After the Napoleonic wars Britain experienced chronic economic depression which hit the textile industry, centred on Lancashire, particularly severely. Wages plummeted, unemployment rose and the protectionist Corn Laws made famine problem for industrial workers. Political corruption (Lancashire had 2 MPs representing a population of nearly a million – Old Sarum, had 2 MPs to 1 voter) increased calls for reform and radicalism amongst the working classes, and fear of revolution amongst elites.
From January 1819 meetings took place at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester to hear the radical Henry Hunt. Over 60,000 workers – nearly half the population of Manchester – met in August to discuss repeal of the Corn Laws, and political reform. Fearful of revolution, Manchester’s magistrates called for Hunt’s arrest, sending the Yeoman cavalry to seize the speakers and disperse the meeting. Inexpertly led and panicked by the crowd, the Yeomanry used sabres against the workers and as panic spread more cavalry formed line and charged the crowd; 11 were killed and more than 600 wounded.
The government responded by expanding sedition laws, censoring the press and removing right of assembly, while the Yeomanry were exonerated. A plaque now commemorates ‘the pro-democracy reformers’ who were the victims of Peterloo.