This protest banner was one of many carried to a Reform meeting convened by the Manchester Radical Union at St Peter’s Field in Manchester on 16 August 1819. By mid-afternoon as many as fifteen people, including four women and a child, were either dead or fatally injured. A further 400-700 suffered serious wounds, including Thomas Redford, who carried this banner.

There was a popular outcry, and the radical press named the event the “Peterloo Massacre”, a mocking reference to the Battle of Waterloo.

After 23 years of war, Britain had serious social problems. Unemployment was widespread, particularly in the north, where the textile industry was in decline. Thousands of discharged soldiers and sailors were looking for work. There were several years of famine, made worse by the hated Corn Laws, which artificially inflated the price of bread.

All these problems increased the agitation for parliamentary reform. This was the cause that brought 400,000 – 700,000 people to St Peter’s Field. Their banners clearly demonstrated what they wanted: “Reform”, “Universal Suffrage”, “No Corn Laws”, “Annual Parliaments”. This banner carried a more subversive message. “Liberty and Fraternity” echoed the words of the French Revolutionaries; “Unity and Strength” suggested the power of overwhelming numbers. To the British government, the St. Peter’s Field meeting looked like a prelude to revolution.

The local magistrates were anxiously watching events from a nearby window. They were prepared to break up this peaceful demonstration by force, using soldiers. The magistrates had in reserve the 15th Hussars, the Cheshire Yeomanry, two 6-pounder guns, and 400 special constables, while the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were closer to the scene.

Seriously unnerved by the size of the crowd, the magistrates read the Riot Act, ordering the crowd to disperse – but which very few protesters actually heard. Henry Hunt, one of the orators addressing the crowd, and the other radical speakers were already on the cart that served as a platform. The magistrates sent two letters, one to the nearby Yeomanry and the other to the commander of the Hussars, instructing them to arrest the speakers.

The Yeomanry arrived first, a body of fiercely anti-radical volunteers led by a local factory owner, Captain Hugh Hornby Birley. They were mounted on horseback and armed with swords. The crowd tried to prevent them reaching the speakers, and immediately felt the fury of the inexperienced and possibly drunk horsemen, who were soon supported by the Hussars. Some victims were slashed with sabres. Others were trampled under horses’ hooves.

In the ensuing panic between 11 and 15 people were killed and over 400 were injured. Shortly before dying of his wounds, John Lees, a cotton spinner from Oldham and a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, claimed to have been in less danger at Waterloo than on St Peter’s Field. His friend William Harrison later testified, “At Waterloo there was man to man, but there [on St Peter’s Field] it was downright murder.”

The name ‘Peterloo’ was coined as a mocking play on Waterloo, a battle in which the real heroes had fought a real enemy, rather than unarmed civilians. The event provoked greater repression in the short term, but it also stimulated even greater agitation for political reform with eventually led to the Great Reform Act of 1832.

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This object is in the collection of Touchstones Rochdale