Hidden Gallery – Peterloo Massacre

Building the resistance

These were the early days of the Industrial Revolution and Manchester was the centre ofthe key industry of cotton production. Only the very rich had the vote in 1819. There was not an MP for Manchester. The Corn Laws resulted in bread riots. Mechanisation of traditional industries caused unemploymentand starvation, leading to the Luddites’ resistance. The debts from the Napoleonic Wars led to unstable markets for industrial output. Wages were routinely cut. Workers and their families paid the price. The Tory governments had viciously supressed demands for reform and made trade unions illegal. Yet working people managed to find ways to combine, organiseand prepare for change. Hamden Clubs and Reform Unions were formed and the demand for women’s equality was aired.


The working and living conditions of the working class were dire and they had no political means to effect change. Tory governments had brutally repressed trade unions. In 1817 a petition was organised, to be taken by volunteers to the Prince Regent (substituting for the mentallyill George III). They planned to walk to London, carrying a blanket for warmth at night. These Blanketeers assembled at St Peter’s Fields on the 10th March 1817 with 12,000 supporters. As magistrates read the Riot Act, hundreds of Blanketeers escaped, pursued by cavalry. 200 were arrested in Stockport, 200 made it to Macclesfield, 50 got to Leek and a few to Derby. It is thought that one made it to London and handed the petition to Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary. Nothing came of that effort.

Women in white

The early workshops and colleries included women as workers. As the factory system expanded, women became a significant proportion of the workforce in mills and factories. They toiled in mainly low paid and precarious employment. Women experienced both the deprivationsof the workplace and the burdens of
domestic labour and child rearing. Many joined the demand for universal suffrage and founded their own organisations, such as the Stockport Female Union Society. Women often lead the columns that marched from the surrounding towns. Many wore white clothes as a public challenge to malicious accusations about their morality. Some carried greenery as well as the red cap of liberty, the symbol of revolutionary France. In 1928 all working class women got the vote.

Naddy Joe’s specials

Prior to the formation of the first regular police force in 1829, for centuries the local ruling class appointed magistrates who could in turn appoint ‘Constables’. In anticipation of unrest in the summer of 1819 in Manchester, a Select Committee of Magistrates was formed and had at their command 400 newly sworn-in special constables and a group entitled the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry. The Specials were drawn from a layer of society with some personal wealth and education and who desired to secure their precarious status ‘above’ the mass of factory and mill workers. Named after the corrupt, powerful and feared Deputy Constable, Joseph Nady, Nady Joe’s Specials were armed with long wooden truncheons.

First in the frey

The magistrates had issued an arrest warrant for leading speakers on 16th August 1819. A column of Nady Joe’s Specials was formed between the location of the observing magistrates and the makeshift stage. Yeomanry Cavalry were already slashing at the crowd as they supported Nady in serving the warrant. The Specials set about battering the crowd as their fellow yeomanry, and other troops, slashed their way through the shocked and defenceless men, women and children. The members of the assembly had come with peaceful intent and had little to protect themselves and their children.

“Cut them down” (the massacre)

Monday 16th August 1819 was a working day. Tens of thousands of workers did not go to work. Groups of working class men, women andchildren walked from  the villages and towns surrounding Manchester to its centre in their Sunday best. They came to listen to the call for electoral reform. The local ruling class, in the form of a Special Committee of Magistrates, had at their disposal over 1,000 soldiers, artillery and hundreds of regular cavalry, in addition to the hundreds of newly sworn-in Nady Joe’s Specials and hundreds of Yeomanry Cavalry. The magistrates waited until there were tens of thousands of people in St Peter’s Fields before they read the Riot Act, probably inaudible to anyone except themselves. The local forces battered and slashed their way to the main stage and then turned on the crowd. The regular cavalry and soldiers followed, sweeping and trampling the people ahead of them. At least 18 people were killed and around 650 were severely injured. The banners and flags of the crowd were a target for the local force. Women were disproportionally injured and killed.

True of aim

The assembly of tens of thousands of men, women and children had little means to defend themselves and so scattered as quickly as they could. Many of the exits from the area were sealed off by the regular troops, forcing people to seek any route to escape the massacre unfolding around them. Some retreated to The Friends Meeting House where they presented some resistance. One young women is reported to have stood her ground and hurled stones at the cavalry. The walls (which remain) around the Meeting House (now rebuilt) provided some protection. They were eventually overwhelmed by the mounted Yeomanry

After the storm

The ‘Specials’, who battered their way around the assembly, joined the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, who slashed with sabres at the men, women and children. The magistrates directed the 15th Hussars Cavalry and the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, with hundreds of soldiers, bayonet fixed, to support the local forces and to clear the area. The thousands were swept out of St Peter’s Fields within a short time. Those left in St Peter’s Fields were dead or severely wounded, shocked and traumatised.

A place to die

As tens of thousands of men, women and children frantically dispersed, they were ruthlessly pursued and attacked throughout Manchester and beyond for 24 hours. Many had to seek sanctuary to escape the truncheon and sabre. Others found a secluded space to lay low. There was not a public health service, no antibiotics and little pain relief. Fear of severe repercussions for themselves and their family led many not to seek attention for their injuries. Few workers could afford private medical attention. A number died of their injuries sometime after the assault. Dozens were jailed, some for years.