George Cruikshank casts his caricaturist’s eye across the events of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819

On the 16th August 1819 a crowd reckoned to be between sixty and eighty thousand strong gathered in St Peters’ Fields, Manchester to hear Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and other radicals address them on the issue of parliamentary reform. (See also the Peterloo Banner and Manchester Heroes)

The local magistrates, who had banned the assembly, panicked at the size of the crowd and ordered the military authorities to arrest Hunt and his fellow radicals. The nearest unit was the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, who upon receiving the order, enthusiastically charged into the crowd.

Although regular cavalry and infantry were also on the scene, as well as the Cheshire Yeomanry, Cruikshank made a deliberate choice to focus on one of the yeomanry units in his satirical depiction of the scene. If this did not convey his intended message, the caption to the cartoon makes the social implications even clearer.

‘Down with ‘em! Chop ‘em down my brave boys: give them no quarter they want to take our Beef & Pudding from us! – & remember the more you kill the less the poor rates you’ll have to pay so go at it Lads show your courage & your Loyalty.’

Whereas most of the troopers in the regular army shared the social status of the crowd, the yeomanry comprised gentlemen and, as the name suggests, yeoman. These were freeholders and tenant farmers. They needed to be men of some substance because they had to provide their own horses and uniform, while the government supplied arms and ammunition.

Although initially raised in 1794 for home defence against a threatened French invasion, the yeomanry was subsequently used as a gendamerie in support of the civil powers, a role which regular cavalry also performed.

The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were not raised until 1817, in response to outbreaks of social unrest, particularly among textile and other factory workers. Significantly, the first commander of the unit, Thomas Trafford, was a mill owner, and Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, who led the charge, owned a local factory.

It is also notable that an officer of the 15th Light Dragoons, who were also on the scene, was heard to remonstrate with the yeomanry: ‘For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forebear, forebear! The people cannot get away.’

Just as Peterloo is a play on Waterloo, so the charge of the Yeomanry is an ironic reminder of the charge of the Household and Union Brigades four years previously – against the French, not their own people.