This month’s lecture was given by Jeff Childs, a well-known local historian and a tutor with the Historical Association Swansea Branch.
August 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the massacre and Jeff began by giving the definition of the word ‘massacre’ as – an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of many people. By the standards of the day the slaughter was violent, deliberate and prolonged. Views of historians of the events vary, seeing it as either a catastrophe for reform or a heroic first step on the road to democracy.
Those attending that day were tradesmen and their families, all respectively dressed, who went to hear speakers calling for reform of parliament, and they did not expect a massacre. Henry Hunt, a member of the landed gentry and one of the organisers, had ensured that the meeting was legal but he was viewed as a dangerous rebel rouser by the authorities.
The meeting took place in a three acre central place called St Peters Field. It called for universal suffrage, annual parliament and a repeal of the Corn Law. The magistrates made the decision to arrest Hunt as soon as he started speaking, before he had chance to rouse the crowd. The end was 18 killed and more than 650 injured, most by the newly formed part-time Yeomanry who had become separated from each other, panicked and drew their weapons. The Hussars were sent in to rescue the Yeomanry after the Riot Act, which had no effect, was read.
In the early 19th century there was severe political oppression. Seats were bought and sold or handed down. Manchester, which was growing in size due to immigration for work, had no representation. In a time of falling harvests and rising food prices there was a genuine fear of a revolution similar to that which had happened in France. At the time there were no formal police forces and the years leading up to 1819 had seen an increase in unrest, 1811-1815 was the time the Luddiates were active, there was violent at a political meeting in 1816 and trouble in Tredegar and Merthyr in 1816 and Carmarthen in 1818.
It is possible that the size of the crowd, estimated to be 60,000, made the magistrates panic. The Yeomanry had no experience of crowd control and the slashed out indiscriminately, the first fatality was a two year old boy. Yet the troops received thanks from the magistrates, and congratulations from Lord Sidmouth and the Prince Regent. Following the massacre six acts were passed aimed at suppressing meetings for the purpose of radical reform and in 1822 the Yeomanry was acquitted of any wrong-doing.
Amongst the legacy of Peterloo were trade unions, the Labour Party and Women’s suffrage.