustings, and another formed a line of communication thence to the house in which the magistrates were assembled, a distance of about a hundred yards. Near to the field, ready the moment their services were required, were six troops of the 15th Hussars, a troop of horse artillery, with two guns, the greater part of the 31st regiment of infantry, some companies of the 88th regiment, the Cheshire yeomanry; of between three and four hundred men, and the Manchester yeomanry, of about forty, the latter hot-headed young men, who had volunteered into that service from their intense hatred of radicalism.
When the Yeomanry arrived the greater part of the persons who were at the outskirts of the assembly on that side instantly ran away; but the main body remained compact and firm, and finding the soldiers halt under the houses, faced round and cheered them. But a few moments had elapsed, when some orders were given to the troops, and they instantly dashed at full gallop amongst the people, actually hacking their way up to the hustings. A cordon of special constables was drawn from the house occupied by the Magistrates towards the stage, and these fared as ill from the attacks of the soldiers as the people at large. A comparatively undisciplined body, led on by officers who had never had any experience in military affairs, and probably all under the influence both of personal fear and considerable political feeling of hostility, could not be expected to act either with coolness or discrimination; and accordingly, men, women, and children, constables, and Reformers, were equally exposed to their attacks. Numbers were trampled down, and numbers were cut down.
When they arrived at the hustings, the standards were torn, or cut from the hands of those who held them. Hunt was taken along by the constables to the house where the Magistrates were sitting, crying out 'Murder' as he was every instant struck by the bludgeons of numbers of constables who surrounded him. An attempt was made to knock his hat off, but unsuccessfully; and just as he was going up the steps, a person, who shall be for the present, nameless, with a club of large size, struck him with the force of both hands a blow on the head, which completely indented his hat, and almost levelled him with the ground: of this I can produce evidence on oath.
Whether the Riot Act had been read, I am not enabled positively to say; but I affirm, from actual observation, that not the slightest breach of the peace had been committed, or appeared, as far as I can judge, likely to take place; and, most certainly, instead of an hour being allowed after proclamation, for the people to disperse, not twenty minutes had elapsed, after. Hunt came upon the ground, before the carnage began.
What are the charges on which Hunt and the rest are arrested, I know not. Rumour says High Treason, of which carrying the cap of liberty is stated as an overt act.