“Peterloo” is the nickname that came to be given to the events of 16 August 1819, when a demonstration on St. Peter’s Field in Manchester in behalf of Parliamentary Reform was broken up by armed force, leaving about a dozen demonstrators dead and many others wounded by hoof and saber. Its claim to distinction in modern social and political history is that, with estimates of the crowd running to 60,000 people, it was probably at the time the largest mass peaceful demonstration ever assembled. Non-violent protest has become a fact of political life over the nearly two centuries since Peterloo. We now associate these kinds of events with names like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. but the Reform Movement that took shape in Britain in the period after the defeat of Napoleon’s forces at Waterloo had evolved what was then a new set of tactics.
Long before he was embraced by the Chartists, Percy Bysshe Shelley elaborated a theory of passive resistance just weeks after reading about what happened in Manchester in the newspaper accounts that reached him in Italy. Writing a text that would not surface for about a century, A Philosophical View of Reform, Shelley produced a trial run for the somewhat later and now better known “A Defence of Poetry,” in which he explained in fairly precise terms the political psychology of the new mode of protest. It is hard to imagine that this remarkable and historically precocious understanding of passive resistance and its role in modern politics could have been formulated by Shelley without the example of Peterloo.
The plan for the great assembly at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester was to have been a key action in the campaign led by Henry “Orator” Hunt and others to organize working people in London, in the north of England, and in Scotland under what Hunt called “the watchwords of freemen: Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage.” The 16 August meeting had been in preparation since Hunt’s visit to Manchester in January, and the people who attended it marched to the meeting grounds in disciplined phalanxes, subdivided into platoons according to their place of dwelling in or around Lancashire. They had rehearsed—drilled—for weeks. The explicit aim of the planners was to produce a spectacle unprecedented in its display of organization and strength, and the rhetoric of the “unexampled” incident became very much a part of the coverage of Peterloo and its aftermath. The massive numbers and premeditated orderliness of the demonstrators assembled on this occasion and others like it in 1819 prompted government mistrust and would likely have gained widespread public recognition even in the absence of violence. This public recognition was in turn registered by Shelley (who was tracking events largely through those newspaper accounts sent to him in Italy) in the slogan he made the refrain for “The Mask of Anarchy”: “Ye are many, they are few.”
The terrible story of Peterloo is well known to students of nineteenth-century British history. Just as Hunt began to address the assembled multitude in St. Peter’s Field, they were attacked by the Manchester Yeomanry. This local militia was backed up in the course of the action by the Fifteenth Regiment of British Hussars, veterans of Waterloo, many of whom were wearing medals won in the campaign against Napoleon. Although the presence of the Hussars gave the massacre its notorious nickname, most of the damage was done by the Yeomanry itself, as Samuel Bamford, who had organized the Stockton platoon, movingly recalled in his blow-by-blow history of the first minutes of violence:
“Stand fast,” I said, “they are riding upon us, stand fast.” And there was a general cry in our quarter of “Stand fast.” The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings; and their sabers were plied to hew and way through naked held-up hands, and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs, and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion. “Ah! Ah!” “for shame! for shame!” was shouted. Then “Break! break! they are killing them in front, and they cannot get away”; and there was a general cry of “break! break.” For a moment the crowd held back as in a pause; then was a rush, heavy and resistless as a headlong sea; and a sound like low thunder, with screams, prayers, and imprecations from the crowd-moiled, and saber-doomed, who could not escape.
On the breaking of the crowd, the yeomanry wheeled; and dashing wherever there was an opening, they followed, pressing and wounding. Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heartrending; and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment; but here, their appeals were vain. (152)
Bamford writes after the passing of a quarter century, but he captures the sense of outrage that is clear in much of the more immediate public reaction to the event. His account, moreover, is largely corroborated by both contemporary reports and subsequent research. The facts and figures of Peterloo continue to be debated to this day, but civilian casualties probably ran to over three hundred, with perhaps a dozen fatalities among them.
