Peterloo in its historical perspective

peterlooTo mark the bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre, LALKAR is producing over the rest of this year’s issues, a most enlightening presentation on the subject of Peterloo in its historical perspective given by Kathy Sharp to the Stalin Society in London in July 2019.


To understand the events of 16 August 1819 on St Peter’s Field, Manchester, it is necessary to look first at the context in which those events occurred. It is unlikely that any reader is not aware of those events as there have been many commemorations of this, the bi-centenary of what the papers of the day dubbed ’Peterloo’ in ironic recognition of the celebrated victory of Britain and her allies over Napoleon in the field of Waterloo just five years earlier. There were veterans of Waterloo on both sides of those present on St Peter’s Field when local volunteer – mounted and armed – militia as well as regular cavalry rode into a field packed with unarmed men, women and children – mostly from the new industrial working class who had gathered to hear ‘Orator’ Hunt and local speakers advocate parliamentary reform – and attacked them with sabres (the cavalryman’s curved sword), ostensibly just to break up the assembly and send them all home but in the process killing an estimated 18 men, women and children (the youngest just two years old) and injuring several hundred more.

Today some say this was a deliberate plan of the ruling class to intimidate and subdue the workers, who were just beginning to flex their collective muscle; others consider that it was more cock-up than conspiracy, as two earlier actions by the working class – equally or even more threatening to the ruling class – had been overcome without the need to resort to a massacre of unarmed, peaceful protesters (though not without judicially-sanctioned bloodshed). What is undoubtedly true is that the ruling class was nervous when it contemplated the rising consciousness of the new industrial working class and its youthful attempts to organise itself into an effective force for change. The French revolution of 1789 had occurred only 30 years previously and 22 of those years had seen Britain at war with the new revolutionary governments of France. That revolution had inspired radicals in England – politicians, pamphleteers and poets – so that a young Wordsworth could write of 1789: “Bliss was it then to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” Even the military defeat of the post-revolutionary France and the seizure of its colonies by the British could not quell the fears of the British ruling class that the French example would find disciples in this new and unknown class of industrial workers, now gathered in greater numbers and at a greater concentration than had ever been seen before in Britain or the world.

The Industrial revolution

The events of 16 August 1819 had their roots in the enormous economic and social upheavals caused by the industrial revolution. It is a familiar name, but what was its reality? A brief historical summary is needed in order to bring that reality to life.

England had had its bourgeois revolution in the 17th century. The merchant class had grown in strength in the previous two centuries when the ‘Cousins’ Wars’ (dubbed later the ‘Wars of the Roses’) effectively killed off the royal house of Plantagenet and at the same time most of the powerful feudal barony upon which the crown depended. When Henry Tudor won the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and became Henry VII he brought in a new style of monarchy: trade- and money-oriented and supported by the junior lords who saw their chance to make money in the new conditions of trade which opened up (enclosing land for sheep and growing and selling wool, dispossessing the peasants, both free and serf, in the process, reforming the currency). The Tudors killed any remaining potential pretenders to the throne of Plantagenet lineage and further advanced the effective overthrow of feudalism when the monasteries were dissolved and church lands seized and given to the crown‘s new allies. The English Civil war of 1643-49 continued the process of moving power from the old guard to the new, from the feudal lords to the bourgeois merchants and bourgeoisified land owners. The ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 established the new regime of a Protestant monarchy ruling, not by ‘divine right’ as before claimed, but only with the consent of the nobility and bourgeoisie acting together. The English bourgeois revolution was complete at that stage, and was the first in the world. The rest of Europe would take one to two centuries to catch up, starting with France in 1789.

Scotland did not unite with England when the two countries first shared a monarch in 1604. It was a commercial arrangement a century later in 1707 after the Scottish government had suffered severe financial losses following a failed attempt to establish a colony of its own (Caledonia) on the isthmus of Panama in the 1690s, which finally had to be abandoned in 1700. English as well as Spanish opposition and blockades were among many factors leading to its failure. Scotland was impoverished as a result and needed to join forces with England in order to gain access to England’s lucrative colonies (previously out-of-bounds to the Scots) and to pool resources for future colonial conquests and adventures. A substantial financial bail-out also sweetened the pill of giving up a separate Scottish parliament, achieved by the Acts of Union of 1706 (England) and 1707 (Scotland). Unlike Wales, which had been conquered by English (and Welsh) armies under England’s Edward 1 in the 13th century and absorbed into mediaeval England, Scotland came willingly to the table in order to share the spoils of colonialism. British Imperialism was the fruit of this Union. The Scots became assiduous fighters for this new force, as bankers, merchants, manufacturers and soldiers.

