Under the microscope: What is the battle of Peterloo and why does it matter?


The Peterloo Massacre occurred 202 years ago and is often considered to be a watershed moment leading leading to the creation of parliamentary democracy, but the events that followed immediately after it are telling of the refusal of power to yield ground.

It occurred on 16 August 1819 at St Peter's field in Manchester and came off the back of a key rally in January of the same summer. 10,000 people gathered at St Peter’s field, Manchester, to hear the radical orator Henry Hunt call for the Prince Regent to select ministers to repeal the Corn Laws. 

They resulted in a levy on imported corn during the Napoleonic wars. This had served to enrich the nobility and landowners of British society while raising food prices and the cost of living for the public.

The January rally underscored the fractured dispersal of power within British society, in which working class people were left without representation to demand decisions. Manchester for instance, where the protest on 16 August took place, did not have an MP to represent the city. The very idea of a vote for working class men was still dismissed by those in power. With constituency boundaries left untouched for so long, ‘rotten boroughs’ were no longer uncommon. These were areas that had seen their population decline but maintained an undue level of influence on the right to decide who sat in the Commons. Old Sarum in Wiltshire is perhaps the most referenced example of this.

Constituencies like Old Sarum could be sold similar to an asset - just as it was by the Pitt family, who sold Old Sarum 17 years before the Peterloo massacre in 1802. It may sound difficult to imagine now, but such was the level of disregard for individuals who did not belong to the nobility or the political class.

“Constituencies could also be bought and sold, meaning wealthy industrialists or old aristocrats could buy political influence. Some MPs gained their seats through patronage. This blatant misuse of power provoked calls for reform.”

Alice Loxton, HistoryHit

As many as 60,000 people from across Lancashire are estimated to have taken part in the peaceful protest on 16 August 1819. They demanded political representation and the right to vote, a dramatic reform from the early 19th century status quo. However, the peaceful protestors were met with violence. Intimidated by the size of the gathering, the untrained yeomenry hired by Manchester magistrates turned their sabres to the crowd with the 15th Hussars and the Cheshire Volunteers ordered to join the attack by Magistrate William Hulton. The viscous typhoon of power unhinged and ill will for the working class resulted in an estimated 15 deaths and more than 600 injured. 

Notable speakers such as Hunt were arrested and convicted following the chaos, and the government’s support of the Manchester magistrates was compounded by the passing of the Six Acts. The new laws aimed to curtail future mass gayjerings and suppress the spread of ‘radical’ information via newspapers. 

Despite the tragic events at Peterloo, it would take another 13 years before moderate changes to parliamentary reform were passed in the form of the Great Reform Act. This would shift the boundaries of constituencies and lower the threshold for the right to to vote, but not still far from the necessary extent. Individuals like those in the crowd at Peterloo were still disenfranchised under the new measures to vote.

Mayowa Ayodele