In St Peter’s Square, Manchester, 16th August 1819 played host to an outrage against over 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters, men women and children; an event which became known as The Peterloo Massacre.
An estimated 18 people, including women and children, died from sabre cuts and being trampled under horsefoot. Nearly 700 men, women and children received extremely serious injuries. All in the name of liberty and freedom from poverty.
The Massacre occurred during a period of immense political tension and mass protests. Fewer than 2% of the population had the vote, and hunger was rife with the disastrous Corn Laws making corn expensive thus bread unaffordable.
On the morning of 16th August the crowd began to gather, conducting themselves, according to contemporary accounts, with dignity and discipline, the majority dressed in their Sunday best.
Local magistrates watching from a window near the field panicked at the sight of the assembly, and read the riot act, effectively ordering what little of the crowd could hear them to disperse.
As 600 Hussars, several hundred infantrymen; an artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire cavalry and 400 special constables waited in reserve, the local Yeomanry were given the task of arresting the speakers. The Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Birley and Major Thomas Trafford, were essentially a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners.
On horseback, armed with sabres and clubs, many were familiar with, and had old scores to settle with, the leading protesters. Heading for the hustings, they charged when the crowd linked arms to try and stop the arrests, and proceeded to strike down banners and people with their swords. It is reported that at the time the time that most of the soldiers were in effect drunk or had been drinking.
By 2pm the carnage was over, and the field left full of abandoned banners and dead bodies. Journalists present at the event were arrested, others who went on to report the event were subsequently jailed. The businessman John Edward Taylor went on to help set up the Manchester Guardian newspaper as a reaction to what he’d seen, a newspaper that reflects the views of the left and the ordinary person in the street.
The speakers and organisers were put on trial, at first under the charge of High treason – a charge that was reluctantly dropped by the prosecution. The Hussars and Magistrates received a message of congratulations from the Prince Regent, and were cleared of any wrong-doing by the official inquiry.