Oldham Historical Research Group

Long Millgate, Manchester crica 1800
Long Millgate, Manchester
circa 1800

Monday 16th August, 1819
St. Peter's Field, Manchester.

The 'Red Rover' Stagecoach in market Street, Manchester in 1823

BEFORE ... ON THE DAY ... AFTERMATH : In Two parts
Narrative & Pictures from the talk at Oldham HRG Meeting, August 2016

Part 1 ... BEFORE & ON THE DAY

image links to larger version

Market Place, Manchester in 1823
Market Place,
Manchester in 1823
Read : Part 2:

William Hogarth engraving
William Hogarth engraving

197 years ago England was seething with unrest.

George III was on the throne but the power had lain with the Prince Regent, since 1811.

Peterloo 1819
Peterloo 1819

197 years and one day ago [writing this on the 17th August 2016], tens of thousands of working men, women and children, came together for a mass rally in Manchester to hear what the radical reformer, Henry 'Orator' Hunt had to say. and to show their support for social and political reform. Their wishes were for a fair days' pay for a fair day's work; for decent food on the table and a roof over their heads; and to achieve this, they needed to have their collective voice heard in Parliament,

However, we know that those plans went terrribly wrong, as the enthusiastic and hopeful atmosphere turned into one of terror as the thronged field was broken up by the charging Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry, brandishing newly sharpened sabres and leaving many dead and over 600 wounded..

William Rowbottom's Diary entry 16th August 1819
William Rowbottom's Diary entry 16th August 1819

William Rowbottom, a handloom weaver of Burnley Lane, wrote of the events in his diary ..

1819 August 16th -

"Manchester public meeting praying for universal sufferage and annual parliaments was holden this day. An emence number of people attended from all the neighbouring parts, and several parties had elegant flags with different mottos there on, particularly from Stockport, Ashton, Oldham Royton, Saddleworth, and all the neighbouring towns. The meeting, which consisted of upwards of seventy thousand, was conducted in the most peaceable and orderly manner, but when the celebrated Mr. Hunt had taken the chair, a large number of constables with the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalary, and the 15th Hussars and 31st Regement of Foot made a tremendous dash at the hustings, took the speakers into custody, took and destroyed all the collors and flags, one from Middleton excepted.

The cavallarry and the constables made sad havoc uppon the poor defencless people. The constables, wi’ there trunchion and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, with there sabres;

Detail from William Rowbottom's Diary entry 16th August 1819
Detail from William Rowbottom's Diary entry 16th August 1819

a number where killed on the spot, and report says upwards of 300 wounded, and some very dangerously. To the honour of the regular soldiers they shewed the greatest forebearance, and shewed a deal of humanity. The following are amongst the killed:- Mr. Ashworth, of Bull’s Head, Market-place, Manchester; Mr. Parkinson from Eccles; John Ashton, from Cowhill, near Oldham; William Fildes, an infant of Manchester; Joseph Whitworth, from Hide.

Detail from William Rowbottom's Diary entry 16th August 1819
Detail from William Rowbottom's Diary entry 16th August 1819

An emence number where wounded, and a great number severely wounded, and some dangerously.

Mr. Hunt, the chairman, and the different speakers where torn off the hustings, and conveyed to the New Bayley, where part were committed to Lancaster and part-bailed; their charge was misdemeanour." [sic]


To understand the significance of Peterloo we need to put it into its historical context.

French Revolution & American War Of Independence
French Revolution & American War Of Independence

The 2nd half of the 18th century had seen revolution on a grand scale ... Britain had lost the American colonies in the American War of Independence. The French Revolution followed close on its heels with tales of horror and massacre, and Napoleon had emerged as a military leader who then became an Emperor.

William Hogarth engraving
'Southwark Fair' by William Hogarth

Historically, British lower classes had been largely patriotic - loyally supporting 'king and country' and the established order;

they knew 'their place' in the ordained hierarchy.

