John Boughton, Working-Class Radicalism, 1815-1820 and the Peterloo Massacre of 1819

Brief synopsis of the event

The Peterloo massacre took place at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, England on 16 August 1819. (The name was an ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier.)  A large meeting comprising 50-60,000 men, women and children had assembled to demand reform of Britain’s archaic and elitist political system.  The meeting was to be addressed by the leading radical figure of the day, Henry (“Orator”) Hunt, amongst others.  Local magistrates, fearful of disorder, ordered the arrest of Hunt and other radicals present on the platform.  As the yeomanry charged into the crowd to effect the arrests, sabres swinging, panic ensued and eleven people were killed and some 400 injured.  The episode aroused fierce anger amongst both working-class radicals and the more liberal upper classes but Lord Liverpool’s Government endorsed the action of the magistrates and passed a variety of repressive measures (the “Six Acts”) to suppress further protest. 

Radical Criticisms and Analysis

Britain’s unreformed political system had been the object of criticism from middle-class reformers and a growing working-class radical movement from the late eighteenth century.  Franchise arrangements were complex but, in essence, the vote was reserved to upper-class male property-holders.  Furthermore, constituency arrangements dated back to the Middle Ages: many newly emergent towns, the products of Britain’s recent industrial growth, were unrepresented in parliament whilst virtually depopulated centers (“rotten boroughs”) retained their historic right to elect Members of Parliament (MPs).  

Radicalism condemned what it saw as an essentially parasitic system, dominated by the landed aristocracy and the established Church which controlled political power.  This ruling elite was held to have suppressed the ancient constitutional rights of the “free-born Englishman” and to be systematically expropriating the wealth of the “producing classes” (a category comprising both middle-class entrepreneurs and respectable workingmen).  The writings of Thomas Paine and, latterly, William Cobbett, achieved great influence.  However, the growing extremism of the French Revolution, marked by the Terror of 1793-1794, and fierce government repression suppressed the early reform movement.

Post-War Discontent and Ideology

At the war’s end in 1815, popular discontent and organized radical protest revived.  Demobilization, industrial and agricultural depression and a sharp rise in prices created widespread hardship.  The policies of Lord Liverpool’s Tory Government further alienated reforming opinion.   Income Tax, affecting the better-off was abolished in 1816 and government revenues came to depend heavily on indirect taxation – duties on items of consumption – which hit the poorest hardest.   The 1815 Corn Laws banned the import of corn until it had reached the price of 80 shillings a quarter. The apparent intent was to protect domestic agriculture but their impact was to create high and fluctuating grain prices and confirm the impression of a land-owning class governing in its own self-interest.  The wartime enclosure of common land and punitive Game Laws (1816), which prescribed seven years transportation for poaching, added to popular grievance.

Organized protest began with the Hampden Club established by Major John Cartwright in London in 1812.   Cartwright toured the provinces to drum up support and by 1816 a number of similar societies had been formed in the industrial towns of northern England.   Their program - the common currency of the radical movement of the day - demanded universal manhood suffrage, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, and a secret ballot. 

The essence of working-class radical ideology lay in a deep constitutionalism.   Reformers argued that political reform would restore traditional liberties and stressed that their tactics – the mobilization and exercise of popular opinion through petitioning and mass meetings – were peaceful and legal.  This apparently passive strategy contained a double-edged challenge to the ruling class.  Physically, it implied the threat of sheer force of numbers, as the deliberately menacing platform rhetoric of leading radical spokesmen emphasized.  Morally, it challenged the government to act in a restrained and constitutional way – an overtly repressive response from the government would demonstrate its illegitimacy and would, moreover, justify defensive violence from the people.  

Popular Protest

The first mass meeting called to petition for reform took place in Spa Fields, London in November 1816 where Henry Hunt addressed a crowd of around 10,000 people.  The refusal of the Prince Regent to receive the petition led to a further meeting in December in which a section of the crowd, incited by more radical elements - followers of Thomas Spence - launched a futile attack on the Tower of London.  In the following month, a delegate meeting of radicals met in London to forward a reform petition claiming some 500,000 signatures but an attack on the Prince Regent’s coach as he travelled to open the new session of Parliament ensured that the Government responded only with the most severe repression: wartime laws banning seditious speech and organization were re-enacted and in March 1817, the law of Habeas Corpus (requiring that all detainees be properly charged or released) was suspended for one year.  In the same month, the March of the Blanketeers – a procession of textiles workers from Manchester to London, each carrying a blanket and a reform petition – was broken up by mass arrests.  The apparent futility of peaceful reform methods and the brutality of government action persuaded some radicals that the time for violent resistance had come. The evidence is clouded by the secretive nature of the planning, and is greatly complicated by the provocative role of government spies, but the Pentridge Rising in Derbyshire in June 1817 seems to have been part of a wider revolutionary conspiracy.  In the event, a well-informed Government made pre-emptive arrests and was able to pick off the small numbers who did take up arms well before there was any possibility of the sympathetic uprisings for which the rebels had hoped.


Agitation revived in 1819 when a series of mass meetings were held in Birmingham, Leeds and London. The Manchester Patriotic Union Society was formed in March 1819 and organized a mass meeting to be addressed by Richard Carlile and Henry Hunt at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester on 16 August.  The meeting was planned as a gala day, attended by women and children, demonstrative of the reform movement’s respectability.  Crowds from Manchester and environs, dressed in their Sunday best and carrying reform banners proclaiming such typical radical slogans as “Equal Representation” and “Let us Die Like Men and Not be Sold like Slaves”, began gathering from mid-morning.  Local magistrates, fearful of the threat of disturbance, watched apprehensively as numbers grew.  Though there was no genuine evidence of any threat of violence, the magistrates determined that Hunt, Carlile and local radical leaders on the platform should be arrested.  The Manchester Yeomany, a local militia comprising middle-class tradesmen and shopkeepers most of whom were fiercely antagonistic to the reform movement and some allegedly drunk, surged into the crowd with sabres swinging to force a path through to the platform.  In the ensuing panic and melee, eleven were killed and around 400 injured.  Carlile effected an escape but Hunt and a number of local radical leaders, including Samuel Bamford, were detained.  


