What was Peterloo?
Peterloo was a mass meeting held to demand the right to vote for ordinary working men. It took place at St Peter's Field in Manchester, August 1819.
What happened at Peterloo?
On 16 August 1819, 60,000 people packed into St Peter's Field, Manchester. That meeting became one of the most famous events of the nineteenth century - Peterloo!
The events of Peterloo...
- Men, women and children marched hand in hand in their sunday best, accompanied by music. Their banners demanded 'Liberty' and 'Votes for ALL' because they were there to demand reforms from the government.
- Since 1815 bread prices had been high, unemployment had risen, as many soldiers, returned from the French wars, had been unable to find work. The people wanted lower food prices and the chance to vote in elections. They believed that if they could vote, then governments would have to listen to their demands.
- In 1819, the reformers decided to to hold a series of mass meetings. Henry Hunt, one of the most rousing speakers of the time, would address the crowd. The local magistrates were anxious. Their job was to keep order but they feared that the meeting would be the signal for the beginning of a rebellion. They feared that Hunt would stir the crowd to violence. The magistrates had special constables to help them and a group of local soldiers. When Hunt appeared there was enthusiastic applause, flags waved, trumpets blew and the magistates panicked. A horn sounded and the Manchester Special Constables rode forward. Eleven people were killed at Peterloo, about 400 wounded.
The events in Manchester caused great anger.
- Newpaper reporters in the crowds strongly criticised the magistrates for over-reacting.
- Cartoonists showed the people as the innocent victims of the bloodthirsty soldiers and the panicky magistrates.
- Many people demanded that the government should punish the magistrates.
- The prime-minister, Lord Liverpool, and his government faced a difficult descision. There were still fears of a rebellion. If ministers showed strong support for the magistrates, it might discourage rebels. On the other hand, people were angry that supporting the magistrates might be the very thing that would tip the balance towards rebellion.
How did the government react to Peterloo?
The government chose option b and c: b) Give the magistrates their support. Their job was to stop any possibilty of rebellion and they did just that. c) Make sure that any other large meetings cannot take place; ban all meetings, give magistrates power to search houses when weapons are hidden. This probably seems very harsh, especially as the crowd in manchester had done nothign to provoke the soldiers. However, the government's great fear was revolution.
Another reason why the government backed the magistrates was that, if they did not, they were afraid that it would be difficult in future to get people to act as magistrates.
The government did not consider introducing reforms to help reduce poverty and unemployement. They blamed the effects of the long war and the return of demobilised soldiers.
Newspapers and reformers called for an enquiry into the events of Peterloo, but the government refused.
Hunt and others were put on trial and charged with conspiracy to disturb and to arouse hatred of the government. Hunt was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
The government's main response came with the Six Acts:
- A new tax was put on newspapers making them far more expensive.
- Military training and drilling was banned.
- Magistrates could seize and destroy newspapers or other publications.
- Trials were to be speeded up.
- Public meetings of over 50 people were banned.
- Magistrates were given the power to search houses for weapons.
They were intended to stop any chance of meetings turning into rebllion and to stop the spread of reforming ideas amongst the people. The six acts were severe but were only in place for a year. By then the demand for reform among the majority of the people had begun to fade in cities. Lower food prices amd more work reduced the discontent.