After Peterloo: From Repression to Reform

As we prepare to commemorate the bicentenary of Peterloo Massacre this Friday – 16 August – we hear from editor of our 1832-68 project for the second time in our Peterloo blog series. Dr Philip Salmon discusses the aftermath of the Massacre, and the public protest and parliamentary reform that followed in the nineteenth century…

Public opinion was shocked by the murder of so many pro-reform protesters, including three women, at the rally held on St Peter’s Field 200 years ago. Lurid accounts of sabre-wielding cavalrymen slashing their way through the crowd filled the newspapers. The press, mocking the patriotic memory of Waterloo, dubbed it the ‘Peterloo Massacre’. Vigils and protest meetings were organised across northern England and the Midlands, some of them leading to yet more clashes with local authorities. A new cottage industry in commemorative prints, songs, medals and trinkets expressing sympathy and solidarity for the victims of Peterloo was soon flourishing.

The Tory government, however, doggedly backed the use of force, to the fury of their Whig opponents in Parliament. The Prince Regent even thanked the cavalry for preserving the ‘public peace’ and refused to receive radical petitions, prompting a delightful satire showing him breaking wind in the face of Hunt and other radicals. Many of those involved in the Peterloo demonstration were rounded up and put on trial. Henry Hunt was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for sedition.

‘Loyal Addresses and Radical Petitions’, published by T. Tegg (1819)

Under pressure to stop more incidents, the Tory government recalled Parliament and imposed one of the biggest clamp-downs in British political history. The Six Acts of 1819 banned all ‘unofficial’ large public meetings. Magistrates were given extra powers to arrest people and search for guns. It became illegal to criticise the state in print and punitive taxes were imposed on all newspaper sales.

The foiling of a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister and Cabinet in 1820 seemed to justify these actions, even though it turned out that a government spy or agent provocateur had encouraged the plans. Five members of the so-called ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’ were found guilty of treason, including Arthur Thistlewood and William Davidson, a black Jamaican activist. On May Day 1820 they were publicly hanged and beheaded outside Newgate prison in front of vast crowds, many of whom had paid three guineas for a good view.

Government repression combined with improved harvests limited the number of mass outdoor political demonstrations over the next few years. But the movement for political change did not go away. In 1820 the Tory government reluctantly agreed to help the newly enthroned monarch, George IV, divorce his estranged German wife Queen Caroline. Whig and radical politicians rallied to her side, whipping up a wave of anti-government protest and public support for her ‘constitutional rights’, which was difficult to suppress. Her trial in the House of Lords for adultery with an Italian manservant captivated the nation, prompting a petitioning campaign that mustered over a million signatures. Realising they would be unlikely to get a divorce bill through the newly elected House of Commons, the government abandoned the attempt, much to the fury of the King.

Awful Execution of the Conspirators (1820)

Using revitalised constitutional methods such as petitioning and election campaigning, reform groups were able to bring a new sort of pressure to bear on the Tory government during the 1820s. In Manchester, for example, the ‘Little Circle’ avoided provocative outdoor rallies and began infiltrating the structures of local government and county administration, acquiring influence in electoral politics. Legal challenges to the way ancient municipal corporations were being run, organised by radical reformers like Joseph Parkes in Warwick, resulted in many boroughs having to admit swathes of new freeman voters and abandon their traditional control over parliamentary elections. Many previously ‘closed’ constituencies became increasingly open to public opinion, enabling new types of MP to be elected.

This focus on electoral tactics was taken to the extreme in Ireland. Here Daniel O’Connell and his pioneering Catholic Association eventually acquired so much electoral power, as shown in the results of the 1826 general election, that the Tory government, led by the Duke of Wellington, was forced to concede Catholic emancipation in 1829. Coming only a year after the government’s repeal of laws discriminating against Nonconformists, this act marked a key turning point in British politics. It seriously undermined the ancient Protestant constitution, it recognised the legitimacy and necessity of responding to popular pressure, and above all it helped to split the long-dominant Tory party into warring factions.

Shortly after the 1830 election, which saw more gains for reformers, Wellington’s ministry lost a crucial vote and resigned. Lord Grey became prime minister, heading the first Whig government for 25 years. After 18 months of political turmoil, which brought the nation to the brink of revolution with reform riots in Bristol and Nottingham, the Whigs eventually passed the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832, overhauling the ancient electoral system. The new voting qualifications increased the electorate to almost a fifth (18%) of the adult male population.

Like many other northern industrial towns Manchester benefited from the Reform Act’s redistribution of seats confiscated from ‘rotten boroughs’. It now had its own MPs. Nearly 7,000 of its wealthier male householders and shopkeepers qualified for the new £10 household franchise. Respectable working men, though, had to wait until 1867 to get the vote – a right that was only extended to all men (and women aged 30 and over) in 1918. Within a few years of the Reform Act the Chartists launched a new campaign demanding far more democratic reforms on behalf of the people, which again involved mass public protests and outbursts of disorder. Forty years later the campaign for women’s votes began its lengthy and often tortuous course, which was commemorated in last year’s Vote 100 celebrations.


Click here for other posts in our Peterloo blog series. Special thanks to our partners, the Citizens Project at Royal Holloway, UoL and the Parliamentary Archives.

The Citizens Project have launched their free Massive Open Online Course, From Peterloo to the Pankhursts. Click the link for further information on how to get involved and what the course entails.

See the video version of this blog on our YouTube channel

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