The Peterloo Massacre: Culpability and City Memorials

In cities crammed with skyscrapers, malls and chain restaurants, it’d be easy to presume that history had all but left them. Yet, as society evolves, so does our approach to memorialisation. Leaders and tragic events were commonly immortalised in a bronze likeness, or elaborately carved in marble, locked away in an institution too ‘elite’ for visitors.

Today, city planners, architects and artists alike find themselves concerned with memorials as a means of public engagement and interaction.


Take, the Diana Memorial Fountain at Hyde Park. The fountain is shallow and sprawling, being a popular attraction for families and young children. However, when the fountain first opened in 2004, the sight of splashing children was met with outrage and calls of tastelessness by certain corners of the press. Shortly afterwards the memorial was marred with incidents of people injuring themselves at the site, due to the slippery granite.

The guardian wrote in 2004,

‘Its planning was riven by internal feuds, it cost taxpayers a fortune and it has shut down humiliatingly quickly. The saga may sound painfully familiar to those who followed the shambles of the Millennium Dome and the ‘wobbly’ Millennium Bridge. But this is a brand new debacle: the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, 2004.’

However, after alterations, the fountain re-opened and has become a popular and fully integrated part of the landscape.

In the centre of Manchester however, there are no enormous green spaces, primed for artistic usage. The perils and costs of a water feature are also well known to councils nationwide.

When Manchester City Council wanted to produce a memorial for the Peterloo Massacre, public engagement and – interestingly –  subtlety was at the top of their list. While the council and artist were arguably successful in their £1M vision, much like the fountain’s safety issues, the memorial has been plagued with complaints about accessibility and true public inclusivity.

In 11 concentric steps, the names of the victims of the Peterloo Massacre are carved, alongside the name of the town from which they travelled. But what was the Peterloo Massacre, and why did it take until 2019 to publicly commemorate it?

Illustration for Jeremy Deller’s Memorial

Historian Robert Poole described the Peterloo Massacre as ‘the bloodiest political event of the 19th century in English soil’ and, with 15 deaths and over 600 recorded injuries, it’s easy to see why.

The Peterloo Massacre  was as a result of police brutality during a protest. A protest that essentially occurred as a result of two public issues – unemployment and voting restrictions.


After the Napoleonic wars of 1803-1815, the UK suffered a serious economic downturn, resulting in mass unemployment. This was coupled with widespread crop failures and oppressive corn laws that kept the price of bread incredibly high. Understandably, morale was low, and few believed the government cared for the welfare of the working classes.

In the early 19thcentury, the right to vote remained heavily restricted, allowing only 11% of men to vote. Those permitted the right to vote were over the age of 21 and land-owners. In cities, even men of great wealth were refused the right to vote if they rented their residence, rather than owning any land outright.

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Image: Manchester University Archives

The National Archives record that, ‘A survey conducted in 1780 revealed that the electorate in England and Wales consisted of just 214,000 people – less than 3% of the total population of approximately 8 million.’

These restrictions and dismissals of the working classes led to the formation of the universal suffrage movement, protesting for the rights of adult citizens of any social standing to have the vote.

Large industrial cities like Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester had large working class populations, but no parliamentary representative. Meanwhile, certain London boroughs with tiny populations had multiple MPs in Westminster. In many constituencies, there was also only one candidate to choose from.

Inspired by political changes brought about in the French Revolution, several political reform groups coalesced in industrial northern cities, dedicated to (adult male) suffrage. These groups saw Parliamentary Reform as necessary, with established laws and rights as rightly outdated and in need of modernisation.

By 1817, a petition for male suffrage had gained around 750,000 signatures but made no impact in the house of commons. This dismissal of the working class and great swathes of northern counties only added to the sense of festering unrest. In response, radical reform groups began to gather support and sought to incite enormous protests to force the government into changing the laws.

Plan of St Peter’s Field

In Manchester, its own reform group – Manchester Patriotic Union – was enormously popular and chose to hold their rally on Monday 16thAugust 1819 at St Peter’s Field. This was not a small collective, but a movement that had gained support from all over the north west. Joining the rally were large groups of supporters from outlying communities, estimated to be at around 20,000 strong. The group from inside Manchester brought the total estimated attendees to 50,000 – this being a contemporary estimation, it was previously considered that the rally was in fact 150,000 people strong.

The rally itself was never intended as a violent or confrontational event; many came dressed in their Sunday best and the lead orator, Henry Hunt, told his supporters to be “armed with no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience.”

Instead of weaponry, many brought banners, protesting oppressive laws – ‘No Corn Laws’, ‘Annual Parliaments’, ‘Universal Suffrage’ and ‘Vote By Ballot’.

Surprisingly, one of these banners has survived and sits in the Middleton Public Library, it is also the world’s oldest political banner. Reading ‘Liberty and Fraternity’ on one side and ‘Unity and Strength’ on the other, it was carried by Thomas Redford who was injured by a yeomanry sabre.