Chethams, Manchester 1797
Chethams, Manchester 1797

Political Cartoon
Political Cartoon

However, as the country approached the new century the catalysts for radical change were coming into play. They included :

* The increasing speed in the development of mechanised industries; particularly relevant in the manufacturing areas.
* The appearance of trade combinations.
* The increasingly unpopular Napoleonic Wars which had taken their toll of both men and money.
* The realisation, on the part of the working men and women, that there was an unfair distribution of wealth and profit.
* Reform - and sometimes Revolutionary ideals - were being published, and absorbed, by the working classes. They, in their turn, were leading to increasing numbers of radical groups insistently demanding Reform.

Political Cartoon
Political Cartoon


In those early years, there were no social media, TV or cinema, to 'spread the word'.
The weapon of choice, to undermine the authorities, both religious and secular, was often that of printed material - pamphlets, journals, cartoons and satirical verse.

The verses were often set to well known and catchy tunes. The cartoons were graphic and explicit, sparing nothing and no-one.

The importance of the poems and songs mustn't be underestimated:
* They could be called up from memory;
* They could demand an emotional response in small gatherings or large.
* They hammered home the 'bullet points' of the radical message, at the expense of authority, in a way that grabbed attention, caught at emotions and frequently entertained.
* Most importantly, they lived on in folk memory, long after printed versions were lost and more recent events took over the headlines.

Political Cartoon
Political Cartoon

Even when the tax on publications was raised to excessive levels, subscription groups came together and, at a 1d a week, bought and shared the publications. They came together secretly to read and discuss the radical - and banned - material which condemned the exploitation of the poor and emphasised their 'victim status'.

The printed pamphlets argued the fact that their only hope was parliamentary reform which would give a voice to the working man.

Looking at some contemporary accounts, we can find the evidence of the everyday suffering and inequality.

Interior of John Wood's Cloth Cropping Shop
Interior of John Wood's Cloth Cropping Shop

In William Rowbottom's diary we read his entry ...
"December 8th, 1808 ...
The most wretched and miserable times ever experienced. Weaving never so low, and all sorts of provisions so high.

and later ...
"The year 1809 commenced on a Sunday, which was cold, a rough, boisterous day, and in respect of Christmas there was not the least appearance of it, for there was no poor family which had power to brew, such is the distressedness of the times, work so low and scarce, for there are hundreds in Oldham parish who are entirely without work, weaving is at the lowest ebb ever remembered."

later that same month we read ...

January 27th.- Commenced a fine thaw. In the beginning of this month. Subscriptions were opened, in different parts of the country, for the relief of the starving poor at Oldham. There were potatoes and bacon, beef or mutton given to the poor in quantities according to the necessityand number of mouths in a family, insomuch, that 50 sheep and 70 loads of potatoes were distributed in one day."

William Hogarth
William Hogarth

There were ups and down for the next 10 years. Anxiety on the part of government - fearing revolution - led to repressive measures thus creating a cycle of radical activity followed by further government condemnation and reprisals.

* More machines were being introduced into tjhe workplace.
* Lancashire weavers were denied legislative protection.
* There were attempts at collective bargaining.
* There was localised rioting.
* Combinations were condemned.
* Calls for a minimum wage were denied.

The working man was left defenceless ... and desperate.


It was against this background, especially in 1811 and 1812, that the Luddites made their ill-fated and short-lived appearance.

There were sporadic outbreaks of violence but by 1816 these had virtually ceased.

Frame Breakers
Frame Breakers

In the Manchester Historical Recorder we can read ...

" February 1812
Ryder’s 'Frame Breaking Act - constituting frame-breaking a capital - instead of a transportable offence ... was passed

and then, for June 11th we read:

" 38 men ... who had assembled at a public-house in Ancoats Lane ... were taken up ... and tried for administering the Luddite oath ... but were acquitted."

We know, from other sources ... that the men referred to were John Knight from Oldham, who was charged with administering the oath and another 37 men who were charged with attending a 'seditious meeting'.

