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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree August 2019 > Rise like lions From Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1819 poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’

Rise like lions From Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1819 poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’

The Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819 saw the cutting down of peaceful protesters in cold blood, shocking the nation and leading to a major turning point in British politics and society. Adèle Emm looks back at the horrific events as Manchester marks the 200th anniversary


Imagine a famous celebrity is to deliver a speech in a venue near you. It’s a Monday in August; the event is free and within walking distance. Why Monday? When the mill system was in its infancy, self-employed weavers often took Saint Monday as an unofficial holiday.

Tempting? Of course it was. On the morning of 16 August 1819, between 60,000 and 80,000 people (figures vary) arrived peacefully at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, to hear the most famous orator of the time, Henry Hunt. By close of day, at least 15 men, women and children were dead and up to 700 injured, many seriously. Some died of their wounds later. Whatever went wrong? Evoking the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier, James Wroe (1788-1844), editor of the Manchester Observer and owner of a Great Ancoats Street bookshop, coined the name for this tragedy. The Peterloo Massacre.

Background to the bloodshed

Life in the early 19th century was challenging for ordinary people; 1815 was critical, though no-one knew this then. After nearly 20 years of war with France, Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo was inevitably followed by an economic slump to pay for it. To support domestic producers (wealthy landowners!) Parliament had been passing protectionist policies controlling the price of grain through import tariffs – the Corn Laws. Thousands of miles away unbeknownst to Europe, Mt Tambora erupted in April in Indonesia. The following year, 1816, was ‘the year without a summer’. As the price of grain rocketed, the working class could no longer afford basic food, bread.

Add the Industrial Revolution to the mix. Thousands tramped the country seeking work in a post-war depressed economy where machines increasingly replaced people. The textile industry was particularly hit; no more uniforms to produce. Wages plummeted, factory hours extended. Self-employed weavers and spinners working at home were desperate.

To add insult to injury, even though Manchester had a population between 79,459 (1811) and 108,016 (1821), it had no parliamentary representation. No MP! Manchester was not alone.

Neighbouring towns Stockport, Bury, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Salford and others were also without representation. However, in England’s south and south-west constituencies, a wealthy ambitious man could buy his parliamentary seat in a ‘Rotten Borough’. Between 1812 and 1830, Old Sarum, Wiltshire, had three houses, seven voters and two MPs. In 1815, just two per cent of the population – only men – had a vote.

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About Family Tree

If a picture tells a thousand words – what stories can our old family snaps reveal to us about our kin from times gone by? • Learn how to date your old family photos and unlock the clues to your kin with our bumper guide on ‘How to date family photos’ by vintage photo expert Jayne Shrimpton. • Discover how to trace long lost family with Dr Penny Walter’s advice on tracing adopted family members and tracing your own birth family if you were adopted. • Travel back in time two centuries to the time of Peterloo – when innocent ancestors were slain on the street, simply for peacefully marching for their hopes for democracy in Manchester 1819. • New to family history? And stuck? Get simple steps to discover more about your family tree Find all this and more in the latest issue of Family Tree!