The Peterloo massacre: what was it and what did it mean?

When a militia attacked Manchester protesters in 1819 it was a turning point for Britain

Detail from The Massacre of Peterloo, or Britons Strike Home by George Cruikshank.
Detail from The Massacre of Peterloo, or Britons Strike Home by George Cruikshank. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

What was the Peterloo massacre?

On 16 August 1819, up to 60,000 working class people from the towns and villages of what is now Greater Manchester marched to St Peter’s Field in central Manchester to demand political representation at a time when only wealthy landowners could vote. Their peaceful protest turned bloody when Manchester magistrates ordered a private militia paid for by rich locals to storm the crowd with sabres. An estimated 18 people died and more than 650 were injured in the chaos.

Why don’t we know exactly how many people died?

Most historians agree that 14 people were definitely killed in the massacre – 15 if you include the unborn child of Elizabeth Gaunt, killed in the womb after Gaunt was beaten by constables in custody. A further three named people are believed to have either been stabbed or trampled to death, but their fate remains unconfirmed.

Where exactly did it happen?

St Peter’s Field is no longer a field, but a built-up area of central Manchester, around St Peter’s Square. A red plaque on Peter Street marks the spot, on the side of what is now the Radisson Blu hotel.

What did the protesters want?

They wanted political reform. At that point, only the richest landowners could vote and large swathes of the country were not adequately represented in Westminster. Manchester and Salford, which then had a population of 150,000, had no dedicated MP, yet Oxford and Cambridge Universities had their own representation in parliament dating back to 1603. So did Old Sarum, a field in Salisbury, which had no resident electorate. At the time of Peterloo, the extension of the vote to all men, let alone women, was actively opposed by many who thought it should be restricted to those of influence and means.

Why did they want to vote?

The years leading up to Peterloo had been tough for working-class people and they wanted a voice in parliament to put their needs and wants on the political agenda, inspired by the French Revolution. Machines had begun to take away jobs in the lucrative cotton industry and periodic trade slumps closed factories at short notice, putting workers out on the street. The Napoleonic wars, which ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo, had taken a heavy toll on the nation’s finances, and 350,000 ex-servicemen returned home needing jobs and food. Yet those in power seemed more interested in lining their own pockets than helping the poor.

Why is it called Peterloo?

The name was first coined five days after the massacre by James Wroe, editor of the Manchester Observer, the city’s first radical newspaper (no relation to the Observer of today). “‘Peterloo’ was a bitter pun, comparing the cowardly attacks by the yeomanry and soldiers on unarmed civilians to the brutality suffered at Waterloo,” according to historian Robert Poole.

Why is Peterloo important?

The massacre paved the way for parliamentary democracy and particularly the Great Reform Act of 1832, which got rid of “rotten” boroughs such as Old Sarum and created new parliamentary seats, particularly in the industrial towns of the north of England. It also led to the establishment two years later of the Manchester Guardian by John Edward Taylor, a 28-year-old English journalist who was present at the massacre and saw how the “establishment” media sought to discredit the protesters.

Why haven’t I heard of it?

Because it was rarely taught in schools. Some might say that was because history has traditionally concentrated on the battles and victories of royalty and the elite, rather than the working classes. It was only last year that Mike Leigh’s Peterloo film brought the story to the masses.

This article was amended on 18 August 2019. An earlier version omitted the word “adequately” from the sentence “… only the richest landowners could vote and large swathes of the country were not adequately represented in Westminster”; and the word “dedicated” from the sentence “Manchester and Salford, which then had a population of 150,000, had no dedicated MP”.