Elsewhere, that year, more than a dozen men were hanged for similar or related offences.

Back to Rowbottom's diary for April 20th, 1812 and we read :

" Monday, the most daring riots took place at Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne, Rochdale and Oldham, and all the neighbouring places.
Their complaint was the high price of provisions, the badness of trade and the lowness of wages in Oldham.

They compelled the shopkeepers to sell their flour 3s. and meal 2s and some of the most daring took bread, cheese, bacon, etc.

A great number went to Middleton where there is a factory belonging to Mr. D. Burton where they weave calicoes by steam. The mob assailed the windows [and] when those within the factory fired on the mob - horrid to relate - four were killed on the spot and a great number wounded and some very dangerously."

In the same year, we read in the Manchester Historical Recorder :

"April.— Food riots in Manchester."

and then:

"June 13th - 8 persons executed at Lancaster for rioting at Manchester, 4 for mill burning, 3 for breaking into a house merely to obtain some food and a woman for stealing some potatoes at Bank Top."

Political Cartoon
Political Cartoon

By 1819, great hardship was being endured, in many areas, bringing disatisfaction, misery, resentment and deep anger at the perceived injustice of the working man's situation, under the increasing burden of taxation to fund the Prince Regent's personal extravagance.

This cartoon from 1816 shows the Prince Regent demanding more money and the cabinet members vomiting taxes into a large bag labelled, 'Budget'.

* There was sporadic rioting ... and localised acts of violence.
* The Prince Regent, with his government in Westminster, had become exceedingly nervous, to the extent that Habeus Corpus had been suspended in 1817.
* And acts defining High Treason and Sedition had been passed in an attempt to curb the spread of radical ideals.

Henry 'Orator' Hunt
Henry 'Orator' Hunt

By this time, Henry (orator) Hunt, had emerged as a strong and insistent voice for reform.

Amongst other things, he called for a repeal of the Corn Laws, universal manhood suffrage, secret ballots and an annual parliament.

Hunt's policy to bring about reform was one of strong and continuous constitutional pressure on government ... Revolution was not a part of it.

Samuel Bamford
Samuel Bamford

One of Hunt's early admirers, was a local weaver called Samuel Bamford - a radical, with a strong social conscience and aspirations to become a published poet.

Through his own autobiographical works, 'Early Days' and 'Passages in the Life of a Radical', we know a good deal about what was happening at that time.

Samuel had been born in Middleton in 1788 and, after a number of different jobs, he returned to his roots and became a weaver in Middleton.

Major John Cartwright - Hampden Clubs
Major John Cartwright - Hampden Clubs

In 1816, the already politically aware Samuel became secretary of the Middleton Hampden Club which functioned as a society for debating political issues and campaigning for reform ...

Other local branches were formed - in Royton (which was the 1st outside London), Oldham, Rochdale, Manchester and Ashton under Lyne.

Sherwin's Political Register
Sherwin's Political Register

For a penny a week they would meet and read the latest radical publications and newspapers such as the 'Manchester Observer', 'Black Dwarf', 'Sherwin's Political Register' (which later became 'The Republican') and Cobbett's 'Political Register' ... and then debate the issues raised.

In January 1817, Samuel was a delegate to a London convention of the Hampden clubs, the purpose of which was to discuss a proposed Reform Bill, to be presented to the House of Commons.

Political Cartoon
Political Cartoon

The years of localised riots had convinced the Home Secretary, Viscount Sidmouth, that Revolution to overthrow the government and monarchy was being plotted and, was further convinced, that it was in the Hampden Clubs that this plotting took place.

This cartoon, dating from 1817, illustrates the nervous reaction of the government as they operated their 'spy system'. Spies were not only employed to report on anything suspicious they could find but also encouraged to create 'honey-traps' by instigating revolutionary plots, in order to ensnare the unwary, thereby providing the spy-masters with excuses to crack down on the leaders.


