The Peterloo Man.mp3
The Meeting At Peterloo.mp3


On 16 August 1819, during the summer wakes holiday season, around 60,000 men, women, and children gathered together at St Peter’s Field in central Manchester. They marched from many outlying districts of Manchester, wearing their best clothes, carrying banners, and singing songs, including such patriotic staples as 'Rule Britannia' and 'God Save the King'. They came from Oldham and Bury, Stockport and Rochdale to hear the famous Henry 'Orator' Hunt speak on the need for electoral reform: universal male suffrage, annual elections, and a secret ballot. It was to become one of the most significant events in modern British history. Hunt took to the hustings at 2.00pm; twenty minutes later, eighteen were dead, including four women and a two-year-old child, and more than six hundred had been injured by the sabres and horses’ hooves of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry (MYC) and the Fifteenth Hussars. The Manchester Magistrates, fearful of unrest, had read the Riot Act out of an open window at the edge of the square and had subsequently given the order for the troops to arrest Hunt and the other organisers of the legal meeting. Hemmed in by buildings on all sides, there had been nowhere for the crowd to escape to and they became easy targets for a drunken yeomanry whose newly-sharpened sabres are a clear indication that they had been spoiling for a fight. As the historian E.P. Thompson so aptly notes, 'This was class war'.

News of what was depicted as a massacre spread quickly throughout the country, due in part to the publication of a lengthy article in The Times on 19 August by John Tyas, the only journalist employed by a national paper present at St Peter’s Field and who was arrested alongside Hunt. In the article, he stressed the peaceful nature of the crowd, even when the MYC rode into their midst: 'Not a brick-bat was thrown at them — not a pistol was fired at them during this period — all was quiet and orderly'. Once arrests had been made, the MYC began to attack the banners and liberty caps carried by the marchers, 'cutting most indiscriminately to the right and the left in order to get at them'. Then the crowd began to fight back: 'From that moment the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry lost all command of temper'.

In an ironic 'nod' to the Battle of Waterloo, fought four years earlier in 1815, the journalist, James Wroe, named the event ‘Peter Loo’ on 21 August in the Manchester Observer. Despite government and royal support for the actions of the Manchester Magistrates, the reaction to the massacre was largely condemnatory and took the form not only of newspaper articles and letters, but also of cartoons, poetry and even ceramics, many of which appeared within days of the massacre. Established radical journals, such as Leigh Hunt’s Examiner and Thomas Wooler’s Black Dwarf, voiced their outrage in the pages of their journals and were briefly joined by new publications, including The White Hat and The Briton, all of which sprang out of the wave of protest surrounding Peterloo and which fell victim to repressive legislation at the end of the year.

‘The Peterloo Man’
As with many of the songs written about Peterloo, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, who inflicted most of the deaths and injuries on an unarmed people, are depicted as cowardly, primarily due to their violence towards women and children whom they deliberately targeted. Published in the radical journal, Black Dwarf, on 6 October 1819, the tone of this poem is vitriolic and the comparison with the battle-field of Waterloo only serves to highlight the cowardly nature of the yeomen at Peterloo.

The Meeting at Peterloo
The Bodleian Library’s Broadside Ballads Collection contains two copies of this broadside ballad, neither of which states the printer. The use of colloquial language in the song lends authenticity to what seems to be an eye-witness account of events on the day and it begins by gathering an audience to listen to the song in a centuries-old ballad tradition. The fact that the chorus is not printed suggests the audience would have been familiar with it and it may have been a version of 'With Henry Hunt We’ll Go'.

There were more than seventy poems and songs published in the immediate aftermath of the massacre. Almost half of these were published in radical journals with the rest comprising broadside ballads with a few from chapbooks. Despite many of them having 'song' in their title, only nineteen state a specific tune.