Writers present on the hustings that day included Richard Carlile (on whose behalf Shelley would write a long public letter, unpublished, to The Examiner in October), as well as reporters from the Liverpool Mercury, the Leeds Mercury, and (most unusually, given the distance of the meeting from the metropolis) The Times of London (Marlow, 130). The incident was told and retold in the daily and weekly press and then reconstructed from the newspaper accounts in works like Shelley’s “The Mask of Anarchy” and William Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built (1819), the latter alleged to have sold 100,000 copies by the end of the year (though this is almost certainly an inflated figure). The ripple effects of this incident on the British nation from the day it took place until the Gag Acts were passed in December were massive, but the incident’s proleptic impact on national life actually occurred well in advance of 16 August. Indeed, it started to be felt at the beginning of the year, when the initial plans for an assembly at Manchester began to be laid, amid great public controversy. On 18 January, Henry Hunt, who presided at the Peterloo assembly, had held a meeting of 8,000 “operatives” on the same site. The plans for a second meeting were to be cleared with government officials, and these negotiations had not proven easy. More than one such project had to be scrapped before the 16 August meeting was replanned and eventually carried out. In the meantime, British laborers mobilized for reform in several other venues. A highly visible series of demonstrations preceded Peterloo, and, unintimidated by the event itself, reformers continued to meet through to the late autumn. Meanwhile, writers of all descriptions persisted through the year to keep what happened on 16 August in the forefront of public attention, shaping and reshaping its implications, reconfiguring the very practices of literary and political representation in the bargain.
All this is to say that “Peterloo”—like “The French Revolution” on a larger scale, or even “Romanticism,” on a scale yet larger still—names an event of indeterminate duration that marks a major transformation in the practices of literary and political representation. (On the French Revolution, see Diane Piccitto’s “On 1793 and the Aftermath of the French Revolution.”) This transformation was understood in its moment to have revolutionary potential in part because of the emerging interconnectedness of literary and political representation. Shelley captured this new understanding of things when he wrote just some weeks after Peterloo, and very much in its wake, that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. And he attempted to incarnate that emerging sense of the interconnectedness of political and literary representation in the poetry he produced in the wake of Peterloo once he learned of it. That double-sided understanding of representation structures, if somewhat abstractly, the complex articulation of revolutionary poetic energy in the “Ode to the West Wind.” And we see it more concretely in the sonnet that would come to bear the title “England in 1819,” and in his verse in a more populist mode, like “The Mask of Anarchy” and “Song to the Men of England.” Peterloo’s challenge to the state of representation called for a new mode of literary representation, one that Shelley saw himself as working out in its aftermath.
It must also be said of Peterloo that what E.P. Thompson calls “the sheer size of the event” constantly eludes definition (687). For it is not just, as Asa Briggs argues, that “1819 was one of the most troubled years of the nineteenth century,” nor that “working-class ‘distress’ took the clearest political form it had ever taken, and there was a consequent fierce struggle between the forces of ‘movement’ and the defenders of order” (208). It is also that the modes and means of national self-representation itself were contested in the most fundamental ways in these struggles over the rights of assembly and publication, tongue and pen (as Bentham put it in his Plan of Parliamentary Reform ). The year of Peterloo can be framed as a series of “days” in the new sense given that term during the mass movements of the French Revolution and reprised by Marx in his celebrated “day book,” The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Here are some of the “days” of popular activity for England in 1819:
- January 18: Henry Hunt presides at a meeting of 8,000 operatives on St. Peter’s Field in Manchester.
- February 15 (The “Sandy Brow Fight”): William Fitton presides at a public meeting at Sandy Brow in Stockport, number present not known, where a scuffle involving stones and brickbats occurs over an attempt by the military to seize the Cap of Liberty; the Riot Act is read three times.
- June 14: Joseph Harrison presides at a meeting of 12,000–15,000 at Ashton-under-Lyne; this was typical of a spate of June meetings at Oldham, Bolton, Royton, Bury, Heywood, Stockport, Failsworth, Gee Cross, Lees, Middleton, Rochdale, Todmorden, Barnsley, Holmfirth, Leeds, and other towns that were unrepresented in Parliament.
- June 16: 40,000 weavers meet at Glasgow to petition the Prince Regent for passage money to Canada for the unemployed.
- June 28: At the great Stockport meeting, the largest of its kind besides Peterloo, upwards of 20,000 hear Sir Charles Wolseley speak on Parliamentary reform.
- August 16 (Peterloo): 60,000 people assemble on St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, with Henry Hunt presiding.
