Wigan remembers Peterloo massacre
A Wigan historian has spoken of the role played by men and women from the borough in the Peterloo Massacre which took place 200 years ago.
As the region prepares to mark the bicentenary of the appalling occasion when soldiers charged into a crowd of protestors demanding reform in Manchester in 1819, Yvonne Eckersley has said Wigan and Leigh was a hotbed of cries for change.
Radical campaigners from across the borough gathered for a large event in Leigh less than a week before the fateful gathering of 60,000 people wanting change in the city centre.
And Wigan became the scene of high-profile protests attracting tens of thousands of people in the wake of the massacre, in which revulsion at the actions of those in authority set in motion a chain of events that would eventually lead to radical reforms.
Peterloo happened on August 16 1819 when radical speaker Henry Hunt spoke about political reform.
Yvonne says men, women and children from Wigan borough would certainly have been part of the vast crowd, which drew those unhappy with the status quo from all over what is now Greater Manchester.
Alarmed magistrates ordered the dispersal of the crowd but it was brutally done.
Yvonne said: “Within half an hour, at least 15 people sustained fatal injuries.
“Over 600 needed immediate medical treatment, more than 200 had been sabred, 70 battered by truncheons, and 188 trampled by horses. At least four of these were local men.”
However, this was not the first time authorities had tried to clamp down on reform meetings, and on August 11, five days before Peterloo, it was Leigh where demands for change were being heard.
Yvonne said: “Up to 3,000 supporters of reform marched to the obelisk in Leigh’s Market Place. It is interesting to note that Wigan’s radical women played a prominent role at this meeting.
“In the procession, women of the Leigh Female Reform Union wearing white dresses with black sashes carried banners presenting the main political messages of the reform movement - no Corn Laws, annual parliament and universal suffrage.
“Confrontationally they carried a homemade cap of liberty, symbol of the French revolution, high on a standard.
“Their committee of 12 had a place on the platform where they ceremoniously presented the female address and the cap. Part way through the meeting, magistrates attempted to disrupt it by arresting one of the main speakers. But such was the determination of the radicals the meeting continued.”
The radicals’ demands included attacking a number of bitterly unpopular laws as well as highlighting rising hunger and joblessness issues in the wake of the French Revolution and the wars against Napoleon.
Yvonne explained: “Peterloo did not happen in a vacuum. Shortages of food, caused in no small part by the 1815 Corn Laws, bad harvests, rising unemployment exacerbated by demobilised soldiers flooding the jobs market and increasing mechanisation all created horrendous distress among Lancashire’s working people. The poor repeatedly petitioned the government for help.
“As this failed, a more overtly political agenda was adopted. Reformers organised into societies and unions. And, in a very public way, local people gathered in large numbers to agitate for parliamentary reform.”
Horror at the events across the channel in France doubtless played a part in the authorities’ heavy-handed response to demonstrations, most seriously the one at Peterloo.
However, even the repression did not daunt the protestors and the borough was once again on the front line of campaigning in the autumn of that year, with a massive event on November 8.
Yvonne said: “Approximately 20,000 protestors gathered on Ince’s Amberswood Common.
“The first contingent of 200 to 300, headed by two men carrying a white flag edged with black crepe, arrived in Wigan from Ashton in Makerfield at 9am.
“A procession of between nine and 10,000 accompanied by the members of the Female Reform Union marched from Wigan’s Market Place from 10am.
“Along the way they were joined by processions with music and flags from neighbouring towns. As many as seven Female Reform Unions were present, walking behind their caps of liberty.
“Other emblems of reform were carried on standards: a bundle of sticks, a loaf and a mop with a motto.
“Radical leaders Rev Joseph Harrison, Henry Battersby of Leigh and Mr Hasleden, in whose Wigan Lane home Wigan’s Reform Society met fortnightly, spoke.
“Such was the fear of violent attack, the sight of a man on horseback wearing a forage cap spooked the crowd.
“Anticipating an attack by Sir Thomas Gerrard and the troop of Ashton Yeomanry stationed on Wigan Market Place some panicked. As many were Peterloo survivors this was understandable. The ladies of the union called out to be firm and remain where they were and brought the fearful under control.”
The demonstration in Wigan was reported in a number of national newspapers and Lord Balcarres of Haigh Hall wrote to the home secretary Lord Sidmouth that the day had passed off “with the greatest of order and tranquility.”
At first Peterloo led to further crackdowns on protest by the government but eventually the demands for different politics could not be denied and the Great Reform Act of 1832 marked the first major step towards Britain becoming a modern democracy.
Events are taking place in Manchester and surrounding towns throughout this summer to mark the 200th anniversary of the massacre.