Next 2013 tour: Fri 16 Aug. Meet: Midland Hotel steps, Peter Street, 11am.
This is going to be a most unusual walk, as we are heading from the location of the tragedy, through town, to the site of the Henry Hunt Memorial in Ancoats, relating the story of the events en route at key stops.
Next 2013 talk: Sun 18 Aug. Meet: Gorton Monastery, 12 noon.
16th August 1819: troops charge 70,000 Mancunians at a rally on a public holiday called to lower the price of bread and demand the vote. More than a dozen are killed and hundreds injured.
But how did things get this bad in the first place? The early 19th century – the elegant Regency period in popular imagination – was a time of considerable hardship and political repression in England. The Napoleonic wars had sapped the nation’s soul, while the dramatic events in revolutionary France had caused the authorities much anxiety. How long before the mob began to storm the streets and demand the king’s head?
The establishment was taking no chances. Lord Liverpool’s uncompromising Tory government suspended the most basic of human rights – habeas corpus – a vital legal instrument safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary state action and banned political meetings. The hated Corn Laws set the price of bread artificially high to protect the farmers at the expense of the workers.
On 16 August 1819 people came from all over the North-West to St Peter’s Fields at the edge of built-up Manchester for a day out and to hear the political speeches from speakers such as Henry “Orator” Hunt. The Manchester authorities were frightened at the prospect of the mob being whipped up into a fervour by the declamatory Hunt and going on the rampage so they gathered a huge force of constables and soldiers. When the speakers began to hold forth they sent the troops through the crowd to arrest them. The result was carnage. Some 700 people were injured and possibly as many as 20 killed although no one knows to this day how many families failed to report their loss for fear that they themselves might face arrest for being connected with “troublemakers”.
The name Peterloo? James Wroe, editor of the radical newspaper the Manchester Observer, who was present at St Peter’s Fields, coined the phrase the “Peterloo Massacre” to describe the events pace the recent Battle of Waterloo in mind.
The unluckiest victim? John Lees of Oldham. He had survived Waterloo. Severely injured at Peterloo, he crawled to the Infirmary where the surgeon refused to treat him on political grounds – that he should have avoided the meeting in the first place. The luckiest survivor? The man on whose head a sabre came down, slicing through his hat but stopping at his skull owing to the large of hunk of cheese he had secreted up there for his lunch.
In the aftermath of the massacre their government introduced more punitive measures against political demonstrators and the king was indeed lucky to escape with his head during the Cato Street conspiracy, but you’ll have to come on the walk to find out more about that. Some good came out of the events. A local businessman, John Edward Taylor, founded a newspaper, The Manchester Guardian, to give the people an independent voice, and the poet Shelly penned “The Mask of Anarchy”, a withering attack on the leading politicians such as Lord Castlereagh that he blamed for the disaster. Shelly’s poem begins:
“I met Murder on the way/He had a mask like Castlereagh.
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him”
and ends triumphantly
“Rise like Lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number/Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you/Ye are many – they are few.”
No wonder it has become a rallying call for the oppressed everywhere.