Joseph Nadin - Deputy Constable of Manchester in 1819
Joseph Nadin - Deputy Constable of Manchester in 1819

One such plot appears to have been that of the Blanketeers' proposed march to London, In 1817.

Manchester's Deputy Chief Constable, Joseph Nadin, notoriously implicated in the later Peterloo Massacre, rounded up and arrested the supposed local organisers, including Samuel Bamford.

Samuel had spoken out against the idea of the march, sensing a trap but, even so, along with the others, he was arrested and sent to London in irons. They were held there for several months - before being released without charge.


On their release from prison they formed the 'Patriotic Union Society' and it was this body which organised the ill-fated Meeting, in August 1819, on St Peter's Field in Manchester.

The object of the meeting was to promote the need for representation in parliament and the notice in the Manchester Observer read, "The public are most respectfuly informed, a meeting will be held to take into consideration the most speedy and effectual mode of obtaining Radical Reform in the Commons House of Parliament, being fully convinced that nothing less can remove the intolerable evils under which the People of this country have so long, and do still, groan ... "

and went on, " ... to consider the propriety of the unrepresented inhabitants of Manchester ... electing a person to represent them in Parliament ..."

Originally planned for the 9th, the meeting had been refused permission to go ahead but, on appeal, and with the emphasis on the new wording, and no rejection from the magistrates, the planners believed that permission was implicit.

Letter between Whitehall & Norris (Manchester Magistrate) in 1819
Letter between Whitehall & Norris (Manchester Magistrate) in 1819

Behind the scenes, it appears that the Manchester Magistrates had resolved to use this opporunity to send a signal to radical reformers that their message was unwelcome and would be strongly opposed.

Just how much of what happened was orchestrated, is still open to debate. 200 years of lies and cover-up is difficult to penetrate to find the truth!

Letters between the Magistrates and Lord Sidmouth appear to suggest that the Magistrates could infer that any use of force to disupt the meeting would have the approval of Westminster as long as it wasn't overtly illegal..

Peterloo 181
Peterloo 1819

The Manchester Yeomanry sent their sabres to be sharpened. The 15th Hussars were brought in. A couple of big guns were readied for use if necessary; and a regiment of Infantry were on standby.

Letter from Hunt to the 'Inhabitants of Manchester' in 1819
Letter from Hunt to the 'Inhabitants of Manchester' in 1819

Still politically very active but careful not to fall into another trap or fall foul of the law, again, Samuel was determined that the mass Reform meeting, planned for August, would reflect credit on the marchers.

He intended that they would prove that the working man could rise to the challenge of responsibility and behave in a moderate manner that would convince the doubters of the justice of their claims.

To this end, he determined that the Middleton contingent would march in an orderly fashion, well-turned out, sober and restrained.

Prior to the Big Day, groups of men would meet after work to practise military-style drilling so that instructions could be carried out cleanly and without the march becoming shambolic.

No sticks or weapons were to be tolerated.

In the early morning of the 16th August, the reformers, of the villages and towns around Middleton, met up in their Sunday best outfits, along with their wives and children, for what was to be a day out ... but one with a serious purpose.

Map of Oldham in 1817
Map of Oldham in 1817

The Oldham Contingent met up at 9am on the Village Green, Bent Grange (as far as can be seen from early maps it is in the locality of the red circle on this map) and were joined there by the Chadderton contingent. Later, along the route, they were joined by the Failsworth Radicals.

According to one account, there were 16 banners and 5 caps of Liberty in this local group. The Oldham Banner was described as " most beautiful ... of white silk."

The Royton section carried 2 banners of red and green silk, one of which belonged to 'The Royton Female Union', with 200 women dressed in white marching alongside it.


THE DAY ... MONDAY 16th AUGUST, 1819

Diagram of Peterloo locality & troops on 16th August 1819
Diagram of Peterloo locality & troops on 16th August 1819

There are several first hand, witness accounts of the events of that fateful day as they unfolded.

On the main points, they generally tally. The discrepancies that occur depend on where the witnesses' sympathies lay.

