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Manchester massacre

Submitted by on August 16, 2011 – 1:39 pmOne Comment

Engraving of the massacre at St Peter's Field, ManchesterThe well-to-do sit and sip tea and eat cake on the exact point where Manchester workers were cut down with sword and gun. Radisson Hotel on Peter Street which was once the Free Trade Hall is where 60,000 people, it is claimed, gathered to support the movement for democracy.

Today, 16th August was the day in 1819 that at least 18 people were killed and 400–700 were injured.

Voting in those days was restricted to the adult male owners of land. Wealthy areas had a hugely disproportionate influence on the membership of the parliament. Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs. The major urban centres of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Aston-under-Lyne and Oldham with a combined population of almost one million, were represented by the two county MPs for Lancashire.

One of the most influential publications amongst the working class of the time was the Manchester Observer. Started in January 1818 as a local Manchester newspaper it soon sold nationally, pioneering journalism aimed at the working class. The Manchester Observer became a gathering point for radical leaders and organisers – it was three of the men involved in the Manchester Observer, Joseph Johnson, John Knight and James Wroe who called for the mass meeting at St Peter’s Field. And obviously having J in your name was an essential element in being a radical Mancunian.

Of the casualties whose residence was recorded, 61% lived within a three-mile radius of the centre of Manchester. The only banner known to have survived is in Middleton Public Library. It was carried by Thomas Redford, who was injured by a sabre. One side of the banner is inscribed “Liberty and Fraternity” and the other “Unity and Strength”.

A particular feature of the meeting at Peterloo was the number of women present. Female reform societies had been formed in north west England during June and July 1819, the first in Britain. Many of them were dressed distinctively in white, and some formed all-female contingents, carrying their own flags. Of the recorded casualties, at least 168 were women, four of whom died. It has been suggested that women were at significantly greater risk of injury than men by a factor of almost 3:1.

Retribution by the authorities was swift and brutal. William Marsh’s six children lost their jobs because their father had attended the meeting. This was repeated amongst many families. Any workers who went to work the following day with suspicious cuts or wounds were dismissed swiftly. James Lees was admitted to Manchester Infirmary with two severe sabre wounds to the head, but was denied treatment because he refused to denounce the fight for equality.

The rich and the powerful were jubilant. One conservative commentator talked of ‘the extreme forbearance of the military’. John Lloyd, military officer, said ‘we have come back with much honour today, (we have) done essential service’.

‘There was little uproar when Hunt (one of the leaders of the Peter’s Field demonstration) was found guilty of seditious assembly and sentenced to two years in Ilchester gaol’.

The level of ferocity that our esteemed rulers indulge in in response to any challenge to their order is related to damage it inflicts upon them. After the St Peter’s Field demonstration and subsequent riots the Government of the day luxuriated in a whirlwind of repressive legalisation. Most of the leaders of the radical workers’ movement were imprisoned and the right to assembly was severely curtailed.

Modern Governments pride themselves in their ability to generate ever-increasing gluttony of wealth. Hence their response to recent events.

‘A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard’ – Martin Luther King.

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