- September 2: 15,000–50,000 people assemble in Westminster and are addressed by Francis Burdett and Major Cartwright. (Thompson dates this to September 5, but the Examiner for that date confirms September 2.) This follows a smaller protest meeting at Smithfield the week before.
- November 1: simultaneous meetings held, by prior agreement, at Newcastle, Carlisle, Leeds, Halifax, Manchester, Bolton, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry, and elsewhere in England and Scotland.
- November 15: simultaneous meetings at Paisley, Glasgow, and other locations across Scotland.
In gauging the new sense of historical movement felt in these days of 1819, it should be conceded that these massive demonstrations of 1819 had been somewhat anticipated within the post-Waterloo period by the assembly at Spa Fields in London in late 1816 and the Pentridge Rebellion of 1817. Thompson has indeed called the years from 1815 to 1819 “the heroic age of popular Radicalism” (603). Further, this four-year period in turn could be seen as a postwar renewal (though with many differences) of some of the mass scale activity of the 1780s and 1790s. In the popular activity of 1819, however, the unprecedented or (in Hunt’s term) “unexampled” elements are the persistence of popular pressure and the recurrence of the assemblies on a mass scale. Thompson’s own speculation is that Britain may have come as close to a revolution at this moment as it had at any point since the English Revolution itself in the 1640s and that, if the movement had better leadership from stump and page than was provided by the likes of “Orator” Hunt and journalist Cobbett, some more radical outcome might actually have been attained (620-630).
Thompson’s history is now celebrated for having achieved a powerful sympathetic identification with the energies and hopes of the historical actors who form its subject—and that identification seems to radiate backward and forward in his narrative from his imaginative reenactment of the radical possibilities of Peterloo in 1819. Some historians have doubted the validity of this counterfactual speculation on the grounds that it exaggerates the depth of the radical movement that stirred Britain in these months. What is not a matter of speculation is the view of the crisis expressed by contemporary intellectuals. The more one reads in either public or private commentary by intellectuals across the political spectrum of England in 1819, the more one sees of revolutionary hopes and fears. Shelley’s comment in a letter to Leigh Hunt on 23 December—“I suppose we shall soon have to fight in England” (Marchand 2: 167)—is closely linked with his contemporary declaration in A Philosophical View of Reform that “we live among such philosophers and poets as surpass beyond comparison any who have appeared in our nation since its last struggle for liberty.” The imminence of revolution is explicit in Lord Byron’s more ambivalent political comments of these months: “To me [he wrote to Augusta Leigh from Venice on 15 October] it appears you are on the eve of a revolution which won’t be made with rose water however” (Marchand 6: 228). It is also alluded to in recorded statements by many other political observers who were closer to the unfolding events in Britain. In letters of December 1819, Sir Walter Scott both notes the nearby disturbances of November in Glasgow and Paisley and discusses his efforts to marshal a small corps to put down a possibly imminent insurrection—“We think we may raise 300 men” (6: 54). Furthermore, in a scenario lifted straight from one of his historical novels, but which he justified in practical terms, Scott also mentions the possibility of an alliance with the “highland Chiefs” for the same purpose. Certainly the situation was thought dire enough to warrant emergency measures in the session of Parliament that the Prince Regent convened on 23 November.
From the perspective of the documents dating from 1819, what is perhaps most extraordinary is that in the space of a few weeks the growing agitation all came to so abrupt a halt. The timing of the political reversal of 1820 might be attributed to the combined effect of arrests of key leaders (Hunt, Major Cartwright, Francis Burdett, Richard Carlile, Sir Charles Wolseley), government countermeasures (the Gag Acts, passed on 30 December 1819), historical accident (the death of George III, 29 January 1820), and desperate radical plots (the Cato Street Conspiracy, discovered on 23 February 1820). By mid-1820, the movement that had been gaining force since 1815 was to undergo, as Thomas Laqueur has suggested, a full-scale public displacement, and subsequent aestheticization, in the affair over the newly crowned King’s attempts to divorce his estranged wife Caroline in 1820 (Laqueur 417-466). The “triumphs” of Caroline through the streets of England seem in retrospect like so many parodic repetitions of the post-Waterloo “triumphs” of Hunt and Cobbett in late 1819. The sense of closure on the events around Peterloo, but also the sense of general historical acceleration in this intensely “hot” period of literary and political activity, are captured in a pamphlet of April 1820 containing a speech that the newly reelected George Canning made before his constituents at Liverpool on 18 March. For Canning declared on that occasion that—in view of events of recent months—November 1819 and March 1820 effectively belonged to different “epochs” in the nation’s history (Canning 7).
