Mary Fildes

Mary Fildes

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The Manchester Female Reform Group was formed in the summer of 1819. One of the main figures in the group was Mary Fildes. A passionate radical Mary named her two sons after John Cartwright and Henry Hunt. Fildes was also involved in the campaign for birth control and when she attempted to sell books on the subject she was accused in the local press of distributing pornography.

Fildes was one of the main speakers at the St. Peter's Field meeting on 16th August, 1819. Some reports claimed that the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry attempted to murder Fildes while arresting the leaders of the demonstration. One eyewitness described how "Mrs. Fildes, hanging suspended by a nail which had caught her white dress, was slashed across her exposed body by one of the brave cavalry." Although badly wounded Mary Fildes survived and continued her campaign for the vote.

In the 1830s and 1840s Mary Fildes was active in the Chartist movement. Fildes later moved to Chester where she ran the Shrewsbury Arms in Frodsham Street. She also adopted her grandson, Luke Fildes, who was later to become one of Britain's most successful artists.

Mary Fildes died in May 1875 while visiting friends in Manchester.

At one of these meetings, which took place at Lydgate, in Saddleworth, and at which Bagguley, Drummond, Fitton, Haigh, and others were the principal speakers, I, in the course of an address, insisted on the right, and the propriety also, of females who were present at such assemblages voting by a show of hands for or against the resolutions. This was a new idea; and the women, who attended numerously on that bleak ridge, were mightily pleased with it. When the resolution was put the women held up their hands amid much laughter; and ever from that time females voted with the men at the Radical meetings.

Among the many schemes which now endanger the peace of our society, are some for the forming female political associations, to inculcate in the minds of mothers and of the rising generation a disrespect for parliament. One of these, it is alleged, has been formed in Blackburn, in this county!!!

A club of Female Reformers, amounting in numbers, according to our calculations, 150 came from Oldham; and another, not quite so numerous, from Royton. The first bore a white silk banner, by far the most elegant displayed during the day, inscribed 'Major Cartwright's Bill, Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Vote by Ballot'. The females of Royton bore two red flags, the one inscribed 'Let us die like men, and not sold like slaves'; the other 'Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage'.

A group of women of Manchester, attracted by the crowd, came to the corner of the street where we had taken our post. They viewed the Oldham Female Reformers for some time with a look in which compassion and disgust was equally blended, and at last burst out into an indignant exclamation - "Go home to your families, and leave sike-like as these to your husbands and sons, who better understand them." The women who addressed them were of the lower order of life.

Last name: Fildes

Recorded in various forms including: Filde, Fildes, Files and Fyldes, this is an English surname of medieval origins. It is locational and regional, deriving from the district of Lancashire known as "The Fylde Coast", of which the town of Blackpool is the largest constituent part. Where the surname appears in a plural form this is genitive, and describes one who is a dweller at that place, rather than is more usual with locational names, a person who is from that place. Locational and residential surnames as a group form the largest segment in the British surnames listings, and are usually the oldest, dating from as early as the 12th century. --> This surname is a good example with one Dike del Filde appearing in the Assize Rolls of the county of Lancashire in the year 1281. Rather later examples taken from the various surviving wills and charter records of the post medieval period include: Alice Fyldes, given as being a widow in the parish of Eccles in 1574, and Thomas Fildes, also recorded as Fyldes, of Pendlebury, Cheshire, in the Wills Register at the city of Chester in 1604. The word fylde originates from the Olde English pre 7th century gefilde, meaning a plain, which given the flatness of the area, is wholly appropriate.

© Copyright: Name Origin Research 1980 - 2017

Peterloo Massacre

In 1819 on the 16th August, a vast orderly concourse of working men and women assembled on St. Peter's field around what's now St Peters Square on the then outskirts Manchester. Fildes along with other female activists including Elizabeth Gaunt & Sarah Hargreaves were to be placed on the platform or in Hunts carriage holding the flags and banners of the society's represented. The magistrates fearing unrest and anarchy then gave orders to the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry A number of the orderly concourse were killed and several hundred were seriously wounded. Mary Fildes was wounded severely while riding on the box sear of Henry Hunt's carriage. In the confusion of the massacre she tumbled off the carriage seat. Eye-witness account 'Mrs. Fildes hanging suspended by a nail on the platform of the carriage had caught her white dress. She was slashed across her exposed body by an officer of the cavalry'.

Reports claimed that the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry attempted to murder her while arresting the leaders of the demonstration. Although badly wounded Mary Fildes survived and continued her campaign for the vote.

The first victim of the massacre was two year old William Fildes son of Charles & Ann Fildes of Kennedy Street, Ann claims to have been running errands to Cooper Street when she was knocked down by the approaching cavalry and William was thrown from her arms. Although at present no connection is made between Ann, William and Mary the closeness of Cooper Street to St Peters Fields indicates that Ann's husband Charles may have been related to Mary's husband William known to have cousins in Manchester at the time, thus Ann may have been in attendance to support her relative at the rally, creating an alternative story as for her reasons for being in the area.

Richard Carlile who was present at the rally describes Mary as a figure like "Joan of Arc" escaping uninjured, his account is given in "THE BATTLE OF THE PRESS" [1] by his daughter Theophila Carlile Campbell.


Adapted from the Petition of Mary Fildes, 15th May 1821

I have long been a resident of Manchester and on 16th August I attended the advertised meeting in St Peter’s Field. The meeting had been convened for the purpose of considering the most legal and effective means of obtaining the reform of the representation of the House of Commons.

I arrived at about one o’clock and took to higher ground so I could hear the proceedings more clearly. To my utter astonishment, a quarter of an hour had scarcely elapsed when I saw a troop of the Yeomanry Cavalry, without the least provocation or cause on the part of the assembled crowd, ride furiously over the people. They were cutting and slashing with their sabres, right and left, men, women and children.

In a few minutes, after this dreadful havoc had commenced, I was rudely and violently assaulted by a Special Constable of the name of Heiffor. He struck me down with a heavy weighted truncheon, for the purposes of my destruction, and even as I lay on the ground he continued to strike me.

Heiffor then forcibly wrenched out of my hand a pocket-handkerchief, with which I was wiping the blood from my forehead, and made the most dreadful oath, before putting the handkerchief in his own pocket. He has not returned it.

In a state of utmost exhaustion I then attempted to make my escape from the horrid carnage that was presented on every side. I had only stepped a few yards when a violent sabre blow was directed at my head. This was only warded off by the truncheon of a Constable who happened to recognise me.

If it was possible to portray the countless acts of outrage I witnessed, the House would shudder at the recital of the dreadful tragedy. I cannot refrain, however, from calling the attention of the House to a small portion of the deliberate cruelty which it was my heart-rending lot to witness.

Making my way through the crowd, hearing with horror the shrieks and cries of the dying and wounded, I saw an aged man fall under a sabre blow inflicted on his bald head by one of the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry.

The poor man’s name was Scholefield. The grey hairs on the lower part of his head were drenched with blood.

My ears were then assailed by the voice of the trumpeter of the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry, Meagher. With the most horrid oaths he was ordering two men belonging to the same troop “to cut away”.

With difficulty I made my way home from this scene of slaughter and was so injured that I could not leave my room for more than a fortnight.

I humbly pray that the House will institute a solemn inquiry into these transactions, for only this can calm the feelings of an injured and abused people.

The Peterloo Massacre – some Cork connections

Peterloo, a film by Mike Leigh has been released. Starring Maxine Peake, Rory Kinnear, Neil Bell and Peter Quigley, and some 150 other actors along with thousands of extras, director Mike Leigh brings the events of that infamous day in Manchester to life.

