On 16 August 1819, 18 people, including four women and a child, were killed and around 700 men, women and children were seriously injured when cavalry charged into a crowd of around 60,000 people who had gathered to peacefully protest for greater parliamentary representation.
You can see where the events which led to the Peterloo Massacre unfolded and learn more about the fascinating back story when historian Michael Herbert leads a guided walk on Saturday 19 August.
Michael has been researching, writing and running educational courses about Manchester and Salford’s radical history for 30 years. And he’s a trustee of the Working Class Movement Library and author of numerous articles and a number of books on Manchester.
From learning about early protests like the Manchester food riots of April 1812 to retracing the steps of the peaceful protesters on the day itself, Michael will take you on a trip back in time.
“You can’t talk about Peterloo without talking about the radical Republican ideas of Tom Paine set out in The Rights of Man in 1791,” he told us.
“These were ideas that still terrified the authorities in 1819. Richard Carlile, for instance, due to be one of the speakers at Peterloo, was jailed for five years shortly after, just for selling Tom Paine’s work.
“I don’t think you can talk about Peterloo without talking about the acute economic distress in the years before,” he continued.
“This, for instance, led to attacks on mills in Middleton in April 1812 – in which more people were killed by the Scots Greys than at Peterloo – and an attack on the Royal Exchange the same month.
“Finally, you have to talk about the class element at Peterloo. That a small, very wealthy minority who controlled the political system were determined to maintain their privileges, if need be, by killing people in the streets – which is exactly what they did at Peterloo, with no regrets.”
The walk will begin in St Ann’s Square at 11.30 am at the statue of Richard Cobden.
Cobden was a radical figure who followed in the footsteps of the reforming zeal of the Peterloo protesters. In 1838, he founded the Anti-Corn Law League, a group set up to oppose 19th century taxes on imported wheat which led to higher bread prices.
It was opposition to unfair legislation which was a big factor behind the gathering of the crowd on the day of Peterloo.
Manchester Patriotic Union, a parliamentary reform group, had set 19th August 1819 as the date for a peaceful demonstration and speeches by well known orators like Henry Hunt.
Little did they know that the estimated 60,000 innocent civilians who gathered peacefully in the area between St Peter’s Square and where Manchester Central now stands, would be subjected to a charge by armed yeomanry.
The guided tour will take you into the heart of this momentous event.
Michael wants to make it plain that his walk has no connection with the Peterloo Memorial Committee, with whom he disagrees on the nature of the current commemoration and the Committee’s plans for a memorial.
“I think the Peterloo Memorial Committee has plucked Peterloo out of its immediate political, economic and social context, and repackaged it as a one-off event which was a milestone on the road to democracy.
“At an event which was about political reform as a response to hunger, unemployment and poverty, which has inescapable parallels with food bank Britain in 2017, they refuse to allow present day campaigners to speak at the commemoration or even carry banners.
“Rather than giving money to a static memorial it would be better spent on supporting campaigning groups in Greater Manchester – those that are fighting austerity, zero hours, benefit cuts etc. The monument should be a visible fight for a better society.”
The walk is now fully booked.