In August, 1819, a loud discussion which rapidly turned to unrestrained violence happened in Manchester, centre of the Industrial Revolution in England. As usual on these occasions, the row erupted between civilians and government forces in the form of local yeomanry.
A vociferous crowd, much larger than expected, had gathered in St. Peter’s Fields to hear celebrated orator Henry Hunt address them on what are these days called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ issues. There were around 80,000 people at the rally, peaceful at first, but local magistrates, whose representatives were among the crowd, heard otherwise, and sent the constables to arrest Hunt. This would have been all right, except that the magistrates, told that the people were resisting the attempt to arrest ‘Orator’ Hunt, ordered a body of cavalry to assist the constables. Spies at the demonstration reported that ‘revolutionary banners’ were being carried by the crowd, whom they called ‘dissenters’. Things got out of hand, as they inevitably do on these occasions.
There was a riot, horses were stabbed with nails and knitting needes, and trampled (or fell) on women and children: the sabres were out too. More than five hundred ‘rioters’ were badly hurt. Eleven killed.
After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 there had certainly been a period of civil unrest in Britain, partly enraged by the number of British soldiers and sailors killed in the Allies’ determination to stop Bonaparte, and the cost of the wars. Dislike of the Government was mixed with more and more liberal attempts to make the lot of the working man (caught in the middle of the Industrial Revolution) better, or, to put it truthfully, less savage.
‘Orator’ Hunt was arrested and jailed for two years for incitement to riot. In itself this was monstrous; he had come to speak in peace, though the 80,000 potential rioters was much more than he and his group had anticipated.
Prime Minister Lord Liverpool’s reaction was the passing of the repressing Six Acts. Widespread criticism of the magistrates’ behaviour spread across Britain and Europe. These were days when civil rights did not exist, and the common people were accustomed to bow to Authority with little resentment; they imagined it was their destiny to be downtrodden.
The Manchester magistrates got a letter of congratulation personally written by Home Secretary Viscount Sidmouth. Cartoonists in the newspapers, however, enjoyed a wonderful moment, comparing the Manchester incident to the Battle of Waterloo. This led to the nickname – ‘Peterloo Massacre’.