Eye Witness reports state that, although the numbers of people were enormous and the marchers were in formation, filling the streets, the general atmosphere was one full of good humour; of general chatter and laughter; bands were playing and flags waving.

However, men had been employed by the magistrates, to clear the field of any rocks or broken bricks etc., that could be used as missiles in the event of a riot.

As the marchers set off from their different villages, the Manchester Magistrates met for breakfast, at Star Inn on Deansgate, to consider their options for the day ahead.

Amongst this govenment appointed number, there would be no sympathy for the cause of the approaching marchers.

Early morning ... and on the the south side of the empty field, near Windmill Street, the hustings platform was being erected, ready for the speakers who would include Henry Hunt and Oldham's John Knight.

As the hour of the meeting drew nearer the marchers entered Manchester from all directions, marching through the streets and converging on St. Peter's Field; gathering near the platform or on the raised ground at the end of Windmill street near the corner of Mount Street.

Back on Mount Street and the Magistrates moved into one of the houses overlooking the field ... to observe the proceedings.

In the adjoining houses, other people were also watching from their own windows.

Bishop Stanley
Bishop Stanley

However, in the house from which the Magistrates were watching, there was another, unexpected person, a clergyman who had called on Mr. Buxton, the houseowner, on business.

He had been ushered from the room where the magistrates were at the window, and gone upstairs to watch from the window above. This was the Reverend Edward Stanley, the Rector of Alderley, a man who was a Statistician, with an analytical mind, who wrote a careful, critical and apparently impartial and unembroidered account of all he saw on the day.

200 special constables were lined up forming an avenue from Mount Street, through the crowd, to create access to the hustings, and allow arrests when necessary.

Henry Hunt, along with the other speakers, Johnson, Knight and Moorhouse, along with Mrs. Mary Fildes, arrived in a barouche and entered the field at the corner of Peter Street, by the church.

The carriage made its way through the crowd to the hustings.

There, they joined several newspaper reporters, amongst whom was :
John Tyas for the London 'Times',
Edward Baines for the 'Leeds Mercury',
John Saxton of the 'Manchester Observer',
and John Smith for the 'Liverpool Mercury'.
The radical publisher, Richard Carlile, was also present.

Henry Hunt opened proceedings and started his speech.

It's at this point that accounts begin to differ wildly as later versions sought to justify the actions of those in authority.

Peterloo 1819
Peterloo 1819

The magistrates at the window now either panicked or proceeded with an already decided-upon plan of action.

30 townsfolk, including Richard Owen and Mr. Phillips, signed an affidavit to the effect that they 'considered the town was endangered' thereby justifying the arrest of the speakers. A warrant was accordingly drawn up for the arrest of the 4 speakers and Joseph Nadin, the Deputy Constable, was instructed to carry it out.

Significantly, Nadin requested - as a vital necessity - the assistance of the Military in carrying out these instructions.

Riders were instantly despatched to bring in the troops who were already positioned, out of sight, in the nearby streets.

Hunt had barely begun speaking.

Diagram of Peterloo locality & troops on 16th August 1819
Diagram of Peterloo locality & troops on 16th August 1819

Back to the diagram again ...

This helps to show the troop movements and set the scene for what happened.
The blue circle is the hustings and the line from Peter Street to the hustings is the route of Henry Hunt's arrival in a carriage.

The avenue of 200 special constables is in turquoise, leading from the house on Mount Street to the hustings.

The Manchester Yeomanry, who had assembled on Cooper Street, were the first to arrive on the scene. They had set off at a fast pace along Cooper Street and, along the way, one of the troops catching up at a gallop , knocked down a woman with a young child.

That 2 year old child, called William Fildes, was killed and became the first fatality of Peterloo.

The yeomanry then continued onto the field at Mount Street where they paused for a few minutes, in what was described as 'great disorder', before almost immediately charging into the crowd and towards the hustings.