The rally at Peterloo had a rather high attendance of women, making up an estimated 12% of the crowd. Many female groups arrived dressed in white, carrying their own distinctive flags. Ultimately, of the 654 casualties, 168 were women, showing them to be at far greater risk than the men present. In later petitions, more accounts of brutality to prisoners were recorded, one being from Elizabeth Gaunt who suffered a miscarriage after her poor treatment in jail, where she stayed for 11 days without trial.

Shortly after the rally began, hundreds of special constables were brought to the field, forming two long lines within the crowd, a few feet apart. This was intended as a clear corridor leading to the house from which the magistrates were watching, additionally held open by two wagons, lashed together. Much of the gathering crowd believed that this corridor would be used by the magistrates as a direct means to arrest the speakers, so pushed the wagons away and formed a human barrier.


When Hunt arrived, he was joined by John Knight (cotton manufacturer), Joseph Johnson (organiser), John Saxton (Newspaper Editor), Richard Carlile (publisher) and George Smith (shoemaker). The reception they received was phenomenal and crowds of spectators began to gather at the fringes of the rally, keenly watching the impassioned crowd.

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Image: Manchester University Archives


William Hulton, chairman of the Cheshire Magistrates (watching from across the field) was incensed by the crowd’s reaction and issued an arrest warrant for Hunt and his fellow speakers. Seeing the growing crowd, constable Jonathan Adams decided that military action was unavoidable to disperse the situation. Hulton’s notes were sent to the local commanders who immediately sprung into action. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were stationed nearby and immediately drew their swords and charged towards the field. One horseman, trying to catch up, knocked over Ann Fildes, throwing her two year old son from her arms and killing him instantly. This made William Fildes the first casualty of Peterloo. Following the incident, there were multiple reports of many Yeomen being drunk.

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Image: Manchester University Archives

As the inexperienced yeomen used the narrow corridor to reach the stage, horses reared up and knocked over many of the densely-packed crowd. As they moved closer to the stage, the yeomen – surrounded by crowds who simply couldn’t move – found themselves trapped and drew their sabres again, hacking at the crowds around them.

Hunt and his speakers were arrested, including journalists who would prove vital in documenting the brutality of the event. After executing the arrest, the soldiers set about destroying the banners of the gathered crowds. The crowds reacted with hurled brickbats and Hulton interpreted the whole event as an attack on the Yeomanry. The 15thHussars then gathered in a huge attacking line and charged into the field, ‘cutting at every one they could reach.’

An officer of the 15th Hussars later recalled that the Yeomanry were utterly out of control, attacking people wildly, even as they tried to escape.

Ex-soldier John Lees died from his wounds after Peterloo but had been present at the Battle of Waterloo. Before his death, he was recorded as saying:

“At Waterloo there was man to man but there [Peterloo] it was downright murder.”

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Image: Manchester University Archives

The whole attack was over in ten minutes, leaving 11 dead and over 600 injured. The dead lay on the field for some time, as rioting continued in the streets until the next morning.

The estimates of the dead and injured at Peterloo have never been officially recorded. There was no inquiry and many of the injured did not report their wounds.

After the massacre, a whole range of commemorative items were made – these were either worn by supporters of the cause or sold to raise funds for the wounded.


After Peterloo, there was a strict governmental crackdown on the reform movement, several jail sentences and a public declaration of the government’s support of the magistrate’s actions at Peterloo. It would take several decades for working men to gain half the rights they petitioned for.

Lack of memorial has been an area of contention for years. In 1972, a small blue plaque was installed on the wall of the Free trade Hall (now a hotel) by the city council, stating that ‘Henry Hunt, radical orator addressed an assembly of about 60,000 people. Their subsequent dispersal by the military is remembered as Peterloo’. This failed to blame on the authorities at the time, or even acknowledge the tragedy and loss of life at the event.

A Peterloo Memorial Campaign was set up to lobby for a more suitable memorial and, in 2007, Manchester City Council replaced the blue plaque with a red one, adding more information to the importance of the site.

‘On 16th August 1819 a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries.’

However, on the 14th August 2019, the final memorial was ‘quietly unveiled’ to no fanfare. A few days later, on the anniversary of the massacre, the memorial was mentioned as part of widespread media reportage and a special edition of the Manchester Evening News.

The work consists of 11 stone concentric circles, staggered like steps, each engraved with the names of the dead and the towns from which they travelled. The memorial rises from ground level to 6 feet at the highest point.

Beside the steps is a reproduction of the names at ground level and a floor plaque, making the information accessible to all, if not the main memorial itself. This ticked the accessibility boxes for the council but has been met with anger by many disability campaigners, who call for its destruction, seeing the monument as ‘vile’ and a speaking platform, made inaccessible. The council has promised that they will amend the memorial, but it has since proved impossible to install a wheelchair ramp that does not obscure much of the carved information.

Despite many reservations, the memorial has been visited by thousands of tourists and locals alike, many paying their respects with flowers placed on the highest step. The Peterloo Memorial Campaign stated that they are proud to have successfully ‘campaigned for a respectful, informative and permanent Peterloo Memorial at the heart of Manchester.’



What do you think? Do you think the memorial is truly inaccessible? Do you think it’s a fitting way to remember the massacre? I’d love to hear your thoughts.







Links/Further Reading:,-fountains-and-statues/diana-memorial-fountain



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