The Peterloo Massacre published by Richard Carlile in 1819. Photograph: Courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives
On the morning of 16 August 1819, an immense crowd poured into Manchester, perhaps the largest the town had ever seen.
They came in an orderly and peaceful fashion. Banners bearing slogans such as “Liberty and Fraternity” and “Taxation without Representation is Unjust and Tyrannical” flapped in the breeze, and bands played patriotic tunes including Rule Britannia and God Save the King. It was a fine and sunny day.
On they came in cheerful mood; organised contingents from Bolton and Bury; 6,000 marching from Rochdale and Middleton; others from Saddleworth and Stalybridge; 200 women dressed in white from Oldham, together with families bringing their children and picnics with them.
If later estimates that 60,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Fields that day are correct, it means that practically half the population of Manchester and the surrounding towns (a crowd somewhat larger than that at Manchester City home matches today) had come to attend a meeting calling for parliamentary reform.
Having the vote mattered, they believed; it would change everything and force politicians to listen to their views and needs – and respond.
A young businessman, 25-year-old John Benjamin Smith, was watching with his aunt from a window overlooking the open space on the edge of the town near St Peter’s Church.
He later wrote: “There were crowds of people in all directions, full of good humour, laughing and shouting and making fun … It seemed to be a gala day with the country people who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives, and when I saw boys and girls taking their father’s hand in the procession, I observed to my aunt: ‘These are the guarantees of their peaceable intentions – we need have no fears.’”
The people were expecting speeches and a good day out. What they were not anticipating was violence, carried out by troops sent in to disperse them, so aggressively that 18 people would be killed and more than 650 injured in the bloodiest political clash in British history.
The Massacre of Peterloo! or a Specimen of English Liberty by JL Marks. Photograph: The Art Archive/Rex/Shutterstock
What happened at St Peter’s Fields would become known as the Peterloo Massacre – a name coined by a local journalist named James Wroe in punning reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier.
Wroe paid for the joke by seeing his radical newspaper, the Manchester Observer, closed down, and was himself sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for seditious libel.