On a sunny Monday afternoon, 16 th August 1819, a large four-wheeled carriage adorned with flags and banners made its way slowly through the loud cheers of massed crowds towards the stage at St. Peters Field in Manchester. Seated at the front alongside the coachman was a small yet striking figure in a white dress waving a rectangular white banner, depicting a woman holding the scales of justice, while crushing a serpent, the banner of the Manchester Female Reform Society (MFRS).

Cork born Mary Pritchard (1789), now Mary Fildes, president of the newly formed MFRS cut an impressive figure as she proudly displayed her Society’s new banner to the vast crowd. She intended to present the banner and an address to one of the occupants of the carriage, Henry Hunt, the main speaker at the forthcoming monster Reform meeting about to commence. Reaching the small platform, the speakers along with Mary Fildes stood awaiting silence from the vast throng of working class men, women and children who had walked and marched in from the nearby towns across Lancashire seeking reform of the corrupt and elite electoral system. .

As the expectant gathering pressed closer to the platform and Henry ”Orator” Hunt began his speech, a band of Yeomanry advanced through the nearby streets, led by an Irishman Edward Meagher.

Mike Leigh’s film builds slowly up to a reconstruction of the 1819 Peterloo massacre. This peaceful pro-democracy rally attended by some 60,000 people who had gathered to hear the radical charismatic speaker and gentleman farmer Henry Hunt, was then attacked by British Yeomanry and Hussar Cavalry.

Using sabres wildly and viciously against unarmed people, they killed fifteen people (including a two year old child by the name of William Fildes) and injured upwards of 600 in this brutal and bloody massacre which became known as Peterloo (after the recent battle of Waterloo!). Later many suffered and died from infections brought on from the savage cuts received at the meeting.

Jacqueline Riding in her comprehensive publication Peterloo (with a foreword by Mike Leigh) states that women were very prominent in the attendance at St Peters Field. Four were among the dead or died later, upwards of a quarter of those injured were women and many including Mary Fildes were especially targeted by the Yeomanry. Mary herself was attacked initially on the platform by the special constabulary and later sabred by a yeoman. She managed however to escape from the field.

Upon her recovery, Mary continued to work for the rights of women. She was arrested while campaigned for birth control in the 1830s and later became a leading Chartist and influenced the original suffragettes. Ever the rebel she had named one of her children Henry Hunt Fildes. A grandson, Luke Fildes painted numerous social realism images of poverty, homelessness and injustice. She ran a pub in Chester and died around 1875/76 in her mid-80s.

The massacre caused outrage at the time, and led to a seismic shift in public opinion against the ruling clique and elites. It contributed to the founding of the Manchester Guardian in 1821 and later encouraged other Chartist newspapers as the clamour for democracy and reform grew. Over in Livorno in Tuscany, the poet Percy Shelley raged on being informed of Peterloo and wrote The Mask of Anarchy………. “Rise like Lions after slumber in unvanquished number – Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you, – Ye are many – they are few.”

The events of 16 th August 1819 influenced the later development of the grass roots Chartism in the 1830s and lead to the People’s Charter. Henry Hunt, who died in February 1835 was regarded as a hero by many in Chartism. This in turn stimulated the later growth of the trade unions and the political mobilization of the working class into the Labour Party.

Indeed the events at Peterloo may well have aroused West Cork born Feargus O’Connor to stand for the post reform election in 1832, when he was surprisingly elected MP for Cork. Alongside reformer William Cobbett in the House of Commons, they supported what eventually became the Chartist demands. Both Fergus O’Connor and Daniel O’Connell organised the “monster meetings” based on the Peterloo example.

According to author James Epstein in his book “The Lion Of Freedom….Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement, 1832-1842, Chartist leader O’Connor regarded Henry Hunt as his hero and declared himself to be a “Huntite”.

“Year after year he travelled to Lancashire to celebrate the anniversary of Hunt’s birth with local radicals, and often took the platform at the annual meeting at St Peters Field held to commemorate the ‘never to be forgotten’ 16 th August.”

As with so much of history, the massacre has been largely forgotten and the story of Peterloo disappeared from classrooms, schools and universities. Many have never heard of the events which took place at St Peter’s Field. Few visiting Manchester and St Peter’s Square even notice the red plaque on the nearby Hotel. Most pass by and not realise that they tread on the very birthplace of British democracy and the roots of Chartism and the British Labour movement.

At that time, only a tiny minority of people, possibly 3% had the vote. Dorothy Thompson, author of The Chartists estimated that even later in the 1830s just 653,000 men from an English and Welsh population of 13,000,000 could vote and just 80,000 men in Ireland from a population of 7.8 million and that was after the Reform Act of 1832. All had to vote by open polling in public whereby each vote was recorded.

As we approach the two hundredth anniversary of Peterloo, Mike Leigh’s dramatic film should encourage people to examine the source struggles for reform and democracy and to perhaps ask again how a small increasingly wealthy and powerful elite can control political and technological structures across the planet and can dictate the working and living conditions for countless millions of ordinary people barely surviving under austerity and poverty.

The film arrives to a bitterly divided Britain….. Yet Leigh’s stark history and political lesson for those who hark backwards to a glorious past British epoch might remember the bloody sacrifices made by the innocent people on that field at Peterloo.

Protest and Peterloo: the story of 16 August 1819

On 16 August 1819 60,000 people congregated in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, with demands for the right to vote, freedom from oppression and justice. Despite its peaceful beginning, this was a day that would end with a bloody outcome.

Why was it called Peterloo?

From Waterloo to Manchester
In 1789 the French Revolution shook the world and the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity spread rapidly. In Britain, less than 3% of the population could vote and the system was entirely corrupt. The ideas of the French Revolution were therefore eagerly received and most powerfully expressed in Thomas Paine’s book, the Rights of Man (1791). Paine’s words inspired ordinary people to question the systems they lived under, systems that had been challenged by those across the channel. The British government prepared for war not simply to defeat the revolutionary ‘menace’ in France, but also to destroy the revolutionary ‘menace’ in Britain that Tom Paine had helped unleash. Britain eventually won the Napoleonic Wars (1803 – 1815) against France, but at great expense and with a huge national debt. Moreover, the militant ideas from France lived on. Returning British soldiers, like John Lees who was a veteran of the victorious battle of Waterloo, were now living not in the prosperity of the victor, but in poverty. Lees came from Oldham and when he returned home he continued his trade as a cotton spinner, but now with drastically reduced wages. Lees was one of those who protested in Manchester on 16 August 1819 and, having survived the battlefield, was to lose his life at the hands of his own army in the Peterloo Massacre. In the days that followed, the massacre was named ‘Peterloo’ by a journalist in a mocking reference to the celebrated victory at Waterloo in the Napoleonic Wars that Britain had fought. Lees’ dying words to his friend were, at ‘Waterloo there was man to man, but at Manchester it was downright murder’.

What did the protesters at Peterloo want?

In the context of poverty and the huge numbers of working people pushed into the industrial centres in and around Manchester, a reform movement demanding the right to representation captured the minds of large numbers of ordinary people. Despite the growing population of Manchester, there was no MP to solely represent the area. A demonstration was called in Manchester, which by being postponed to Monday 16 August 1819, meant people were readily prepared for it. A Monday seems a strange day to choose, yet for the handloom weavers, who were still the majority in the cotton trade in the area, after working all weekend they traditionally took Mondays off. These workers, who feared for their jobs and standard of living, made up a large component of the protestors.

What happened at Peterloo?

