The Peterloo Massacre took place on this day 200 years ago.
Some 60,000 people had gathered in St Peter’s Square in Manchester to demand reform of Parliamentary representation. Fewer than 2% of the population at that time had the vote.(1)
An estimated 18 people would lose their lives and more than 650 were injured.
There was considerable public sympathy for the plight of the protesters. The Times newspaper printed a shocking account of the day, causing widespread outrage which briefly united advocates of a more limited reform with the radical supporters of universal suffrage. A huge petition with 20 pages of signatures was raised, stating the petitioners’ belief that, whatever their opinions on the cause of reform, the meeting on 16 August had been peaceful until the arrival of the soldiers.(2)
The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, on hearing news of the massacre while in Italy, called for an immediate response. His poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, encourages reformers to ‘Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number’ (stanza 38).
Peterloo remains a key moment in the history of the suffrage movement, less for the initial success of the meeting than for the way it allowed the reformers to gain the moral high ground. It was increasingly obvious that the government could only counter dissent with repression, while the chorus of angry voices only rose following outrages such as Peterloo.
Sadly some issues continue to resonate today. One such is food poverty, an issue which the Trussell Trust does so much to alleviate today through its food banks. (https://www.trusselltrust.org/)