On the evening of Thursday 4th April, I was privileged to address an audience at the Friends’ Meeting House in Manchester. The topic of my presentation, for which I have to thank Phil Duval, both for the invitation and the theme, was ‘…How the banks are stealing your children’s future…’
I didn’t realise it before I got to the venue, but it stands literally a stone’s throw away from the site of the Peterloo Massacre, (or the Battle of Peterloo) which occurred at St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16 August 1819, when local mounted yeomanry charged into a crowd of 60,00080,000 people, gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation and electoral enfranchisement..
The soldiers were local territorial volunteers, not regular army cavalrymen, and the local Yeomanry were given the ‘privilege’ of arresting the speakers. They were led by Captain Hugh Birley, (Birley owned a large textile factory in Oxford Road, Manchester. He had developed a reputation as an arrogant industrialist with highly reactionary political opinions); and Major Thomas Trafford, (Sir Thomas Joseph de Trafford, 1st Baronet) and were essentially a paramilitary force drawn from the ranks of the local mill and shop owners, coupled with the local landed elites, who had active interests in suppressing popular local reform demands, despite the great distress of the ordinary working people in their community.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had resulted in periods of great famine and chronic unemployment, exacerbated by the introduction of the first of the Corn Laws, legislation which had been introduced to ensure that British landowners reaped all the financial profits from farming. The corn laws (which imposed steep import duties on cheaper foreign grain) made it too expensive for anyone to import grain from other countries, and thus maintained food prices at an artificially high level, even when the people of Great Britain and Ireland were literally starving, and needed the food.
Then, as now, the rich elites ensured their own hegemony at the expense of the poor and the working class, in a similar way to which the Tory-voting banksters today manipulate the financial markets through criminal activity and steal vast sums from their clients, while paying themselves vast salaries and obscene bonuses. At the same time, George Osborne and Iain Duncan-Smith cut working people’s benefits, blaming the poor and those on benefits for the desperate financial situation the country faces, and set working class people in conflict against each other, while routinely ignoring the crimes of the rich and powerful.
By the beginning of 1819 the pressure generated by poor economic conditions, coupled with the lack of suffrage in Northern England, had enhanced the appeal of political radicalism, and In response, the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform, organised a demonstration to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt..
Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt, and to disperse the crowd. The Yeomanry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400700 were injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.