Preparing for the protest
The industrial towns surrounding Manchester put huge efforts into the preparations in the weeks beforehand and contingents from each area had different creative responses. Oldham’s centrepiece was 200 women in white dresses and a banner of pure white silk, emblazoned with inscriptions including ‘Universal Suffrage’, ‘Annual Parliaments’ and ‘Election by Ballot’. They marched to Manchester through the moors, joining the Saddleworth group, whose banner was pitch black with the inscription ‘Equal Representation or Death’ over two joined hands and a heart. These words would be used by the magistrates after the massacre to justify their actions. The banner, the magistrates argued, was a clear sign of revolutionary intent.

How a peaceful protest met with violence
The protestors were peaceful and unarmed. The weaver and reform leader Samuel Bamford wrote later how the drilling of the Middleton contingent in the build up to the demonstration meant that, on the day, every hundred men and women had a leader whose order they were to obey and each leader had a sprig of laurel in their hat as a ‘token of amity and peace’. On arriving in St Peter’s Field, an observer described ‘large bodies of men and women with bands playing and flags and banners…There were crowds of people in all directions, full of humour, laughing and shouting and making fun. It seemed to be a gala day with the country people, who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives…’ The crowds waited in eager anticipation to hear the principal speaker of the day, Henry Hunt. According to witnesses, tens of thousands of people waited in the square, so tightly packed together that ‘their hats seemed to touch’. In an overlooking building, staring down on the scene, were the magistrates. After two hours of observing, they gave the orders to the enforcers of law surrounding the crowd that the protesters must be dispersed, while the radical reform leaders were to be arrested. On hearing these orders, the recently formed, Manchester and Salford Yeomanry pulled out their sabres and charged the crowd on horseback. The first victim of the attack was a two year old child, William Fildes, who was thrust from his mother’s arms when she fled the cavalry. At least 18 people were killed, of whom three were women, and almost 700 were injured 168 of these were women even though in numbers they comprised only 12% of those present.

Were there many women at Peterloo?

Women at Peterloo
Historians have noted that women were disproportionately targeted at Peterloo their presence shocked the establishment, challenging the prevalent ideas of women as subservient and domesticated wives. While the reform movement called for the vote for men (under the slogan ‘Universal Suffrage’), women were beginning to organise and even to take a lead within the movement, with female reform groups emerging across Lancashire. As President of the Manchester Female Reform Society, Mary Fildes was the most prominent woman. On the day of the massacre she stood on the stage as a key figure next to Henry Hunt. When the yeomanry attacked, she was slashed across her body and seriously wounded. Mary Fildes would go on to have a role in the emerging Chartist movement, yet so many other women who also took a leading role in the reform movement of this period are little discussed in our history.

What happened after Peterloo?

Legacy of the Massacre
The British government was keen to cover up the massacre, imprisoning the reform leaders and clamping down on those who spoke out against the government. Within days the massacre was being reported upon both nationally and internationally. However, with the implementation of the new Six Acts legislation, it became extremely dangerous to even publish words that discussed the Peterloo Massacre, and taxes on newspapers were increased so that working class people would be less likely to read them. When Percy Bysshe Shelley heard of the massacre, he penned the poem The Masque of Anarchy, powerfully indicting those who were responsible. Yet Shelley could not find a publisher brave enough to print his words, with the genuine threat of imprisonment hanging over radicals in this period. It was only in 1832, after Shelley’s death, that the poem was first published, and the new Chartist movement would take up his words with gusto.

Why is Peterloo important?

2019 marks 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre a major event in Manchester’s history, and a defining moment for Britain’s democracy. A moment when ordinary people stepped up to protest in a way that has made its mark in history and with a legacy that lives on to today.

Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest exhibition is at People’s History Museum (PHM) from Saturday 23 March 2019 until Sunday 23 February 2020. The exhibition is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

PHM is open seven days a week from 10.00am to 5.00pm, and is free to enter with a suggested donation of £5. Radical Lates are the second Thursday each month, 10.00am to 8.00pm.

The Peterloo Massacre: what did it achieve?

It started as a peaceful appeal for political reform, but ended with 18 dead and hundreds injured. Stephen Bates describes how the events of 16 August 1819 became a landmark moment in the struggle for democracy

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Published: August 7, 2019 at 4:00 pm

What was the Peterloo Massacre?

The Peterloo Massacre, which took place on 16 August 1819, was the worst violence ever to occur at a political meeting in Britain. Cavalry brutally dispersed a crowd of 60,000 protestors in Manchester taking part in a peaceful appeal for political reform. The many thousands of weavers and tradesmen and their families had gathered to consider “the propriety of adopting the most legal and effectual means of obtaining a reform”.

The one thing they were not expecting as they made their way on foot to Manchester on that fateful Monday morning was a massacre. They came in from the suburbs and surrounding towns and villages respectably dressed, holding their children by the hand, marching in disciplined columns behind banners and flags, with bands playing patriotic tunes, to have an entertaining day out and to hear speeches calling for parliamentary reform.

It was a fine summer day and the meeting was entirely legal. It had been called to consider – not to demand – “the propriety of adopting the most legal and effectual means of obtaining a reform”. And the demonstrators had been warned not to be provoked by what was sure to be a heavy presence of constables and local militia. They should, they were told, bring “no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience”.

“There were crowds of people in all directions, full of good humour, laughing and shouting and making fun,” recalled John Benjamin Smith, a 25-year-old businessman who witnessed the meeting. “It seemed to be a gala day with the country people who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives.”

But what happened to them that day was the worst violence ever to occur at a political meeting in Britain, an event that shocked the nation and was pivotal in the long struggle for the vote. At least 18 people were killed and more than 600 injured when the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and the regular cavalry of the 15th Hussars charged into the crowd gathered at St Peter’s Fields to break up the meeting on the orders of local magistrates.

The troops cleared the field in 20 minutes but what happened that day has reverberated for the best part of 200 years since. That’s at least partly due to the inspiration of the local journalist James Wroe, who described it as the Peterloo Massacre, in punning reference to the battle of Waterloo four years earlier. Wroe, incidentally, found himself imprisoned for a year and his newspaper closed down by the authorities in retaliation. The event did however give rise to the foundation of another progressive newspaper, the Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) by an outraged local businessman, John Edward Taylor, two years later.

Why did the protest take place?

At the time of Peterloo, Manchester was growing fast. It had quadrupled in size in the previous 50 years as a result of the industrial revolution and the expansion of the cotton trade. By 1819, the population was more than 100,000, with people pouring in from the Lancashire and Cheshire countryside and Ireland in search of better-paid work. Mechanisation in the mills was making the traditional home-based handloom weavers a declining workforce. More urgently, the economic depression that had followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars was leading to a halving of the weavers’ wages just at the time that a succession of poor harvests (partially caused, though they did not know it, by climatic changes resulting from a volcanic eruption in Indonesia) was increasing the price of food.

Dissatisfaction under these precarious conditions led to pressure for parliamentary reform, to make legislators more responsive to the needs of citizens – and indeed to secure fairer representation at Westminster so that their plight could no longer be ignored. Manchester, now the largest and most important of the new cities of the north, elected no MPs, unlike some rotten boroughs (with their tiny electorates) down south, and so its influence on policy was limited.

Campaigners who wanted to change the system in the years after Waterloo divided into those who pressed peacefully for constitutional reform to widen the franchise to all men (only a few thought women should get a vote, though female suffrage leagues were beginning to emerge) and a small, revolutionary minority who wanted violent upheaval. The Peterloo demonstrators were in the former category.