The 15th Hussars had assembled, with their artillery, on Lower Mosley street, near the corner of Windmill Street. On being sent for, they moved onto the field in front of the Magistrates House and waited until ordered to disperse the crowd.

The Cheshire yeomanry had been positioned on Windmill Street, near the hustings, but it's unclear from reports as to when they actually entered the fray. The Infantry don't appear to have arrived on the field until it was virtually over.

The Manchester yeomanry, with their newly sharpened swords, arrived from the NE corner of the field and turned left along the houses on Mount Street.

The 15th Hussars were in readiness, coming onto Mount Street at the other end, at the corner of Windmill Street .

The Cheshire yeomanry moved into postion along the houses on Windmill Street and behind the hustings

Modern, animated graphics showing the events, sometimes give the impression of relatively small numbers of the military but, in actual fact, the number ran into several hundreds.

The Magistrates declared emphatically that, at this point, there was no intention to disperse the crowd with cavalry, only to arrest the speakers and, hopefully, allow the crowd to disperse quietly, as a result.

Hunt was aware of the arrival of the yeomanry and shouted, "Stand firm my friends! You see they are in disorder already! This is a trick! Give them three cheers!"

In reality, and without any warning, Nadin, with the Manchester yeomanry, charged from the right through the crowd towards the hustings and the constables.

Peterloo 1819
Peterloo 1819

In the account by F. A. Bruton we can read ...

" ... they soon increased their speed, and with a zeal and ardour - which might naturally be expected from men acting with delegated power against a foe by whom it is understood, they had long been insulted with taunts of cowardice - continued their course, seeming individually to vie with each other which should be first.

As the cavalry approached the dense mass of people they used their utmost efforts to escape but so closely were they pressed in opposite directions by the soldiers, the special constables, the position of the hustings and their own immense numbers, that immediate escape was impossible.

The rapid course of the troop was, of course, impeded when it came in contact with the mob but a passage was forced in less than a minute, so fast indeed, that the guard of constables close to the hustings, shared the fate of the rest.

On arrival at the hustings a scene of dreadful confusion ensued. The orators fell or were forced off the scaffold in quick succession. Fortunately for them the stage, being rather elevated, they were, in great degree, beyond the reach of the many swords which gleamed around them. From the moment they began to force their way through the crowd, towards the hustings, swords were up and swords were down."

On their reaching the platform, Hunt would not surrender himself to military arrest and Nadin, as a civil police officer, made the arrests and Hunt and his party were dragged along the avenue of constables to the Magistrates' house.

The riot Act
The Riot Act

It is at this juncture that evidence becomes even more skewed in order to reflect the preferrred version of 'truth'!

Two points at cross purposes were :
(a) the alleged violence of the crowd against the Yeomanry concerning the throwing of missiles at the Yeomanry and the sound of gunfire.
and ...
(b) whether or not the Riot Act was read before the Hussars charged the crowd.

One troop of the Manchester Yeomanry, about 50 or 60 men, were by now surrounded by the crowd and a watching Magistrate, Mr. Hulton, decided that he could see "sticks flourished" and "brickbats thrown at the Yeomanry" statements which were refuted emphatically by other, more impartial witnesses.

On Hulton's order, the 15th Hussars charged into the crowd, after he exclaimed to their commanding officer, "Good God, sir! don't you see they're attacking the yeomanry? Disperse the Meeting!"

Although it was maintained that the Riot Act was read from a window, of the house on Mount Street, no-one who was considered to be impartial, heard it being read (not even Reverend Stanley in the room directly above). And, even if it had been, at least an hour should have been allowed, by law, for an orderly dispersal by the crowd themselves.

In much of what we read, the Hussars are normally credited with using the flat of the sword, rather than the cutting edge.

The Manchester Yeomanry attack the dense crowds with sharpened sabresThe Manchester Yeomanry attack the dense crowds with sharpened sabres.

The crowd was dispersed in just 10 minutes, leaving approximately 15 dead and over 600 wounded.

read ... Part 2 THE AFTERMATH

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