An interesting coda to the story of Peterloo for students of Romantic poetry concerns John Keats and the composition of “To Autumn,” a poem sometimes called the most perfect lyric in English and not routinely understood in respect to the politics of its moment. Keats composed the poem on his return from a walk from Winchester down the sallows of the River Itchen on Sunday, 21 September 1819. We know this from a long journal letter to George and Georgiana Keats, his brother and sister-in-law. The day before, he wrote out for them his most explicit account of the historical moment he had come to see himself as occupying, one involving an orthodox Christian counter-revolution to the progress made in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. “To Autumn,” then, can be seen as Keats’s non-Christian approach to questions of morality. But Keats’s sense of his historical moment would have been intensified by his experience just a few days earlier, after he had traveled from Winchester into London to sort out matters with his and his brother’s meager estate. For Keats was in London on the day when Hunt was welcomed in triumph by a huge multitude after his journey up the Great North Road to stand trial for chairing the meeting at Peterloo.
From what we know of his movements that day, 13 September, it is possible to place Keats along that route at the time when the crowds would have been assembling, as he would have been returning from his sister’s in Walthamstow down the North Road through Islington and into the City in the late morning. Keats indeed describes the scene to George and Georgiana just five days later, on 18 September, in a way that suggests he had witnessed it:
You will hear by the papers of the proceedings at Manchester and Hunt’s triumphal entry into London—[I]t would take me a whole day and a quire of paper to give you anything like detail—I will merely mention that is is calculated that 30,000 people were in the streets waiting for him—The whole distance from the Angel Islington to the Crown and anchor was lined with Multitudes. As I pass’d Colnaghi’s window I saw a profil Portrait of Sands the destroyer of Kotzebue. His very look must interest everyone in his favor. (2: 194-195)
The words “As I passed” strongly suggest that this whole account is the description of someone moving among the very “Multitudes” he is describing. And, in a later letter to Benjamin Haydon, Keats mitigates his sense of injustice about his public reception with the playful concession that refers to the same moment: “I have no cause to complain because I am certain any thing really fine will in these days be felt. I have no doubt that if I had written Othello I should have been cheered by as good a Mob as Hunt” (219). Keats’s improbable identification with the point of view of “Orator” Hunt is a measure of how deeply the consequences of Peterloo were felt on the pulse of English subjects.
published December 2015
HOW TO CITE THIS BRANCH ENTRY (MLA format)
Chandler, James. “On Peterloo, 16 August 1819.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].
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Braton, Francis, ed. Three Accounts of Peterloo by Eyewitnesses: Bishop Stanley, Lord Hylton, and John Benjamin Smith. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1921. Print.
Briggs, Asa. The Age of Improvement. London: Longmans, Green, 1959. Print.
Calhoun, Craig. The Question of Class Struggle. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982. Print.
Canning, George. Speech of the Right Hon. George Canning, to his Constituents at Liverpool, On Saturday, March 18, 1820. London: John Murray, 1820. Print.
Chandler, James. England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1998. Print.
Clark, Anna. “Queen Caroline and the Sexual Politics of Popular Culture in London, 1820.” Representations 31 (Summer 1990): 47–68. Print.
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Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. 1852. New York: International Publishers, 1977. Print.
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Reid, Robert. The Peterloo Massacre. London: Heinemann, 1989. Print.
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 This article originally appeared, if with slight variations and in a different form, in James Chandler, England in 1819 (reproduced here with permission).
 Banners bearing these same slogans were carried at the great public demonstrations, including Peterloo. See Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical 146.
