Political protest in the age of Peterloo

Today’s blog from the editor of our House of Commons 1832-68 section, Dr Philip Salmon, is the first of many pieces in which we will discuss the Peterloo Massacre that took place in St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16th August 1819. He outlines the political climate within which this infamous episode occurred and provides context for the blogs that are to follow in the series.

Massacre at St Peter’s, T. Tegg (1819)

The economic depression that crippled Britain after the end of French wars was the main trigger for the growth of radical protest after 1815. The wars with France had dragged on for almost 22 years. Britain emerged victorious, narrowly defeating Napoleon with German help at Waterloo, but with massive government debts and its economy totally unprepared for peace. Almost 300,000 soldiers returned home in search of work, including many disabled veterans. Orders for military supplies quickly dried up, causing mass closures and layoffs in the industrial centres of the Midlands and North. In the countryside unprofitable farm land forced into cultivation to feed the nation during naval blockades was abandoned. Unemployment began to soar.

The initial response of the Tory government, led by Lord Liverpool, was to try and prevent a crisis in British agriculture by taxing imports of cheaper foreign grain. Their 1815 Corn Law benefitted the landowning classes, but at the cost of keeping bread prices artificially high. This in turn reduced disposable incomes and the scope for foreign trade, restricting the post-war market for manufactured goods. In the same year the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia created a global dust cloud that caused catastrophic crop failures throughout the world. Many working people in Britain, quite literally, began to starve.

The eruption of Mount Tambora, 1815

Staging any kind of public protest at this time, however, was far from easy. During the wars the British state, fearing a French style revolution, had clamped down hard on all forms of protest. Campaigners seeking reforms to the way the country was governed were persecuted as unpatriotic French ‘Jacobins’. Seditious meetings inciting rebellion or demanding reforms were banned. Habeas Corpus was suspended, allowing the authorities to imprison critics without charge. Nevertheless, rioting and ‘Luddite’ vandalism of industrial machinery eventually became common. In 1816 Arthur Thistlewood and his fellow ‘Spenceans’, a revolutionary group seeking the shared ownership of land, staged an abortive armed insurrection in London. The following year a violent mob attacked the Prince Regent’s coach as he opened Parliament, prompting the Tory government to again suspend Habeas Corpus, this time for a year.

The first post-war general election of 1818 showed just how out of touch Britain’s political system had become. Despite the population of England having reached 10 million, less than 320,000 English electors could vote for MPs. With most (but not necessarily all) women unable to meet the property owner franchises, the English electorate represented just 13% of adult males. Many of these electors though never got the chance to cast a vote. Two-thirds of constituencies lacked opposition candidates in 1818 and therefore did not need to hold a poll. Half of these were so-called ‘rotten’ or ‘pocket’ boroughs completely under the control of a local aristocratic patron.

It was against this background that a group of radical campaigners in Manchester, a major industrial town with no elected MPs of its own, tried to stage a mock election for a workers’ representative in 1819, in order to highlight the need for parliamentary reform. The well-known radical orator Henry Hunt was invited to ‘stand’. The local magistrates, however, banned the event as ‘unconstitutional’ and a threat to Parliamentary sovereignty after seeking legal advice from the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth.

A less provocative pro-reform rally, without a mock election, was then arranged at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, on 16 August. Determined to prove their respectability, local workers arrived in ‘contingents’ from surrounding areas wearing their best clothes. Around 60,000 people eventually assembled, including many women and children. Members of the Manchester Female Reform Society, led by Mary Fildes, escorted Hunt to the platform.

What occurred next remains one of the most infamous episodes in British political history. Overawed by the size of the crowd, the magistrate William Hulton tried to get people to disperse by reading the Riot Act. He then ordered the arrest of Hunt. The inexperienced Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were summoned to help, but lost control of their horses in the crowd. Fearing for their safety, Hulton ordered the 15th Hussars, a British army cavalry regiment, to charge and disperse the meeting. At least 15 men and three women were killed. Over 600 were badly injured.

‘Manchester Heroes’, published by S Fores (1819)


The Parliament & Peterloo exhibition, coordinated by the Parliamentary Archives in collaboration with the History of Parliament Trust and the Citizens Project, Royal Holloway UoL, is now open in Westminster Hall. It’s free and open to all until 26 September 2019, please click here for further information.

See our Peterloo blog series here.

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