Lord Liverpool’s Tory government of the day knew that the parliamentary system was unbalanced but were in no mood to give way to even peaceful campaigners. The French Revolution was well within living memory – Liverpool and his foreign secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, had been in Paris to witness it as students 30 years earlier – and they feared any concessions would lead to something similar in Britain. Ministers and their supporters particularly feared the Spenceans, followers of the radical Thomas Spence, who argued for the common ownership of land, universal suffrage and the abolition of the aristocracy. But the government had only limited means to contain disturbances: no police forces yet, only special constables to enrol, or local militias and regular troops to call out – and they were reliant on informers to keep them abreast of what was happening.

There had been a series of small-scale and easily contained uprisings in the previous four years, some shading into violence. England in particular was very far from the peaceful land depicted in Jane Austen’s novels. Long before the war ended, Luddites fearing for their jobs had been randomly destroying the new machinery that would replace them in mills across the north and Midlands. In 1817 starving Blanketeers (so called because of the blankets they carried) had attempted unsuccessfully to march from Manchester to London to petition the king for food but were headed off by mounted troops before they got beyond Stockport. In rural Derbyshire later that year, an attempted armed uprising had fizzled out with savage reprisals by the authorities against the ringleaders, three of whom were hanged and then beheaded. Much closer to Westminster, a reform meeting at Spa Fields, Clerkenwell in December 1816 had turned to violence as agitators attempted to lead a faction to storm the Bank of England before being repelled by troops from the Tower of London.

The government’s difficulty was distinguishing between peaceful and violent protests, not helped by some reformers’ flirting with violent rhetoric. Viscount Sidmouth, the home secretary, quietly promised to offer magistrates legal protection if violence erupted and troops were called in.

A series of large-scale public reform meetings had passed off peacefully across the country in 1819, including an earlier one at St Peter’s Fields, a three-acre open space on the edge of Manchester. Nevertheless, the local magistrates and government supporters, including factory owners and businessmen, were edgy in advance of the meeting on 16 August 1819, which promised to be the biggest gathering yet.

Groups of those planning to attend had been drilling publicly in the foothills of the Pennines, as a means of keeping order on the big day. Unfortunately, the authorities did not see it that way, and there was concern that the meeting would be addressed by Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, the leading extra-parliamentary speaker for the reformists, whom they regarded as a rabble rouser. Hunt had been speaking at meetings across the country that summer, including the earlier rally in Manchester, without being arrested and, a few days before the St Peter’s Fields meeting, he checked with the local magistrates that it was legal and could go ahead. They told him it could.

Why did the Peterloo Massacre happen?

Maybe the magistrates panicked that Monday morning when they saw the size of the crowd pouring into the space, from Manchester itself and the surrounding towns and villages. Later estimates reckoned there were about 60,000 people by 1pm when Hunt was due to arrive. They were so tightly packed that observers said their hats seemed to touch.

The magistrates watching from the first floor of a neighbouring building had taken no chances. The newly formed Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, a part-time cavalry force, proud in their new blue and white uniforms, made up of local businessmen, factory owners and their sons, were holed up in nearby back streets. Many of them passed the morning drinking in local taverns, until a witness said they were so inebriated they were rolling on their saddles. There was also a contingent of regular cavalry from the 15th Hussars, as well as a detachment of 400 infantry with two small cannon, and special constables enrolled for the day and equipped with long wooden truncheons.

The magistrates – all local men of property, retired businessmen, lawyers, even a clergyman, none of them likely to be sympathetic to political reform – had also taken the precaution of calling in some local loyalist Tories who could be sworn to testify that they believed the town to be in danger if need be. They accordingly did so, even as the crowd gathered below. Later the magistrates would claim that they had also read the Riot Act, the formal rubric ordering the crowd to disperse, though if they did so no one heard them and they certainly did not allow the statutory hour for the gathering to leave.

The feared spinner

Hunt arrived at the edge of the crowd in an open-topped barouche carriage at 1.15pm, accompanied by other members of the platform party, including Mary Fildes, the organiser of the newly formed local women’s suffrage movement, and John Tyas, a correspondent covering the meeting for The Times. Hunt mounted the hustings platform – two carts lashed together – and had no sooner started to speak than the magistrates ordered Manchester’s deputy constable, a corrupt and much feared former spinner called Joseph Nadin, to go and arrest him. To help him do so, they also sent in the yeomanry.

It was just what the part-time cavalry had been waiting for: they clattered through the side streets, knocking over a woman and killing her two-year-old son as they did so, and charged into the crowd. People were packed so tightly around the hustings that the yeomanry were soon lashing out with their sabres and becoming submerged in the terrified mass of onlookers.

The Rev Edward Stanley, rector of Alderley and a future bishop, who had ridden into Manchester on business that morning, was a witness to what happened: “With scarcely the semblance of line, their sabres glistened in the air, on they went, direct for the hustings… As the cavalry approached the dense mass of people they used their utmost efforts to escape but so closely were they pressed… that immediate escape was impossible… a scene of dreadful confusion ensued.”

In the middle of all this, Nadin reached the platform and arrested Hunt, who was hustled back towards the magistrates’ building through a line of jeering constables and was beaten about the head as he reached the steps to the house. The constables themselves came under attack, probably accidentally, by the soldiers in the melee, with two being killed.

The magistrates ordered the hussars into the crowd to rescue the yeomanry, who could be seen bobbing about in the midst of the crowd, slashing at the banners they were carrying. The hussars may have been marginally more disciplined than the yeomanry but neither had any experience of crowd control and if the troops really did, as their officers later alleged, try to use the flats of their sabres to move people along, they too were soon slashing away at anyone within reach.

The crowd fled as best they could in the crush, falling over each other in their attempts to escape, trying to avoid the flashing blades and the horses’ hooves. Some ran into the grounds of a nearby Quaker chapel and found the cavalry riding in after them, others fell down the cellar steps of nearby buildings or were pressed against walls and railings. John Benjamin Smith, the young businessman, reported: “It was a hot, dusty day clouds of dust… obscured the view. When it had subsided a startling scene was presented. Numbers of men, women and children were lying on the ground who had been knocked down and run over by the soldiers.”

Within 20 minutes the field had been emptied and what was left behind were piles of bodies and the discarded debris of the rally: clothes, shoes and hats, banners and musical instruments abandoned by the bands. The troops rallied in front of the magistrates’ building and gave three cheers. They were congratulated by the Rev William Hay, one of the magistrates they would receive the commendation of local Tories at a meeting the following day and would be sent a message later from the Prince Regent commending their “preservation of the public tranquillity”. The chief magistrate William Hulton wrote to Sidmouth praising “the extreme forbearance of the military”.

Hiding their wounds

That was not how the survivors in the crowd saw it. The roads out of Manchester were clogged with the injured. Apart from the 18 now thought to have died either on the day or from their wounds in the days afterwards, modern analysis of the casualty lists drawn up in the following weeks by reformist campaigners indicates that at least 654 people were sufficiently injured to require medical treatment. Others may have nursed their wounds in private, scared of the consequences for their jobs if their employers found out how they had been hurt.

Strikingly, many of the injured were married men with children, the Irish present were particularly singled out (they were probably identified via their distinctive banners), and a quarter of the casualties were women, sabred or trampled by the horses. Margaret Downes bled to death after being slashed across the breast Elizabeth Farren received a 3-inch gash from the crown of her head to her brow Alice Heywood’s wrist was almost severed and Sarah Howarth was wounded in 20 places. The troops and their defenders claimed that they had come under attack by demonstrators throwing stones but the wounds inflicted – 48 per cent injured by sabres, 26 per cent by horses and 26 per cent in the crush of the crowd – indicate that the injured must have been those closest to the cavalry’s path, not the stone-throwers.

