The handkerchief is printed with a detailed depiction of the massacre at St Peter’s Field, Manchester. It shows the mounted yeomanry fighting their way through the large and respectably-dressed crowd. People are trying to escape from the mayhem; in the foreground, several people have been killed or injured in the crush or from a sabre blow. The speakers’ platform in the middle distance is surrounded by yeomanry with raised sabres. Above the heads of the crowd are banners and placards with inscriptions such as ‘Unite and be Free’, ‘Royton Female Union Society’ and ‘Liberty is the birth right of Man’. A cap of liberty sits on top of most banners. The picture includes detailed images of the buildings around St Peter’s Field. At the top of the handkerchief, there are titles and notes on a scroll draped among heavy clouds. These give details of particular locations such as ‘3 – Mess. Pickfords and Co’s Warehouse’ (where the yeomanry were mustered) and ‘5 – House where the magistrates sat’. Surrounding the picture there is a border of ribbon intertwined with palm branches and laurel-wreaths. The ribbon is printed with the repeated slogan: ‘Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments and Election by Ballot’. It has been suggested that the scene was reproduced on a handkerchief as it was easy for people to hide it within their own clothing - many feared that being seen to support what the authorities regarded as revolution could end in their arrest.
The background to Peterloo
The demonstration on 16 August 1819 had its roots in the campaign for parliamentary reform which gained momentum in Britain during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Radical reformers were angered by a political system which only allowed men with considerable property to vote. They argued for improvements to the political system and leaders such as the orator Henry Hunt and the journalist William Cobbett expressed these arguments with clarity and force. The unemployment and lower wages caused by the economic depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815 caused severe hardship and hunger among the textile spinners and weavers of east Lancashire. The introduction of the Corn Laws in 1815 increased this by imposing a tariff on foreign grain which led to higher bread prices. Such harsh economic conditions enhanced the appeal of political radicalism, particularly among women, who began to form their own reforming societies to campaign for the vote on behalf of their male relatives.
Set against the growing campaign for reform was a strong conservative element of British society that wanted to preserve the status quo. It was supported by a Tory government which was deeply suspicious of any political radicalism. In the years before 1819 the government used spies to infiltrate the reform movement and deployed troops to suppress potential unrest.
What happened on 16 August, 1819?
In response to the worsening economic conditions of 1819, the Manchester Patriotic Union, a radical reform group, organised a demonstration at St Peter’s Field. The demonstration would be addressed by Henry Hunt and other leading radicals. 16 August was a sunny day, and, during the morning, large groups of men, women and children from surrounding towns made their way to the centre of Manchester. Journalists later reported a peaceful and pleasant atmosphere with people dressed in their Sunday best marching behind banners and enjoying the music of the accompanying bands. Historians estimate that between 60,000 and 80,000 people had gathered by midday.
The local magistrates, watching from a house on the edge of St Peter’s Field, saw the crowd wave and cheer as Henry Hunt arrived at the platform at 1.20 pm. The magistrates did not believe that the demonstration would remain peaceful and feared that a revolution would begin on the streets of Manchester. William Hulton, their chairman, issued an arrest warrant for Hunt and other speakers. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were ordered to protect the police in arresting the radical leaders and the 15th Hussars were sent in to disperse the crowd. Within ten minutes, only the wounded, their helpers and the dead were left behind. Recent research suggests that as many as eighteen people may have been killed and that hundreds were injured. The editor of the Manchester Observer named the tragic event ‘the Peterloo Massacre’ in ironic comparison with the Battle of Waterloo which had taken place four years before.
Following the Peterloo Massacre, there was widespread public sympathy for the plight of the protesters. Newspapers reported the events in shocking detail and the radical reform movement gained support. In response, the government officially sanctioned the actions of the magistrates and soldiers. It also introduced the Six Acts, a repressive crackdown on press freedom and the right to demonstrate. This attempt to silence reformers led to an outburst of political satire which the authorities were reluctant to prosecute for fear of creating hilarity in the courts. It also resulted in a plethora of memorabilia of which Peterloo Handkerchief is an example.
People’s History Museum
The Peterloo Massacre
Short documentary on the Peterloo Massacre from Timelines TV.
BBC Radio 4 In Our Time programme on the Peterloo Massacre
Peterloo Massacre Memorial Campaign
The website of the Peterloo Massacre Memorial Campaign.
Article and resources on the British Library website
Official Report into the Peterloo Massacre
Extract from the Official Report into the Peterloo Massacre.
Information from the National Archives