Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Peterloo Massacre A.D. 1819

Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,

Shake to Earth your chains like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you –

Ye are many; they are few.'

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Masque of Anarchy

On 16th August 1819, at St. Peter's Field, on the outskirts of Manchester, a political meeting of 60,000 working men and women was dispersed by mounted dragoons, with a brutality that left eleven people dead and 421 cases of serious injury (including more than 100 women and children, and 162 individual cases of sabre wounds). The crowd had gathered to listen to Henry 'Orator' Hunt, an outspoken advocate of parliamentary reform. There were many families in attendance and there had been a picnic atmosphere prior to the attack. Like other towns and villages across the country, Manchester had grown in size since the start of the industrial revolution but the electoral constituencies had not been redrawn to reflect these shifting patterns of population. Some so-called 'rotten boroughs' were able to elect Members of Parliament with only a fraction of the votes of others. The Whigs were largely opposed to this inherently unfair system but still wanted to restrict the franchise to the propertied middle-class. The Tories were in favour of retaining the status quo. The people who attended this meeting were working-class and would not have benefited from any Whig reform. Their sympathies were with the radicals such as Hunt who wanted universal suffrage for all males over the age of 21, regardless of property. Such ideas were considered dangerously democratic by the ruling minority who arranged for the demonstration to be policed by armed 'yeomen' who attacked the crowd and arrested the speakers, leaving chaos in their wake.

After the demonstration reports were circulated and the event soon became national news. Along with the main speakers, the yeomen had also arrested a journalist from the London Times who, on his release, published a full account of what he had witnessed. It became known as the 'Peterloo Massacre' in reference to the horrors of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. There is no doubt that the government saw the demonstrators as a threat to national security and they subsequently embarked on a massive campaign of repression to prevent any similar disturbances from occuring. The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, travelling in Italy at the time, received news of the event within a week and was outraged by what had happened. In response he quickly composed one of the greatest political protest poems ever written, The Masque of Anarchy. When he sent the poem to his publishers however they were unwilling to have anything to do with it. The government had acted swiftly and taken repressive measures to clamp down on voices of opposition. [It was eventually published in 1832, ten years after Shelley's death, to coincide with the passing of the Reform Bill. In it he urges the masses to rise up and rebel. It is often seen as a key text in the formation of the idea of non-violent resistance and was a big influence on Gandhi in his 'civil disobedience' campaign against the British Empire.] Whilst they did not sympathise with the radicals' demands, moderate reformers were shocked by what had happened and scared by what could happen still. Amongst the witnesses of the massacre was John Edward Taylor who in 1821 founded a newspaper to promote liberal and middle-class interests, The Manchester Guardian.

The Reform Bill was passed in 1832, solving the problem of 'rotten boroughs' and making parliament more representative of a newly-industrialised society (where people tended to live in large towns and cities). However franchise was restricted to middle-class property owners and it would be many years before ordinary working people gained the right to vote. Ford Madox Brown did not include the Peterloo Massacre in his Manchester Murals because it was considered too controversial a political issue, representing as it did the idea of radical reform and universal suffrage. A commemorative blue plaque was later erected on the Free Trade Hall, now the Radisson Hotel, on Peter Street but its claim that the crowd had been 'dispersed' was considered too mild as it did not refer to the violent way way in which it happened (the killings were not even mentioned). As recently as 2007 a new red plaque was unveiled which refered to the event as a massacre and acknowleged the killings that had taken place. Nowadays it is widely referred to as Manchester's Tiannanmen Square.

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