On 16 August 1819 armed cavalrymen and soldiers attacked a large peaceful crowd in Manchester.
Local radicals had called the meeting as part of a campaign for the political reform of parliament, a campaign given renewed vigour by the distressed economic conditions since the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The campaign was particularly strong in the new northern towns such as Manchester where handloom weavers found themselves turned into paupers as wages fell.
By 1pm tens of thousands of men, women and children had gathered on St Peter's Field, many having risen at dawn and marched in procession from outlying towns. The town authorities feared an uprising and had made extensive preparations.
They gathered in a house overlooking the field and the meeting had scarcely begun before they ordered the arrest the main speaker, Henry Hunt, and sent in the Manchester Yeomanry who had been drinking heavily. The horseman attacked the closely pressed crowd with their newly sharpened sabres. The authorities then sent in the regular army who swept the crowd from the field. Some Yeomanry pursued the fleeing people through the streets. There was rioting later in the evening in the New Cross area, where the army opened fire.
At least 18 died either on the field or later from their injuries, whilst many hundreds were injured. This unprecedented massacre was dubbed 'Peterloo' by the radical press, contrasting this shameful episode with the Allied victory at Waterloo some four years earlier. Attempts to hold the town authorities and military to account, however, were unsuccessful as they were vigorously supported by the Tory government
When the poet Shelley heard about Peterloo he wrote an angry poem The Masque of Anarchy, although it was not published until 1832. In later years it became a popular recitation at radical and socialist meetings.
Peterloo resources in the Library collection
The Library holds a wealth of material relating to Peterloo - reports of the trial of Henry Hunt and other participants in the events, eye-witness accounts, political cartoons, contemporary pamphlets, a map drawn for one of the official enquiries into what went wrong, a commemorative head-scarf sold to raise money for those injured and the families of those killed and much more.
At the heart of the collection is the material accumulated by local antiquarian bookseller Robert Walmsley in the course of research which culminated in Peterloo: the case reopened, a book which differs from the majority of accounts in defending the Chairman of the Magistrates, William Hulton. Several items in the collection have associations with Hulton. His notes on the trial of Henry Hunt are bound in a report of the proceedings published in Manchester in 1820 by Joseph Pratt. There is a plan of St Peter's Field made for him, and his copy of the report of the trial Redford v Birley.
Copies of other books on Peterloo, which Walmsley read and annotated, also form part of the collection, which is complemented by other material acquired by Library founders Eddie and Ruth Frow over the years. This includes scarce pamphlets published in the North East of England soon after the incident, and a calico print depicting the Manchester Yeomanry charging the crowd. An interesting item is the first edition of Samuel Bamford's Passages in the life of a radical in its original parts. There is also a set of the pamphlets, Peterloo massacre, issued by the printer James Wroe in 1819 in which is published the names of those who were killed and injured. All the published trials connected with the Peterloo episode are included in the collection.
Related Object of the Month
August 2009: 190th Anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre
Click here for learning resouces about the Peterloo massacre