As one of the fatalities, 25-year-old James Lees, a former soldier who had fought at Waterloo but was now a weaver, told his relatives before he died from two deep sabre wounds to the head three weeks later: “At Waterloo there was man to man, but here it was downright murder.” Lees had been turned away from treatment at the Manchester infirmary after he refused to promise that he would not attend reform meetings in future.

A fund was raised for the injured, but most of the £3,408 that was contributed went to the lawyers who represented Hunt – charged with seditious assembly – and four others in court at York the following spring. Sentenced to two and a half years, the great Orator settled down to writing his memoirs. He would later become, briefly, an MP.

Six months after Peterloo came the Cato Street Conspiracy, led by the Spencean Arthur Thistlewood, the man who had tried to storm the Bank of England after the Spa Fields riot. He now wanted to assassinate the cabinet while ministers sat at dinner, but was cornered in a stable loft off the Edgware Road. He was tried and executed with five of his associates. It turned out that the government had known about the plot all along through an informer and may even have encouraged its development. It was the last attempt to overthrow the state by force.

The reforms the crowd at Peterloo were seeking would gradually be enacted over the coming century, though it took 99 years for women to get the vote. From this distance it is hard to know what the Manchester rally would have achieved had it ended peacefully, as the organisers intended. But the cavalry’s brutal attack on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators ensured that it became a landmark in the struggle for democracy and has never been forgotten.

Stephen Bates is a former senior correspondent with The Guardian and the author of 1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo (Head of Zeus 2015)

The film Peterloo, about the 1819 massacre, written and directed by Mike Leigh, was released in cinemas in November 2018.

The bloody clash that changed Britain

O n the morning of 16 August 1819, an immense crowd poured into Manchester, perhaps the largest the town had ever seen. They came in an orderly and peaceful fashion. Banners bearing slogans such as “Liberty and Fraternity” and “Taxation without Representation is Unjust and Tyrannical” flapped in the breeze, and bands played patriotic tunes including Rule Britannia and God Save the King. It was a fine and sunny day.

On they came in cheerful mood organised contingents from Bolton and Bury 6,000 marching from Rochdale and Middleton others from Saddleworth and Stalybridge 200 women dressed in white from Oldham, together with families bringing their children and picnics with them.

If later estimates that 60,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Field that day are correct, it means that practically half the population of Manchester and the surrounding towns (a crowd somewhat larger than that at Manchester City home matches today) had come to attend a meeting calling for parliamentary reform. Having the vote mattered, they believed it would change everything and force politicians to listen to their views and needs – and respond.

A young businessman, 25-year-old John Benjamin Smith, was watching with his aunt from a window overlooking the open space on the edge of the town near St Peter’s Church. He later wrote: “There were crowds of people in all directions, full of good humour, laughing and shouting and making fun … It seemed to be a gala day with the country people who were mostly dressed in their best and brought with them their wives, and when I saw boys and girls taking their father’s hand in the procession, I observed to my aunt: ‘These are the guarantees of their peaceable intentions – we need have no fears.’”

The people were expecting speeches and a good day out. What they were not anticipating was violence, carried out by troops sent in to disperse them, so aggressively that 18 people would be killed and more than 650 injured in the bloodiest political clash in British history. What happened at St Peter’s Field would become known as the Peterloo Massacre – a name coined by a local journalist named James Wroe in punning reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier. Wroe paid for the joke by seeing his radical newspaper, the Manchester Observer, closed down, and was himself sentenced to a year’s imprisonment for seditious libel.

On the face of it, a Monday morning in August was a strange time to hold a political rally. Most factory workers would be at their machines – the deafening, ceaseless, clacking cotton spinning machinery that ran in the mills day and night. An industry was taking off: there were 2,400 power looms locally in 1813 14,000 by 1820, and 115,000 within 15 years. But the handloom weavers, who worked from home and traditionally took Mondays off after working all weekend, were available. They were still in the majority in the Lancashire cotton trade: 40,000 in Manchester alone, compared with 20,000 spinning-machine operatives in the factories – but they feared for their jobs, skills, lifestyles and standards of living. Wages had halved since the end of the Napoleonic war: 12 shillings a week for 16-hour days, if you could get the work a decade earlier, it had been 21 shillings a week.

As in many other towns during the industrial revolution, the population of Manchester was expanding rapidly: from 24,000 in 1773 to 108,000 half a century later. The Times reported from the inner-city New Cross area in the week of Peterloo: “It is occupied chiefly by spinners, weavers and Irish of the lowest description … its present situation is truly heart-rending and over-powering. The streets are confined and dirty the houses neglected and the windows often without glass. Out of the windows the miserable rags of the family … hung up to dry the household furniture, the bedding, the clothes of the children and the husband were seen at the pawnbroker’s.”

But not this day: they were wearing their Sunday best. Many of the crowd were literate and articulate, and where previously they had struck for better wages and petitioned the king for food, now they also wanted political change. They wanted a reformed parliamentary system in which Manchester would get representation for the first time, and a rotten borough like Old Sarum, a windswept hill outside Salisbury largely abandoned since the Middle Ages, would no longer send two MPs to Westminster.

If there was to be representation, they wanted a share in it, with working men to have a vote alongside the propertied classes. Female reform societies had also recently sprung up across the north-west, calling for votes for women. They had already been subjected to ridicule, depicted by cartoonists such as George Cruickshank as sluts and whores, abandoning their families to meddle in things they had no business to think about. That was why the women dressed in white on this day – to symbolise purity of character and motive. It was also why the cavalry would single them out for attack: if they wanted the same rights as men, they could face the same treatment.

A tapestry created by the Peterloo Memorial Campaign Group in 2017. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

What happened to the crowd that day has marked British politics ever since. For the Guardian, the events of that day 198 years ago have a special significance. They prompted John Edward Taylor, a 28-year-old Manchester businessman and witness to the massacre, to start his own paper, two years later, to campaign for reform. The Manchester Guardian’s roots, and its enduring liberal, reformist character, lie in what happened there in 1819.

The Peterloo massacre has become a battle honour for the left, its memory played out in a thousand mass meetings, in a direct line from August 1819 to Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign rallies today. The sight of blundering, overbearing, unreasoning authority reacting with violence to peaceful demonstrators would recur on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, and at the battle of Orgreave during the miners’ strike in 1984. Each incident was followed by official denial, obstruction and manipulation in order to deflect criticism of culpability.

Other demonstrations had been put down ruthlessly before, but none in Britain had been marked with such brutality or as many deaths as Peterloo. Unlike at some other attempted rallies of that period, those attending the St Peter’s Field meeting were peaceful and law-abiding, demanding reform by constitutional means – and yet they were mown down. Their martyrdom has given them iconic status on the political left.

S t Peter’s Field, a flat, three-acre open space on the edge of the town was only just big enough for the assembling masses, and did not offer much breathing space for 60,000 people. The radical activist Samuel Bamford, one of the key witnesses on the day, reported that by midday, at the centre of the field, where two carts had been roped together to form the hustings for the speakers, people were packed so close together that “their hats seemed to touch”.

