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The city that rose up after its children were mown down

16 August 2019

David Walker reflects on the rich inheritance he draws on in Manchester, 200 years after the Peterloo Massacre


The Peterloo Massacre at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, 16 August 1819: a contemporary cartoon by George Cruikshank

The Peterloo Massacre at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, 16 August 1819: a contemporary cartoon by George Cruikshank

THE Napoleonic Wars that ranged across the first part of the 19th century took a heavy toll on Britain. The ratio of national debt to the size of the economy was crippling. While Manchester remained at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, as the world’s first true industrial city, these were harsh times for the working classes. Former military men returned to their homes and families with poor prospects for work.

For the authorities and governing classes, the greatest fear was that, although France had been defeated, the notion that working people could rise up and overthrow the established order had planted itself in the minds of the masses. Many Church of England clergy were drawn from the wealthier families, and shared their fears and perspectives. Moreover, the ardent secularism and massive displacement of the Roman Catholic Church from its wealth and pre-eminence in France, was a frightening prospect, should it ever make its way across the Channel.


WHEN 60,000 people marched from the surrounding towns and communities to attend a political meeting at St Peter’s Field, at the heart of Manchester, on the morning of Monday 16 August 1819, it seemed that these fears were about to be realised.

The nine magistrates, including two rectors — William Hay and Charles Ethelston — instructed that the Riot Act be read and then ordered the militia into what was, from all the most reliable accounts, an entirely peaceful crowd. Eighteen died as drunken, sword-wielding troops rode back and forward through a confined space that afforded few avenues of escape. Several hundred were injured.

Official versions of the events quickly exonerated the militia and blamed both the leaders of the meeting and the crowd, but their story didn’t stick. Popular, radical newspapers, such as the Manchester Observer, promoted the cause and complaints of the victims, raising a significant sum of money for their support.

Crucially, The Times, not a radical paper by tradition, cast doubt on the official reports from the outset. Once he had been freed from detention the following day, its reporter, John Tyas, provided a damning and widely read eyewitness account. He was adamant that the meeting had been convened for a lawful purpose: to press the claim that the large urban communities of Manchester and its surrounds should have representation in Parliament. Those attending had behaved peacefully, he reported; the blame for the deaths and injuries lay squarely with the authorities.

The appellation “Peterloo”, a direct reference to the still-recent Battle of Waterloo, and the description of the day’s events as a massacre, rapidly took hold. This was the story that stuck.


BEHIND the events of that morning, the Christian faith and churches played a more significant part than might be obvious. The Lancashire towns had responded well to the Methodist movement. Many Methodist and other Nonconformist groups placed a high importance on teaching their working-class adherents both to read and write, and their Sunday schools were often open to adults as well as the young.

Alongside the capacity to read and even produce their own pamphlets, they picked up the lively hymns and tunes that many would sing on their marches into Manchester that Monday morning: hymns that built a sense of mutual belonging, self-worth, and confidence. Some were also learning to give talks and sermons in their churches.

Moreover, through schools and chapels, the Nonconformist believers received and espoused a version of the Christian faith far less deferential to the social order than the one that the Established Church was minded to offer. This was a very different set of values and beliefs from that which inspired the French revolutionaries 30 years earlier.

Meanwhile, Ethelston, a former pupil of Manchester Grammar School (my own school), and a fellow of Manchester Collegiate Church (now Manchester Cathedral), saw this as presenting significant dangers. By 1814, he had set up a book depository, intended to contain volumes that might wean these new readers away from the more radical literature that they were so avidly consuming elsewhere. He was ardently committed to the maintenance of the established order.

In the period up to Peterloo, both he and Hay were in direct correspondence with the Home Office in London. Their letters relayed intelligence passed on to them by the informants and spies that they had placed within the radical movements. The notion that magistrates should remain impartial in matters that might come before them for judgment probably never even arose. They were there to keep the divine order — a remit that went far beyond the maintenance of the peace in specific situations, and encompassed a more general sense of the God-given social and political structures of the nation. They would do so by both judicial and extra-judicial methods.


PETERLOO was an accident waiting to happen. The movements for wider Parliamentary representation — some going as far as universal adult male suffrage, although only a few extending it to women — were gaining ever greater support. The growth in literacy and the availability of cheaply produced newspapers and pamphlets meant that those seeking to promote reform were able to promulgate their messages far more widely and faster than in previous generations.

The speeches of emerging and noted leaders were circulated, attracting new audiences keen to see in person the authors of the fiery words that they had encountered. As it would prove with social media two centuries later, the rapid expansion of the means of communication changed the game.

Indeed, the most surprising thing about the massacre at Peterloo is that, while it enjoys lasting notoriety, it did not become the spark that ignited a British, or English, or even Mancunian revolution. And, while a small part of that may be due to the tightening of legislation in the years immediately after the events, this cannot simply be told as a tale of resistance successfully repressed.

Beneath the bluster of the denials of culpability by the authorities, tectonic plates were shifting. Prominent and wealthy individuals in Manchester started to realise that this must never happen again; government could not be sustained without the consent of the people. Together with the region’s intellectuals, they began to set up and expand the mechanisms through which the nature of a large urban centre and its people could be studied and understood, and the needs of its people addressed.

In 1824, just five years after Peterloo, the chemist John Dalton, together with businessmen and industrialists, set up the Mechanics Institute, the direct ancestor of Manchester University, to teach science to working men. In 1828, the Ancoats Dispensary opened its doors as a philanthropic venture seeking to tackle the injuries and diseases of the industrial poor. Through its development of new treatments to aid its substantial supply of maimed and injured factory workers, it became one of the founding institutions for the development of orthopaedic medicine.

The Manchester Statistical Society followed shortly after, in 1833, committed to understanding the nature of industrial urban society, so that it could influence government. The vast majority of these bodies still exist. They joined the earlier Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, which had begun a generation earlier, in 1781. The Reform Act of 1832 gave Manchester its first two MPs. By the time that Friedrich Engels published his famous study of Manchester’s workers, there were plenty of travellers on the road ahead of him.

Even the Church of England became involved, beginning an intensive period of building new churches to serve the industrial suburbs. It increased its own Sunday and day schools — the latter through the auspices of the National Society, a body that predated Peterloo by eight years. In 1847, the Bishopric of Manchester Act enabled the creation of the see that I occupy, and afforded the Ecclesiastical Commissioners the enduring powers needed to provide new dioceses to serve the growing industrial cities of England.


PETERLOO inspired not a tearing down of institutions but a plethora of new ones. And Manchester went on to play a key part in the birth of other significant democratic institutions of the 19th century, not least the trades union and co-operative movements. Meanwhile, the work and leadership of the Pankhurst family, from their home by what is now Manchester Eye Hospital, proved central to the campaign for women’s suffrage.

The culture established in the aftermath of Peterloo remains evident in the Manchester of today. The city and its surrounds retain a sense of communality: a desire to create institutions that will bind and sustain society. With this inheritance, it is no coincidence that the region lies at the forefront of current experiments in devolution in England: there are ten distinct local authorities, each with plenty of historic civic pride, being willing to pool some of their individuality for the betterment of all.

It is an inheritance that I found myself drawing deeply on in the aftermath of the terrorist attack at Manchester Arena in 2017 (News, 26 May 2017), when Manchester pulled together in love, hope, and defiance, and with a visible unity of purpose. Although hit by a blast that in purely numerical terms killed more people than died at Peterloo, Manchester once again found a better way to respond to sudden death and destruction in its city centre than by stoking the fires of division and hate.

Dr David Walker is the Bishop of Manchester

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