Manchester, August 1819: 60,000 people had gathered in the cause of parliamentary reform. To those defending the status quo, the vote was not a universal right, but a privilege of wealth and land ownership. To radical reformers the fundamental overhaul of a corrupt system was long overdue. The people had come to hear one such reformer, Henry Hunt, from all over Lancashire, walking to the sound of hymns and folk songs. By the end of the day fifteen of them, including two women and a child, were dead or mortally wounded, and 650 injured, hacked down by drunken yeomanry after local magistrates panicked at the scale of the meeting. The British state, four years after defeating the ‘tyrant’ Bonaparte at Waterloo, had turned its forces against its own people, as they peaceably exercised their liberties.
Jacqueline Riding’s compelling book ties in to Mike Leigh’s forthcoming film Peterloo, for which the author was historical advisor, in advance of the bicentenary of Peterloo in 2019.