The man they had come to hear was Henry Hunt, the brass-lunged orator of the parliamentary reform movement. Hunt was a tall, handsome man, from a very different background to those he was addressing. He had inherited 3,000 acres of prime land in Wiltshire when his father died, but had squandered his inheritance and eloped with a friend’s wife. It was only when he found himself ostracised by the county gentry that he became a radical. He had built a career (though not yet a parliamentary one he would briefly become an MP in 1830) by chasing radical causes, and his fluency meant he was feared by the landed classes. “Orator” Hunt flirted rhetorically with violence – the government must be changed “peacefully if we may, forcibly if we must” – but steered well clear of inciting his audiences to rebellion.

Dressed in his trademark white top hat, Hunt was revered by working people. He was egotistical and vain, with a tendency to fall out with his followers, not always for political reasons. Hunt had been at controversial and even violent meetings before, not least at Spa Fields in central London in December 1816, when a breakaway, radical faction had started a riot in the hope of provoking a general uprising. Those plans were foiled when armed troops prevented the mob from attacking the Bank of England. Local magistrates and ministers of the Tory government plainly wished for Hunt to be arrested, but he had so far escaped imprisonment. Mass meetings he attended in London, Birmingham and Leeds in the summer of 1819 had passed off peacefully, as had a previous meeting he had addressed at St Peter’s Field that January.

Hunt claimed in his memoirs the following year that he had not wanted to be involved in the August meeting. It had originally been scheduled for 9 August, but that was cancelled following warnings by magistrates that the organisers’ intention for the meeting – to “elect” an unofficial MP to represent the people of Manchester – would be a seditious act. When Hunt arrived, he was furious to find that the meeting had been called off, but reluctantly stayed for the rearranged meeting a week later, which would only discuss parliamentary reform in general terms, and so was allowed to go ahead.

Campaigners in Manchester’s Albert Square in August 2017 carrying the names of those killed or injured at Peterloo. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The memoirs give a flavour of Hunt’s vanity: “Everything conspired to impress on my mind the conviction that I alone had the power of conducting this great meeting in a peaceable, quiet and constitutional manner. I made up my mind not to desert them.”

Hunt loftily despised Joseph Johnson, one of the organisers of the Manchester meeting, for being a brush-maker. He described staying at Johnson’s house as “one of the most disagreeable seven days that I ever passed … however, most fortunately for me, Johnson was from home a considerable portion of this time, attending to his brush-making”.

Hunt presented himself to the authorities the weekend before the meeting, to check that there were no plans to arrest him. He was told no charges were planned. The meeting was legal and would go ahead.

But the authorities feared a violent outbreak, and a spark that would ignite an English revolution to follow the French. The storming of the Bastille in 1789 and the terror that followed were well within living memory. Ministers had reason to be nervous. There had been a series of uprisings and localised violence in the preceding few years, mainly about food and living conditions in the years of shortages and unemployment that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars. Luddites had broken machinery in mills across the country, attempts to stir up nationwide protests such as the abortive Pentrich revolution had been met with harsh punishment, and even peaceful protests such as an attempted march on London by unemployed weavers from Lancashire in March 1817 had been dispersed by troops.

Lord Sidmouth, then home secretary, used undercover spies to gain intelligence about subversive activities. His actions had been widely criticised, but in the absence of a civilian police force, the options were limited. If unrest was threatened, local militias, amateur yeomanry on horseback or the army had to be called out. Sidmouth had spoken in private about the country being tranquillised by bloodshed, and he guaranteed that the civic authorities could rely on parliament to indemnify them if violence did break out.

T he Manchester meeting was going to be the biggest of the summer so far, and the authorities were jittery. In case of violence, they had ordered stones and rocks to be removed from the site. Manchester was still run like a small country town, by a medieval system. In times of crisis, 18 volunteer magistrates and a stipendiary full-time magistrate took charge of law and order, and it was this body of anxious men who would precipitate the crisis of the day. They were men of property – lawyers, retired businessmen and even Church of England clergymen – and not likely to be sympathetic to political reform or to the people proposing it. They believed that non-conformists and agitators were stirring up the workers to discontent. James Norris, the stipendiary magistrate, was known as a man of urbanity and gentlemanly manners, but his colleague the Rev William Hay was fiercer. “When he winks, heaven blinks, when he speaks, hell quakes,” as a local rhyme had it. The chairman of the magistrates on the day was 32-year-old William Hulton, a local landowner who was inexperienced as a law enforcer.

At their command for the meeting was Manchester’s deputy constable, Joseph Nadin, a former spinner and the town’s chief thief-taker. This corrupt, much-feared figure was responsible for carrying out any instructions given him by the magistrates that day. Described by the radical Samuel Bamford, Nadin’s manner “was rude and overbearing to equals or inferiors”. Sometimes called the real ruler of Manchester, Nadin was growing rich on bribes and kickbacks.

The town’s loyalists – Tory supporters, opposed to the radicals – have been largely written out of the Peterloo story, but they were numerous and fearful. Among them were local cotton traders and mill owners, many of whom were in favour of parliamentary reform – not to give their workers the vote, but to gain greater commercial clout for themselves. They were alarmed by the prospect of the meeting, the training of workers on the hillsides and the incendiary speeches of orator Hunt. Some had sent their families out of town.

They had their own newspapers arguing against reform and, more significantly, had already funded the creation of a local mounted militia, the Manchester Yeomanry, in 1817, specifically to guard against the mob. The troops, resplendent in dashing new blue-and-white uniforms, with peaked shako helmets and red cockades and armed with sabres, were made up of local Tory businessmen, shopkeepers, lawyers and their sons. They were spoiling for a fight, in order to show the radicals who was in charge.

The magistrates were taking no chances, and had signed up 400 special constables armed with long wooden truncheons. They also deployed 60 yeomanry troops from Manchester (with another 420 from Cheshire in reserve), called in 340 regular cavalry from the 15th Hussars, plus 400 infantry and two six-pounder cannon from the artillery. There were more than 1,500 soldiers and constables in all.

The rescheduled meeting had been widely publicised. Its modest purpose was to consider “the propriety of adopting the most LEGAL and EFFECTUAL means of obtaining a REFORM”. Nevertheless, Hunt issued a statement urging “steady, firm and temperate deportment” in those attending: “Our enemies will seek every opportunity by means of their sanguinary agents to incite a riot, that they may have a pretence for spilling our blood, reckless of the awful and certain retaliation that would ultimately fall on their heads.” They should bring “no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience”.

It was set to be a national event, and newspapers from London and other cities sent reporters to cover it – a considerable innovation for the time few events in British history had been reported in such detail. More than 300 people would later give accounts of what they had seen, and there were 10 press reports in the days following the meeting. John Tyas, a reporter from the Times, was on the hustings and was arrested, so a report was filed to London for him by Taylor, who would go on to found the Guardian. Jeremiah Garnett, the Guardian’s second editor, was also at Peterloo, working for the loyalist Manchester Courier, but it refused to print his report and he left the paper. In the months ahead, the authorities’ side would depend heavily on the testimony of a few troops and loyalists to contradict the weight of evidence against them. The clash of evidence from many disinterested observers, including respectable businessmen and clergy on the one side, versus many fewer troopers and magistrates’ trusted supporters on the other, would fuel the national debate in the months to come, both about what happened and who was responsible for the violence.

A s the vast crowd gathered, the magistrates watched anxiously from the upper floor of a neighbouring private building. Hunt eventually arrived in an open-topped barouche carriage, to great cheers, at 1.15pm. Beside the coachman sat Mary Fildes, organiser of the Manchester committee of female reformers, dressed in white and waving a flag: “She was a remarkably good figure and well dressed, it was very justly considered that she added much to the beauty of the scene,” Hunt wrote lubriciously in his memoirs.

