Ward's Book of Days.

Pages of interesting anniversaries.

What happened on this day in history.

AUGUST 16th

On this day in history in 1819, took place the Massacre of Peterloo.

Peterloo is the name given to a disaster, which took place in Manchester, when troops charged on a crowd of civilians at a public meeting. Its name derives from the place of the occurrence, St Peterís Fields, and the recent sanguinary battle of Waterloo.

The meeting had been called to protest on two matters, firstly, The Corn Laws, legislation which, kept grain prices artificially high and secondly the lack of Parliamentary representation for the middle and working classes. The rally was called by radical reformer, Henry ĎOratorí Hunt and was attended by about 60,000 people, including women and children, in a peaceable and good-humoured mood.

Local magistrates feared that the meeting would end in riot and, as a precaution, arranged for 600 infantrymen and a unit of the Royal Horse Artillery, equipped with canon, to attend the meeting. When the magistrates realised the size of the crowd, they overreacted and first read the Riot Act and, when that had no effect, ordered the cavalry to arrest Hunt and the other speakers.

Whether the cavalry misunderstood the orders or whether they were drunk, as some witnesses stated, or whether they panicked is not certain. They did not confine themselves to arresting the leaders but charged the crowd wielding sabres. After fifteen minutes they had dispersed the crowd and arrested the leaders, leaving eleven dead, including a woman and a child, and about 400 injured.

Hunt was tried and convicted under the Riot Act and received a sentence of two years. The maximum penalty under the Act was hanging. Two other leaders avoided trial but were later imprisoned for publishing an account of the incident. The poet Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy commemorating the dead. The government passed further repressive legislation, known as the Six Acts, suppressing public meetings and protest.

In 1832, Parliament passed the Reform Act, giving the vote to the lower middle-class but it was not until 1846, that the Corn Laws were repealed.

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