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│By Clem Delany, Associate Acquisitions Editor│
Two hundred years ago, on 16th August 1819, at least seventeen people died at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, during a peaceful protest calling for the reform of parliamentary representation.
This year, the two hundred-year anniversary, has been marked in the UK by a wealth of newspaper articles covering ‘a tragic event of minor historical significance that happens to accord with a Marxist version of Britain’s past’ 1 (The Times) or ‘the bloodiest event on English soil in the nineteenth century’ 2 (The Daily Mail). The BBC, from its new headquarters in Manchester, produced ten radio programmes and performances to mark the anniversary. You can buy a Peterloo mug or a Peterloo tea towel, and around Manchester live music, poetry readings, open-air karaoke and other family-friendly events took place over the weekend.
I dug through the Gale archives to see how the event was represented at the time, and at its centennial in 1919.
Contemporary News Reports
An article in The Times on 17th August 1819 (the day after the massacre) questioned the point of mass protest at that time:
Two days later on 19th August The Times provided more extensive coverage of the event, and we find the tone somewhat altered, as more information filtered through from Manchester.
The Times had sent a correspondent, a Mr Tyas, to Manchester to report on the meeting; the presence of figures such as the radical Henry Hunt drew public attention and large crowds were anticipated. The paper was therefore able to publish a first-hand account of the event, as the journalist found himself not only in the middle of the action but subsequently arrested with many of the leading reformers.
The Manchester Observer of the same date was equally vivid in its description of the event:
At that time, the paper reported the death toll at five or six, and the wounded at three hundred.
The massacre was reported in a similar vein throughout the country, and papers from Hampshire, York, Leeds and London among many others can be found commenting on not only the use of military force against unarmed protestors, but on the calls for reform and the state of British society, which at the end of the Napoleonic wars was facing economic distress, famine and widespread poverty.
The Government Response to the Tragedy
Elsewhere, the Home Office files give an indication of government attitudes to the tragedy. Letters informing on meetings, pamphlets and on likely and actual unrest, were sent to Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, from many counties, while the arrests of publishers, journalists and leading reformers that followed the massacre did little to calm the indignation of the public.
Uprisings and riots elsewhere in the country, chiefly those in Huddersfield and Burley, and the aborted Cato Street conspiracy to blow up the Cabinet at dinner, followed Peterloo. The notorious Six Acts legislated against public weapons training, “seditious meetings”, and “blasphemous and seditious libels,” whilst granting extra powers to magistrates for the search and seizure of arms, reducing bail opportunities and, finally, extending newspaper and stamp tax in an effort to prevent the publication of seditious opinion, all aimed at repressing the movements of radical reformers.
The Chester Chronicle from January 1820 perhaps demonstrates the mood of reformers in this chaotic time:
The Centenary of the Massacre, 1919
One hundred years later, in 1919, in the aftermath of another great war, the Peterloo Massacre was not forgotten, although it only merited a half-inch mention in many regional newspapers. Where it received more coverage, it was usually in terms of its socialist or anti-establishment associations. One example can be found in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, where the centenary was mentioned in the following terms:
The Telegraph offered a brief summary of the celebrations in Manchester:
In 1919 people were still recovering from another great war, and nationalism and social reform were agitating for space in the new century. Letters such as this, from The British Citizen and Empire Worker, the mouthpiece of the anti-socialist and imperialist British Workers League highlight this troubled context:
This year, there has been more focus on the people killed, the individuals present, and the act of violence, than on the political setting. The representation and meaning of events are never fixed; after two centuries, protest, violence and reform are still as relevant and as present in the twenty-first century as they were in the nineteenth, and, as we continue to discuss and remember, the interpretation of such events continues to evolve.
- “The Times view on the BBC’s commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre: Horrible Histories”, The Times, 3 August 2019
- Nick Rennison, “Cowardly massacre of the innocent at Peterloo: Robert Poole’s scholarly new book delves into the bloodiest event on English soil in the nineteenth century”, The Daily Mail Online, 15 August 2019.