“The moment that I entered the field, 10 or 12 bands struck up the same tune, ‘See the conquering hero comes’ … and from the multitude burst forth such a shout of welcome as never before hailed the ears of an individual,” he went on. A way was cleared for him to get to the hustings platform.

Two lines of special constables – loyalist civilians signed up specially for the occasion – had formed, making an aisle from the magistrates’ house to the hustings, where the carts were then repositioned slightly so that Hunt did not have to bellow into the wind, and the constables became submerged in the crowd. It was at this point that the magistrates either panicked, or put into operation a prearranged plan.

Hay, one of the volunteer magistrates, wrote to Sidmouth later that day, as a justification, that the magistrates had “felt a decided conviction that the whole bore the appearance of insurrection that the array was such as to terrify all the king’s subjects and was such as no legitimate purpose could justify”. A group of loyalists were asked to sign an affidavit that they believed the town was in danger, and a warrant for the arrest of Hunt and several other organisers was drawn up. Nadin was told by the magistrates to serve it, and asked for military help from the yeomanry to enable him to get to the hustings.

The Massacre of Peterloo! or a Specimen of English Liberty by JL Marks. Photograph: The Art Archive/Rex/Shutterstock

Hunt got out no more than a few sentences before he saw the mounted Manchester Yeomanry approaching the edge of the crowd at a fast pace. They were the first troops to be called. They had been milling in the back streets, drinking in local taverns, and were fired up, ready to unleash themselves on the subversives. They clattered down Cooper Street, knocking over a 23-year-old woman, also called Fildes, and knocking her baby son, William, out of her arms, on to the cobbles and under their horses’ hooves: he was the first fatality of the day. Outside the magistrates’ house, they drew up and cheered, waving their sabres in the air. Members of the crowd initially cheered back, but then a cry of “Soldiers! The soldiers!” spread. Hunt called out: “Stand firm my friends! You see they are in disorder already. This is a trick. Give them three cheers.”

The yeomanry plunged into the crowd at a gallop, attempting to accompany Nadin to the hustings. As they lost order in the crush, they started lashing out with their sabres in order to clear a path. Among those slashed were several special constables. Watching from a window, the Rev Edward Stanley, rector of Alderley who had ridden into Manchester that morning on business, wrote later that they had been in great disorder: “Their sabres glistened in the air … they soon increased their speed and with a zeal and ardour which might naturally be expected from men acting with delegated power … continued their course, seeming individually to vie with each other who 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.”

When their commander, Hugh Birley, arrived at the hustings, he attempted to arrest Hunt, who said he would only surrender to the civil power, and gave himself up to Nadin. He was pushed from the platform and along what remained of the line of constables to the magistrates house, where he was felled by a blow to the head while being pushed up the entrance steps. The women’s suffrage campaigner Mary Fildes leaped from the cart and was battered around the head by constables. She would go into hiding for a fortnight to avoid arrest. Tyas, the Times’s correspondent, was also taken into custody, as was the radical Samuel Bamford, even though he had played no active part besides being a witness.

The regular Hussar troops had also been mobilised, and their commander Col Guy L’Estrange now trotted over to the magistrates’ house and, looking up at the anxious faces in the first-floor window, asked what he was to do. Hulton shouted down: “Good God, sir! Do you not see how they are attacking the yeomanry? Disperse the crowd!”

In the melee, the yeomanry were hacking at the banners around the hustings and shouting: “Have at their flags!” They were particularly incensed by the woollen red liberty caps – symbols of the French revolutionaries – dangling from the poles. Now, as the yeomanry became engulfed in the melee, the Hussars charged in after them and the crowd began to flee as best they could, screaming in terror and tripping over each other. Behind them, the troops were striking out with their sabres. When the crowd reached the streets at the ends of the field, they found them partially blocked by infantry. Some took refuge in the yard surrounding the Quaker chapel, only to find troops riding in after them. Others were crushed against walls or fell down cellar steps into the basements of the surrounding buildings. Onlookers could see victims lying still on the ground, and wounded people attempting to crawl away through the debris of abandoned shoes, clothes, hats, banners and musical instruments. Within 20 minutes of the first attack, the field had been cleared.

‘The charge … swept this mingled mass of human beings before it: people, yeomen and constables in their confused attempts to escape ran one over the other … the fugitives were literally piled up to a considerable elevation above the level of the ground,” Lt William Jolliffe of the Hussars later wrote. “The Hussars drove the people forward with the flats of their swords but sometimes, as is almost inevitably the case when men are placed in such situations, the edge was used … I must still consider that it redounds to the humane forbearance of the men of the 15th that more wounds were not received.”

It was the crowd’s own fault, the loyalists claimed: “With a factious perverseness peculiarly their own, they have set at open defiance the timely warnings of the magistrates … the revolutionary attempts of this base junto was no longer to be tolerated,” proclaimed one broadsheet report the following day. The magistrates later insisted that they had read the Riot Act, ordering the crowd to disperse, but if they did so few could have heard them – and they certainly did not allow an hour for the crowd to disperse as the law ordained.

The crowd was left to crawl home. “All the roads leading from Manchester to Ashton, Stockport, Cheadle, Bury, Bolton are covered with wounded stragglers,” the Star reported the following day. “There are 17 wounded persons along the Stockport Road, 13-14 on the Ashton road, at least 20 on the Oldham road, seven or eight on the Rochdale road besides several others on the roads to Liverpool.”

Some would conceal their injuries for fear of retribution from employers. But 654 people were sufficiently injured to require medical treatment. The figure is that precise because, in the following weeks, names, addresses and details of injuries were drawn up by newspapers, radicals and a relief committee set up to raise funds to help the wounded and their families. Contrary to the assertions of the authorities, fewer than a quarter were crushed in the crowd: more than 200 were sabred, 70 battered by truncheons, and 188 trampled by horses.

Many of the injured were children, or men and women with families and jobs, of middle age and older. At least two fatalities were special constables. Some died on the spot, others lingered for weeks. The wounds were ghastly: deep sabre cuts to the head and arms, a nose nearly cut off, one man driven into a lime pit and burned, “a piece the size of a half crown clean off the head” of another.

William Marsh, aged 57, suffered a “sabre cut on back of the head, body crushed, bone shattered in left leg”. Three of his six children worked at a factory owned by Birley, the commander of the yeomanry when Birley heard about Marsh’s injuries, he sacked them. Many of the injured knew their attackers and could identify them, but it did them little good. When one of the most vicious, Edward Meagher, later fired at a crowd that was mocking him outside his house, he was acquitted by the magistrates.

John Brierley of Saddleworth, aged 31, was trampled by the horses and crushed, but his lunch of bread and cheese, which he was keeping in his hat, saved him when a sabre cleft through it. James Lees, 25, had fought at Waterloo and was now a weaver with two children. He received two deep sabre cuts to the head, but when he went to the infirmary a doctor asked him whether he had had enough of political meetings. Lees said no, and was promptly turned away. Before he died, three weeks later, he told a relative: “At Waterloo there was man to man, but here it was downright murder.”

A s the troops rallied after the meeting, Hay led three cheers for them. A few days later, the Prince Regent sent a message recording his “great satisfaction at their prompt, decisive and efficient measures for the preservation of the public tranquillity.” The authorities invited selected supporters – loyalists who would back their evidence – to a private meeting at the police office to offer a vote of thanks to the military: “The yeomanry had merited the entire approbation of all the respectable inhabitants of this large and populous town.” This prompted 300 other citizens to complain: “We feel it our bounden duty to protest and to express our utter disapprobation of the unexpected and unnecessary violence by which the assembly was dispersed.”