 Bamford wrote in his autobiography that in the spring planning sessions for the demonstration at St. Peter’s Field, it “was deemed expedient that this meeting should be as morally effective as possible, and, that it should exhibit a spectacle such as had never before been witnessed in England” (Passages 131). See also coverage of Henry Hunt’s triumphal entry into London the following month: “From the City-road, to the Crown and Anchor, never, we believe, was such a crowd seen” (9). This rhetoric appears, as well, in Hunt’s address: “I am overwhelmed with gratitude, for the unexampled honour you have this day shewn me. Unexampled, I say, for I challenge the enemies of Reform to name one instance where the public feeling has been so mightily, so powerfully, and so unequivocally expressed, not towards an individual, but in that sacred and overwhelming cause in which the people are engaged” (8). This is not, of course, to say that the rhetoric of the “unexampled” moment should itself simply be taken as entirely unexampled, but rather, as I argue below, that there is some serious warrant for it in this case.
 For other eyewitness narratives of the massacre, see Francis Braton, ed., Three Accounts of Peterloo.
 Much of the recent research on Peterloo was assembled, at least representatively, in the special issue devoted to the subject by the Manchester Region History Review 3, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1989).
 A more recent popular history of the event is Robert Reid, The Peterloo Massacre.
 Hunt had a run-in with the Fifteenth Hussars on this early occasion. Robert Walmsley, a modern apologist for the action of the Manchester Magistracy, alleges that Hunt was baiting Hussars on his January visit to Manchester, in his Peterloo: The Case Reopened (46). Walmsley also reprints a defiant poem by Bamford with the unwieldy title: “Touch Him! Or, Verses occasioned by the Outrage committed upon Mr Hunt, and His Friends, at the Theatre, Manchester, on the evening of Friday, January 22, 1819” (47–49). The poem, which seems prophetic of events at the 16 August meeting, begins as follows:
Touch him, aye! touch him, if you dare;
Pluck from his head one single hair—
Ye sneaking, coward crew:
Touch him—and blasted by the hand
That graspeth not a vengeful brand.
To rid our long oppressed land
Of reptiles such as you. (47)
 These later meetings are well documented in the reports collected by Parliament in November as “Papers Relevant to the Internal State of the Country,” in Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, 1st ser., 41 (1820): cols. 230-301. See especially the final report, by Sir John Byng, 18 November 1819, cols. 300-301; cf. the debate on H. G. Bennet’s motion “on the state of the manufacturing districts,” cols. 924-26. This is only a partial list of the demonstrations, which in fact continued into the early autumn. Joyce Marlow notes that in Paisley, Birmingham, Leeds, and Newcastle the meetings were “attended by crowds of up to 50,000” (183). The Scottish meetings of November are mentioned in Elie Halévy, The Liberal Awakening (67).
 “Not surprisingly,” writes Asa Briggs, “some historians have chosen these tense years between Waterloo and Peterloo as the nearest point Britain ever reached to social revolution,” but, though he himself calls 1819 “the worst of all years,” he is not persuaded that the probability of revolution was ever really so strong (208, 210).
 From the right and left, respectively, such critiques have been made by R. J. White and Craig Calhoun.
 WPBS, 7:19.
 Scott writes to John B. S. Morritt in mid-December: “The highland Chiefs have offered their clans and I think they cannot do better than accept a regiment or two of them. They have no common sympathies with the insurgents and could be better trusted than any new forces that could be levied” (6:58). According to John Sutherland, Scott had persuaded himself in December that “upwards of 50,000 blackguards are ready to rise between Tyne and Wear” (233). Coleridge, for one, expressed skepticism of these dire forecasts.
 “The Prince Regent’s Speech on Opening the Session” includes his explanation of the emergency: “I regret to have been under the necessity of calling you together at this period of the year; but the seditious practices so long prevalent in some of the manufacturing districts of the country have . . . led to proceedings incompatible with the public tranquility, and with the peaceful habits of the industrious classes of the community; and a spirit is now fully manifested, utterly hostile to the constitution of this kingdom. . . . ” Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, 1st ser., 41 (1820): cols. 1-2; cf. Hunt’s reference to the “spirit” working through the people assembled to greet him on his entry into London (8–9).
 These, says Thompson, were “only a few of those imprisoned or awaiting prosecution by the end of 1819” (684).
 See also Clark. The interesting conjunction of what Laqueur calls the “aestheticization of public political life” with the Caroline affair and the new aestheticism that develops in a writer like Shelley between Peterloo and “A Defence of Poetry” (1821) is a matter that deserves more attention than it has received.
 Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958), 2:194-95. Hereafter LJK.
 For more on Peterloo and its place among the works and days of its time, see my England in 1819; I have borrowed freely from my account there for this article.