Polychronicon 129: Reinterpreting Peterloo


By Robert Poole, published 13th September 2009

The Peterloo massacre is one of the best-documented events in British history. It was the bloodiest political event of the 19th century on English soil.

At St Peter's Fields in central Manchester on Monday 16 August 1819, a rally of around 60,000 people seeking parliamentary reform was violently dispersed by troops under the authority of the local magistrates. The meeting was the climax of a series of high-profile mass gatherings for parliamentary reform. It was transparently peaceful but the frightened magistrates, thinking back to an abortive rising in 1817, sent in the troops.

Under the noses of the national press, eleven people were killed (a toll which later rose to 17) and over 650 wounded, a quarter of them women, some of them children, many of them by sabre wounds. ‘This is Waterloo for you!' cried out some of the special constables in triumph, and the event was soon dubbed ‘Peterloo' in the radical press. Middle-class and working-class reformers united in outrage, while for several months afterwards armed rebellion appeared to threaten from below...

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