The Aftermath

Reforming opinion, even among the moderate middle classes, was outraged by these actions.  Highly critical reports circulated rapidly and a series of protest meetings followed.  The Government, whilst privately critical of the magistrates’ intemperate behavior, had little option but to give them their public support.  Hunt was sentenced to thirty months’ imprisonment.  Bamford and two others were sentenced to twelve months.   In order to prevent any further upsurge in protest, the Government clamped down in a series of measures (the “Six Acts”) passed in December 1819 which banned military drilling, gave magistrates the power to search property or persons for arms, prohibited public assemblies of over 50 people without official permission, tightened the taxation of radical journals, and sought to expedite the legal process and strengthen punishment for “blasphemous and seditious libels”.   Cartwright, Carlile and other leading reformers were also arrested and imprisoned in 1820. 

Peterloo effectively marked the end of the first phase of working-class radical protest.  A group of extreme radicals, followers of Thomas Spence, attempted to assassinate the Cabinet whilst it met at a private dinner party in February 1820 but their plot was well known to the Government’s spy network and the so-called Cato Street Conspiracy was foiled with the arrest of the conspirators and subsequent execution of its five ringleaders.  Reforming opinion seized on the exclusion of Queen Caroline from the coronation of her estranged husband, George IV, in 1820 as a means of embarrassing a reactionary government and culpable monarchy but the next major upsurge of protest did not occur until 1829.  

Government repression and Home Office spies had wreaked havoc on the radical movement and an upturn in the economy quelled more immediate discontents.   Radical leaders were, in any case, unsure and divided as to how to proceed.  Most believed that the mass of working-class opinion would not – or should not - be led into further, possibly bloody, confrontation with a determinedly repressive government.  The program and strategy that underlay Peterloo remained the staple of radical politics into the reform agitation of the early 1830s and once more in early Chartism but its essential dilemma – how to wrest reform from an obdurate and powerful ruling elite and when the much-vaunted right of popular self-defense might be mobilized - remained unsolved.  

Key Players

Bamford, Samuel (1788-1872)

A Lancashire weaver and moderate reformer.  After his release from prison following on his arrest at Peterloo, he became a journalist and memoirist.  His Passages in the Life of a Radical (1843) and Early Days (1849) were influential in subsequent interpretations of the working-class movement but Bamford himself urged working-class respectability and became estranged from later radical politics which he criticized for its extremism. 

Carlile,  Richard (1790-1843)

Radical London journalist and publisher, Carlile was one of the speakers at Peterloo, and imprisoned for seditious libel (for his report on the Massacre).  And blasphemy (for his publication of Paine’s Age of Reason).  His wife and sister were also imprisoned for their role in the unstamped press and Carlile became an advocate of women’s political and personal rights and a campaigner against child labor.  Jailed in 1830 for his support of protesting agricultural laborers, Carlile died in poverty.  

Cartwright, Major John (1740-1824)

English landowner and former naval officer, discharged for his support of the American rebels.  He wrote Take Your Choice (1776), which outlined a radical political reform program, and subsequently formed the Society for Constitutional Information.  The Hampden Club network of radical societies that he helped establish from 1812 played a significant role in the post-war upsurge of radicalism.  Cartwright sought to engineer an alliance of middle- and working class radicals.

Cobbett, William (1763-1835)

A self-taught journalist whose homely, direct style in the Political Register (published from 1802) made him the most powerful voice of English working-class radicalism.  Cobbett himself looked back to an idealised rural past but his eloquent critique of the contemporary political corruption became the mainstay of radical analysis.  He served a brief, unsuccessful stint as MP for Oldham between 1832-1835. 

Hunt, Henry (“Orator”)  (1773-1835)

A landed gentleman converted to radical politics in 1800 and subsequently an inspirational and demagogic speaker at reform rallies.  Elected MP for the popular constituency of Preston in 1831, he lost his seat in 1835 for his opposition to the 1832 Reform Act which he believed did not go far enough.

Paine, Thomas (1737-1809)

A former exciseman who emigrated to America and became, through his pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), a leading advocate of Us independence. Back in Europe, The Rights of Man 1791) defended the French Revolution and condemned hereditary rule, selling1.5m copies in his lifetime.   He became a French citizen but, after a brief imprisonment, he returned to the US where he died.  Paine’s lively coruscating style made him one of the most influential radical writers of his day.

Spence, Thomas (1750-1814)

Newcastle schoolmaster and radical journalist and pamphleteer.   Spence was unusual in advocating women’s rights and sweeping economic reform including parochial ownership of land, the rents of which were to provide for public education.  He favored a decentralized revolutionary organization to harness and foment popular discontent and incite insurrection. 

Thistlewood, Arthur (1774-1820)

An ex-soldier and failed farmer, Thistlewood moved to London in 1811 where he became active as a follower of Thomas Spence and an advocate of insurrection.  An instigator of the Spa Fields riot in 1816 and an organizer of protests after Peterloo, Thistlewood led the attempt to assassinate the Cabinet in Cato Street, 1820 but he and four others were arrested before the attack on the evidence of a government spy and executed for high treason.