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How Manchester came close to a massacre a decade before Peterloo
Years before the Peterloo Massacre, a cavalry charge on unarmed protestors left one man dead
The crowd of handloom weavers watched in silence as the dragoons formed their horses into a long line on the far side of the field in the early evening light.
They could hear the dragoon captain shouting orders before the line finally jolted forward.
The horses came on slowly at first, but in seconds the ground was trembling beneath their pounding hooves as they kicked up a cloud of dust.
When the weavers saw the glint of the riders’ sabres, they started to flee. But they had nowhere to hide.
The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester’s St Peter’s Fields on a bright summer’s day in 1819 is rightly remembered with a painful sense of sorrow and injustice.
But this particular cavalry charge on Mancunian workers happened on the other side of town 11 years earlier.
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In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Manchester’s handloom weavers had begun to find life increasingly difficult.
Struggling to compete with the new cotton factories that were springing up across town, they also fell victim to an economic downturn caused by the Napoleonic Wars.
On 25 May 1808, up to 8,000 of them stepped away from their looms and staged a protest in St George’s Fields, which stood between the present day Rochdale and Oldham roads to the north of Thompson Street.
Magistrates some how got wind of what was happening and ordered special constables and yeomen to muster.
They also called in a detachment of the 4th Light Dragoons who lined up on the edge of the field.
A former lieutenant colonel named James Hanson was on the weavers’ side. He was a cotton magnate — a self-made man who had started out operating a handloom.
He had helped them apply to Parliament for a minimum wage.
It was said that although he had “wealth and ease”, he had “no torturing meanness of spirit writing with ambition”.
Hanson galloped to the field and, fearful that the cavalry would attack the crowd, urged the weavers to go home.
They were just getting ready to leave when the dragoons suddenly charged.
As they tried to flee, one of the weavers did the unthinkable — he stood his ground.
As the dragoons galloped towards him, he picked up a brick and threw it at one of the horses.
Then the dragoons swarmed into the fleeing crowd — hacking at anyone who stood in their path.
The Morning Post described what happened:
In a moment a general consternation took place by the cavalry galloping through the ground in all directions. Some were rode over and a few that were obstinate in dispersing wounded with the cavalry’s swords. One of the people threw a brick and hit one of the horses’ heads. His rider immediately levelled his pistol and shot him dead on the spot.
About 40 people were arrested, including Hanson, who was jailed for six months and fined £1,000.
His treatment by the authorities touched the weavers so greatly that they paid a penny each to buy him a set of presentation silver.
Nothing was learned. A coroner concluded that the man’s death was “justifiable homicide”.
Just over a decade later, Manchester’s poorest workers were fleeing from armed men on horseback again in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
October history events in Manchester
5 October: Manchester Museum of Science and Industry is hosting a strictly adults-only event where visitors can explore the museum’s galleries after hours. There’ll even be a pop up bar. Details here.
10 October: As part of Black History Month, the Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage is welcoming BAFTA nominated director Tina Gharavi to screen The King of South Shields, a short documentary about Muhammad Ali’s 1977 visit to the North East. It will be followed by a Q&A. Tickets here.
24 October: Manchester University's Professor Hannah Barker is doing a talk at the Manchester International Anthony Burgess Foundation about the challenges of bringing Quarry Bank Mill's history to life. Details here.
25 October: Families will be able to make protest placards together as part of a series of half-term events at the People’s History Museum, drawing on inspiration from the museum’s galleries. Details here.
28 October: Manchester Museum’s events for Black History Month include a workshop with Kelly Morgan to explore the Windrush Generation and the vibrant cultural tapestry they brought to the UK. Details here.
Next week: Victorian Manchester’s homemade sickness remedies — liquorice root and slugs
A heavy subject this week but one that should be remembered as a forerunner to Peterloo.
Tune in next week when I’ll tell you about the strange recipes for dealing with sickness in the slums of Victorian Manchester.
Have a great week!