Today novelist Chris Pearce is here speaking about the social and political conditions in late Georgian England that led up to the Peterloo Massacre, a defining event in British social history, and how he incorporated these details into his novel A Weaver's Web. The period illustrations within the post were originally published in his nonfiction book (details below in his bio). Welcome, Chris!
The Peterloo Massacre, Manchester, UK, 1819
The Industrial Revolution started in Manchester, whose population grew at an alarming rate, from 20,000 in 1770 to well over 100,000 by the 1810s. Rural cottage workers could no longer compete with the cotton mills, and people moved to the city in droves from the surrounding countryside seeking work in the new factories. Local government, town planning, hospitals and schools couldn’t keep up, and living and working conditions were appalling. Famine and unemployment were widespread.
|Interior of a Manchester cellar. From George R. Catt,|
A Pictorial History of Manchester, 1843.
Tensions between loyalists and reformers over politics and living standards began in about 1789 and led to a series of riots from 1792 to 1795. Disturbances called “food riots” due to high prices of basic foods were common from the mid 1790s. The emphasis turned to wages by 1808, when Parliament rejected a minimum wage, and a two-day protest meeting of 10,000 people at St George’s Field in Manchester resulted in one death and several injuries.
Unrest escalated in the 1810s as people complained about losing their jobs to machinery, high prices, low wages, and lack of parliamentary representation. Lancashire had two members of parliament, but only male landowners could vote and only at Lancaster, population 10,000 and the county’s capital, 50 miles to the north. By then, Manchester was England’s second largest city after London.
A number of meetings calling for parliamentary reform were held in 1819, and they got bigger and noisier, with some attendees going armed, much to the alarm of the magistrates who had to keep law and order at these sessions. Despite the lack of reform, it was the main topic of conversation on the streets, at the market, and in homes and factories. There were huge meetings in Birmingham, Leeds and London too.
|Manchester, the Market Place, about 1825|
Then, the biggest meeting of all, billed as the greatest gathering the world had ever seen, was to be held at St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16 August 1819, a Monday. Contingents of hundreds, even thousands, of people marched to the city from dozens of towns as far away as 16 miles to join the tens of thousands of Mancunians heading to the meeting. Their banners included “Annual Parliaments”, Universal Suffrage”, “Unity and Strength”, “Liberty and Fraternity”, “Equal Representation or Death” and “The Royton Female Union”. It was to be a peaceful family day, and leaders made sure no weapons were being carried.
Crowds poured onto St Peter’s Field from different directions, bands played and people cheered. Four local magistrates were appointed to keep check on events: William Hulton, Rev. C. W. Ethelston, James Norris and Rev. W. R. Hay. A couple of them were uneasy from the start, taking fright at the sheer size of the crowd, their banners and the noise. Soon the main speaker, Henry “Orator” Hunt, made his way through the crowd to the husting. He was unhappy with its position and got some men to move it. This meant the magistrates no longer had a direct line of communication to the constables near the middle.
Hunt started to address the crowd, but the magistrates had already called for the troops. Soon the Manchester Yeomanry, Cheshire Yeomanry and Fifteenth Hussars approached the meeting from side streets. The magistrates told the messengers to tell the yeomanry to move in and arrest Hunt. Many in the crowd were reluctant to let the soldiers through. They then rode their horses directly into the throng, slashing with their sabres. This can be seen on the cover of my novel. Hunt is in white trousers at the center of the platform. The magistrates can be seen at a window at left. The crowd panicked and there was chaos. People lay dead and injured everywhere while luckier demonstrators fled in the direction of their homes.
|A representation of the Manchester reform meeting dispersed by the|
Civil and Military Power, Aug. 16th, 1819
The main family in A Weaver’s Web, the Wakefields, attend the meeting. Henry Wakefield is a handloom weaver and was active in the reform movement at Middleton and also Manchester after they moved to the city. His wife, Sarah, is a factory worker and became interested in reform too. They and their five children left their cellar in the morning and walked to the meeting. They held hands near the edge of the gathering for fear of being caught in a crush. But more people came in behind them, and they were soon in the middle of the crowd.
They enjoyed the carnival atmosphere and cheered as Hunt appeared. When things turned nasty, the Wakefields were caught up in it. Henry was knocked to the ground trying to protect his family as a horse rode over them. He got up but was pushed over again. He staggered around looking for them, his face covered in blood and dirt. When he tried to retrace his steps, the constables turned him away and told him to go home. He eventually found his family next door, but his youngest daughter was missing.
|Market Street in the 1820s|
Henry kept going to reform meetings, but they got smaller and participants argued without achieving much. Henry lost interest and decided the best way forward for the family was for him to start a factory, which led to a whole new set of problems for them.
Within a week or two, the press named the incident the Peterloo Massacre, after the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier. The government cracked down on reform. Nine ringleaders were charged with sedition. Hunt got 30 months’ jail (but later became a member of parliament) and several others were handed lesser sentences. It would be another 13 years before the Great Reform Act of 1832 gave Manchester two members of parliament of its own.