Men, women and children were cut down by the sabres of the militia in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, as they demanded parliamentary reform. This is an eyewitness account of the Peterloo massacre by the radical Samuel Bamford.
On 16 August 1819 a large crowd gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to hear Henry “Orator” Hunt and other leading radicals demand parliamentary reform. Alarmed by the size of the gathering, magistrates ordered the speakers to be arrested.
What followed was a massacre as mounted troops of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cut their way through the crowds with sabres. Fifteen people died and around 500 injured in an event which shocked the country and came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre.
The account here is by Samuel Bamford (above) (1788-1872), a handloom weaver and self-educated radical. Bamford himself was arrested after the massacre and imprisoned for a year.
The Peterloo Massacre, 16 August 1819
In about half an hour after our arrival the sounds of music and reiterated shouts
proclaimed the near approach of Mr Hunt and his party; and in a minute or two they were seen coming from Deansgate, preceded by a band of music and several flags. On the driving seat of a barouche sat a neatly dressed female, supporting a small flag, on which were some emblematical drawings and an inscription. Within the carriage were Mr Hunt, who stood up, Mr Johnson, of Smedley Cottage; Mr Moorhouse, of Stockport; Mr Carlile, of London; Mr John Knight, of Manchester; and Mr Saxton, a sub-editor of the Manchester Observer. Their approach was hailed by one universal shout from probably 80,000 persons. They threaded their way slowly past us and through the crowd, which Hunt eyed, I thought, with almost as much of astonishment as satisfaction. This spectacle could not be otherwise in his view than solemnly impressive. Such a mass of human beings he had not beheld till then. His responsibility must weigh on his mind. Their power for good or evil was irresistible, and who should direct that power? Himself alone who had called it forth. The task was great, and not without its peril. The meeting was indeed a tremendous one. He mounted the hustings; the music ceased; Mr Johnson proposed that Mr Hunt should take the chair; it was seconded, and carried by acclamation; and Mr Hunt, stepping towards the front of the stage, took off his white hat, and addressed the people. Whilst he was doing so, I proposed to an acquaintance that, as the speeches and resolutions were not likely to contain anything new to us, and as we could see them in the papers, we should retire awhile and get some refreshment, of which I stood much in need, being not in very robust health. He assented, and we had got to nearly the outside of the crowd, when a noise and strange murmur arose towards the church. Some persons said it was the Blackburn people coming, and I stood on tiptoe and looked in the direction whence the noise proceeded, and saw a party of cavalry in blue and white uniform come trotting, sword in hand, round the corner of a garden wall, and to the front of a row of new houses, where they reined up in a line.
“The soldiers are here,” I said; “we must go back and see what this means.” “Oh,” someone made reply, “they are only come to be ready if there should be any disturbance in the meeting.” “Well, let us go back,” I said, and we forced our way towards the colours.
On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people.
“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 sabres were plied to hew a 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 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 sabre-doomed who could not escape.
By this time Hunt and his companions had disappeared from the hustings, and some of the yeomanry, perhaps less sanguinarily-disposed than others, were busied in cutting down the flag-staves and demolishing the flags at the hustings.
On the breaking of the crowd the yeomanry wheeled, and dashing whenever 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 heart-rending, and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment: but here their appeals were in vain. Women, white-vested maids, and tender youths, were indiscriminately sabred or trampled; and we have reason for believing that few were the instances in which that forbearance was vouchsafed which they so earnestly implored.
In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down througha sultry and motionless air. The curtains and blinds of the windows within view were all closed. A gentleman or two might occasionally be seen looking out from one of the new houses before mentioned, near the door of which a group of persons (special constables) were collectred, and apparently in conversation; others were assisting the wounded or carrying off the dead. The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody. The yeomanry had dismounted – some were easing their horses’ girths, others adjusting their accoutrements, and some were wiping their sabres. Several mounds of human being still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more. All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds. Persons might sometimes be noticed peeping from attics and over the tall ridgings of houses, but they quickly withdrew, as if feargul of being observed, or unable to sustain the full gaze of a scene so hideous and abhorrent.
Source: Passages in the Life of a Radical, 1864