What had happened could not be covered up, since there had been so many witnesses, but it could be squashed. The authorities tried to claim that the troops had been attacked first with stones and cudgels, though this did not explain why they sabred women and children who were standing close to them or trying to escape. The inquest to the death of Lees, whose head injuries had been untreated, was adjourned in confusion, and a later case brought against Birley and members of the yeomanry resulted in their acquittal on the grounds that they had done their duty in dispersing an unlawful assembly.

A relief committee raised £3,408 to help the wounded, but they saw little of it: more than £2,200 went to lawyers representing Hunt and his fellow accused. Most of the wounded received £2 or less: Marsh and Brierley received £1 each, and Lees’ family £2.

In March 1820, rather to the surprise of the judge, who had summed up for an acquittal, Hunt and his colleagues were convicted, after a trial in York, on a charge of unlawful and seditious assembling for the purpose of exciting discontent. No evidence had been allowed about the way the meeting had been attacked. Hunt was sentenced to two and a half years at Ilchester jail, where he set about writing his memoirs. Johnson, Bamford and two others were imprisoned for a year.

A still from Peterloo, directed by Mike Leigh, which will be released later this year. Photograph: Simon Mein

Peterloo and its aftermath shocked the nation, but did not lead directly to parliamentary reform, as the authorities closed ranks against any change. As the Duke of Wellington later warned: “Beginning reform is beginning revolution.” It would be another 13 years before a limited measure of parliamentary reform was passed – and that would not give the sort of people in the crowd at Peterloo the vote either. Working men would have to wait many decades for that, and women would not get the vote for another century, until 1918.

Peterloo remains a milestone in the long road to political reform, which stretched by slow, incremental changes across the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Hannah Barker, professor of British history at Manchester University, said: “Peterloo was one of the major events in Manchester’s history, and it became a national event almost immediately too, commemorated in vivid cartoons, on plates and teapots and even on handkerchiefs. It was a symbol of the struggle for democracy against state suppression and the fight of ordinary people for civil rights and liberties – these are still important issues today.”

You have to look quite hard for evidence of the most important political event ever to take place in Manchester. There is a circular memorial plaque high on the wall of the Free Trade Hall, and the People’s History Museum on the other side of the city centre has a small display of artefacts, including two sabres that reputedly belonged to a member of the yeomanry from Droylesden. Small memorial ceremonies are held each year on the anniversary. Plans are afoot to stage events on the bicentenary in August 2019. There will be academic conferences and learning packs for schools, and a memorial has been commissioned, to be created by the conceptual artist Jeremy Deller. It all seems a little low-key. Perhaps the moment when the memory of Peterloo will be most stirred will be the release of a film that director Mike Leigh – who was brought up in Salford – is making about the massacre.

“Is Peterloo still important?” asks Jonathan Schofield, who blogs and leads guided tours of the city. “People died for the vote here. They died because they thought it was important to take part.”

The massacre deflected the movement for political reform into a crusade for justice for the victims: “How were boots on the ground expected to translate into political change?” wrote the historian Robert Poole in his book Return to Peterloo. “Had the Manchester meeting demonstrated, to the amazement of high Tories, that large numbers of working people could rally peacefully for a political purpose, what would the reformers’ next step have been? One thing we don’t know about Peterloo is what would have happened if it hadn’t happened, for we are still living with its aftermath.”

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This article was amended on 9 January 2018. An earlier version referred to spinning looms where machinery was meant.

Luke Fildes

Luke Fildes is best know as a painter of the suffering of the poor, most notably with “Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward”. However, such pictures formed only a part of his output, his most prolific works being portraits and pictures of Venetian life. He was also a notable black and white illustrator.

(Cited from All Things Victorian)

Sir Samuel Luke Fildes KCVO RA (3 October 1843 – 28 February 1927) was an English painter and illustrator born in Liverpool and trained at the South Kensington and Royal Academy schools. He was the grandson of the political activist Mary Fildes.

At the age of seventeen Fildes became a student at the Warrington School of Art. Fildes moved to the South Kensington Art School where he met Hubert von Herkomer and Frank Holl. All three men became influenced by the work of Frederick Walker, the leader of the social realist movement in Britain.

Fildes shared his grandmother's concern for the poor and in 1869 joined the staff of The Graphic newspaper, an illustrated weekly began and edited by the social reformer, William Luson Thomas. Fildes shared Thomas' belief in the power of visual images to change public opinion on subjects such as poverty and injustice. Thomas hoped that the images in The Graphic would result in individual acts of charity and collective social action.

Fildes' illustrations were in the black-and-white style popular in France and Germany during the era. He worked in a social realist style, compatible with the editorial direction of The Graphic, and focussed on images depicting the destitute of London. The Graphic published an illustration completed by Fildes the day after Charles Dickens' death, showing Dickens' empty chair in his study this illustration was widely reprinted worldwide, and inspired Vincent van Gogh's painting The Yellow Chair.

In the first edition of The Graphic newspaper that appeared in December 1869, Luke Fildes was asked to provide an illustration to accompany an article on the Houseless Poor Act, a new measure that allowed some of those people out of work to shelter for a night in the casual ward of a workhouse. The picture produced by Fildes showed a line of homeless people applying for tickets to stay overnight in the workhouse. The wood-engraving, entitled Houseless and Hungry, was seen by John Everett Millais, who brought it to the attention of Charles Dickens Dickens was so impressed that he immediately commissioned Fildes to illustrate The Mystery of Edwin Drood (a book Dickens never finished as he died while writing it).

Fildes' illustrations also appeared in other mass-circulation periodicals: Sunday Magazine, The Cornhill Magazine, and The Gentleman's Magazine. He also illustrated a number of books in addition to Dickens' Edwin Drood, such as Thackeray's Catherine (1894).

Fildes soon became a popular artist and by 1870 he had given up working for The Graphic and had turned his full attention to oil painting. He took rank among the ablest English painters, with The Casual Ward (1874), The Widower (1876), The Village Wedding (1883), An Al-fresco Toilette (1889) and The Doctor (1891), now in Tate Britain. He also painted a number of pictures of Venetian life and many notable portraits, among them portraits commemorating the coronation of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy (A.S.A.) in 1879, and a Royal Academician (R.A.) in 1887 and was knighted by King Edward VII in 1906. In 1918, he was appointed as Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO) by King George V. Fildes produced a large number of caricatures for Vanity Fair under the nom de crayon "ELF". He and Henry Woods were regarded as leaders of the Neo-Venetian school. In 1874 Luke Fildes married Fanny Woods, who was also an artist and the sister of Henry Woods.

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Mary Fildes

The population of England in 1819 was restless indeed, with many people -- both men and women -- rising up against the government for one reason or another. On August 16th, a crowd of from 60,000 to 80,000 people gathered at Saint Peter's Field in Manchester to make their demands known. When soldiers on horseback representing the throne stormed the crowd, sabres raised, fifteen of the demonstrators were killed and more than six hundred wounded, a quarter of them women.

One of these women was Mary Fildes, a passionate radical who had been accused of distributing pornography when she handed out material on birth control. One eyewitness described how "Mrs. Fildes, hanging suspended by a nail which had caught her white dress, was slashed across her exposed body by one of the. cavalry." Although badly wounded, Mary Fildes survived and continued her radical political work. That's what in-your-face women always do.
NOTE: The woman in the white dress on the stage in the painting above has been said to be Mary Fildes.

Watch the video: The Petition of Mary Fildes, 15th May 1821. Parliamentary Archives. Archive Alive: Peterloo