In 1819, a crowd of roughly 60,000 men, women and children, gathered at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, to hear the radical speaker, Henry Hunt, call for reform of parliamentary representation. What was meant to be a peaceful pro-democracy and antipoverty appeal resulted in an estimated 18 dead and several hundreds injured.
During this period of history, most of the British population didn’t have the right to vote and many perceived the parliamentary system – which was solely based on ‘property ownership and heavily weighted towards the south of England’ – as being both unfair and unrepresentative of the general population. As Hunt began his speech, the order calling for his arrest was given. This sparked commotion in the crowd, and the volunteer Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry began attacking ‘the platform, the flags and those around with sabres’.
As well as being perceived as an attack on the working classes, the Peterloo massacre was also regarded as an episode of violence against women. The historian Michael Bush suggests that during the event, women formed one in eight of the crowd, but more than a quarter of those injured – not only were they twice as likely as men to be injured, they were also more likely to be injured by truncheons and sabres. The Manchester Female Reformers declared that ‘as wives, mothers, daughters, in their social, domestic, moral capacities, they come forward in support of the sacred cause of liberty’.
After this event, the British government dared not risk sending in troops against unarmed crowds of protestors, and eventually the Great Reform Act of 1832, which introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system, was passed – ‘behind the granting of the franchise to more men lay the bravery of women’.
Students applying for History, as well as applicants for Politics, can consider how the escalation of events such as this led to significant political and constitutional reforms, as well as reflect on the role of women in contributing to such reforms.