Three Cheers for the Militia: The Peterloo Massacre of 1819
In the summer of 1819, England was still reeling from the last of the Napoleonic Wars four years prior, and was faced with increasingly disparaging conditions for its people, especially the poor working classes. Food prices were skyrocketing, due in part to the Corn Laws – which restricted import of foreign (and often cheaper) grain, and resulted in wages being spent almost entirely on bread (Bloy). In addition, there was an abysmal amount of representation in heavily populated areas, where in some places, a thin slice of the people had a vote, and their vote counted for two members of Parliament; meaning thousands of people had no say in who represented their needs (National Archives). The reaction to the Corn Laws and underrepresentation of such a large section of the population defined the growing sentiment of English workers, and was seen as proof that “the interest of a few Land Proprietors….[was more important than] the interest of millions of labourers.” (Read 41). While the failed revolution in France had previously cooled the spirit of radicalism in England, a group called the Manchester Patriotic Union Society, spearheaded by the orator Henry Hunt, decided that action needed to be taken to bring attention to the plight of the working class (Read 35).
Reformers gathered in Saint Peter’s Field near Manchester on August 16th, bearing banners with their aims: “no corn laws”, “annual parliaments”, “universal suffrage”, and “vote by ballot” (Bloy). While most of the numbers are varying and imprecise, it is estimated that 100,000-150,000 men, women, and children gathered together to hear the infamous Mr. Hunt speak (Walker 137). Shortly following the commencement of his oratory, the space became filled with the local, armed, and drunken militia, sent by frightened ruling class men (Damrosch 878). Hunt attempted to calm the audience and appease the militia by calling for a rousing three cheers for the military, but the small army responded with a blind attack on the people – sabres slashed everyone from workers to friends of the militia, who were indistinguishable in the crowd (Walker 139). The carnage, equally as difficult to pinpoint as the number of attendees, is roughly valued at around eleven to fourteen spectators killed and hundreds injured, either by trampling from the militia’s horses, or from the wild sabre slashes (Read vii). Hunt escaped assassination, but was promptly arrested (Damrosch 878).
One of the most crucial aspects of this event was the amount of publicized reactions and reports. Newspapers such as The Examiner and the Manchester Observer spread the grisly details across England, and Percy Shelley impassionedly penned the poem “The Masque of Anarchy” in response to the injustice (Damrosch 879; Read vii). The governmental effects weren’t initially positive, however, despite the public shock. The militia escaped any blame due to the decision that the meeting was an illegal gathering, and the government went so far as to pass the Six Acts later that year. These stated that “every meeting for radical reform is an overt act of treasonable conspiracy against the King and his government” (Bloy). It wouldn’t be another thirteen years before any real concessions were made to the workers, and it was with the 1832 Great Reform Act that England saw better representation and an expansion of the vote to the middle classes (National Archives).
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Bloy, Marjie. “The Six Acts 1819.” The Six Acts 1819. N.p., 30 Aug. 2003. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.
Damrosch, David, Kevin J. H. Dettmar, Susan Wolfson, and Peter Manning. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 5th ed. Vol. 2A. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.
“The National Archives Learning Curve | Power, Politics and Protest | Great Reform Act.”Power, Politics and Protest | Great Reform Act. The National Archives, n.d. Web. 04 Oct. 2013.
Read, Donald. Peterloo: The “Massacre” and Its Background. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1958. Print.
Walker, A. “Peterloo, Shelley, and Reform.” Modern Language Association 40.1 (1925): 128-64. JSTOR. Web. 04 Oct. 2013. <http://0-www.jstor.org.library.uark.edu/stable/457272>.