Thursday, August 16, 2007

August 16

On this date in 1819, five dozen saber-bearing cavalrymen -- many of them loaded with drink -- charged a crowd of demonstrators in Manchester, initiating one of the most notorious acts of political suppression in English history. Out of a crowd of 50-80,000, hundreds of people were injured and between eleven and eighteen killed.

The “Peterloo Massacre,” as it came to be known, occurred at St. Peter’s Field during a mass meeting organized by the Manchester Patriotic Union Society. The Manchester radicals were among the many groups calling for such innovations as universal suffrage and a repeal of the corn laws, which -- by taxing imported corn and encouraging the expansion of domestic wheat farming -- had driven the price of bread skyward. Working people, -- crushed by the escalating cost of food and denied corresponding wage increases -- were infuriated, and after the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, unrest rippled throughout the country.

The Manchester Patriotic Union Society, formed in March 1819, invited a group of notable English radicals to speak on August 16. Among them were Richard Carlile, a newspaper publisher, and Henry “Orator” Hunt, a gentleman-turned-radical whose nickname attested to his forensic skills. Local magistrates, wary of the gathering, enlisted hundreds of young men from the local yeoman cavalry along with “special constables” and infantrymen. Their official task was to guard against the outbreak of violence, imagined as always to emanate from the ranks of the lower sorts; their unofficial role, of course, was to ensure that the meeting did not establish a precedent by ending successfully.

In the early afternoon -- just as Hunt was preparing to speak -- the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were ordered to disperse the crowd and arrest its leaders. Samuel Bamford, a weaver and political radical, was among those arrested at St. Peter’s field. He served a year in Ilchester Gaol, after which he wrote one of the most important eyewitness accounts of the massacre. As Bamford explained,
the cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion . . . .

In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down througha sultry and motionless air. The curtains and blinds of the windows within view were all closed. A gentleman or two might occasionally be seen looking out from one of the new houses before mentioned, near the door of which a group of persons (special constables) were collected, and apparently in conversation; others were assisting the wounded or carrying off the dead. The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody.
In the aftermath of the massacre at St. Peter’s Field, the English Parliament issued the so-called Six Acts, which suppressed public meetings, enhanced penalties for “blasphemous and seditious libel,” and restricted press freedoms by placing heavier taxes on newspapers, pamphlets and periodicals.

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