Throughout the 18th century the classes in Britain remained much the same: nobility closely allied with the mercantile bourgeoisie, smaller landed gentry with professional classes mainly made up from the younger sons of landowners, peasants, landless agricultural labourers and the craftsmen of the towns still organised in Guilds which controlled training for and entry into (and numbers of) the craft. Alongside these were the cloth workers who formed another group comprising both large and petty bourgeoisie and wage-workers. The cloth industry had flourished since the Tudors had assiduously promoted it and smoothed the path to trade – from legalising enclosures, entering treaties to facilitate the import of alum (needed for processing the yarn) and importing skilled weavers from the Low Countries to teach the skills of making cloth from the raw wool (the Henrys VII and VIII) to reforming the currency (Elizabeth I). Before the colonies, the chief source of wealth for England had been the trade in woollen cloth based on home-grown wool.

With enclosures and the displacing of serfs from the land starting in the time of the Tudor Henrys, homeless poor became a phenomenon, accentuated by the closure of the religious houses which had provided relief for the poorest in society. Under Henry VIII vagrants were executed, but under Elizabeth I a new system of poor relief was brought in which gave parishes the responsibility to provide relief to the poor who could show a connection to the individual parish where they claimed relief. That system was to continue until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 brought in the infamous Parish Union workhouses, covering several parishes, which ended the outdoor relief which had allowed workers to live at home with their families and supplement fluctuating wages. New colonies abroad in Australia and elsewhere and expanding industry at home later provided means of soaking up some of this ‘surplus’ labour, but in the immediate aftermath of Waterloo these forces were not operating to the full extent achieved later.

Britain was at war with other European countries for large parts of the eighteenth century and was gradually consolidating and expanding its North American colonies, ‘discovering’ new lands and collecting new colonies at strategic points around the world as well as extending its operations in India, where it competed with, and eventually fought, France and Portugal for territory in order to guarantee its sources of income there (trade then taxes). By the end of the century the wealth from the slave trade, from the slave plantations and from the looting of India was a significant factor in the developments in Britain.

During the 18th century other changes were afoot which would have far-reaching and unforeseen consequences. It has been called the ‘age of enlightenment’ because it was the period when scientific enquiry reached a new maturity, untrammelled by religious obscurantism. The European ‘Renaissance’ (re-birth), inspired by the re-discovery of classical Greek and Latin texts, had started the process of freeing scientific enquiry from the straitjacket of current Christian thought as imposed by the Western (Roman) Catholic Church. In the 16th century technological advances created machines capable of the precise measuring small weights, distances and time and also refined instruments of observation. All these machines and instruments in turn led to an increased understanding of the world around us and to the beginning of modern science in the 17th and 18th centuries. Thus science grew from technology and, in turn, the scientific age gave us the industrial revolution. The chance conjunction of substantial quantities of running water, coal and iron in the hills and valleys of England, Scotland and Wales provided the material conditions for this revolution to happen in Britain. What is taught in schools in Britain implies that this geography alone brought about the fundamental change in the circumstances and organisation of the whole of society. BUT those geographical conditions were present elsewhere in Europe (and the world) without per se giving rise to industrial revolution.

It was the ECONOMIC conditions unique to Britain in the 18th Century that resulted in the industrial revolution happening first here in Britain: namely, a bourgeois class already having political power and with experience of organising manufacturing, as well as new resources of capital looking for projects to invest in.

In 1700 the chief wealth-producing product of Britain was still wool, from home-reared sheep, spun at home and woven on hand-looms in villages across the country, in East Anglia, the South West counties, the Midlands and the North. During the century that followed, the products of Britain grew to include the chemicals capable of turning metal ores into the durable material for machines – steam-driven machines fired by coal.

By 1800 the single most important commodity vital to Britain was imported cotton. Cotton cloth production involved cleaning, carding, spinning and weaving. In the first years of the eighteenth century about 30,000 spinners and weavers in the Manchester-Bolton area were producing cotton cloth by hand in their homes, from raw cotton imported through the nearby port of Liverpool. The handloom, an Indian invention, enabled a weaver to produce cloth more quickly than a spinner could produce the yarn needed for the loom. Several spinners needed to be employed for every one weaver. In 1733 John Kay designed what became known as the Flying Shuttle; this meant that weavers could produce cloth even faster and the spinners could no longer keep up. Yarn was in short supply and a technological answer was supplied in 1738 with a machine which drew out the fibres between pairs of rollers, invented by Lewis Paul. This was the first cotton-spinning machine.

A brief overview of the inventions and discoveries between 1750 and 1800 will give some idea of the pace of change. In 1764 James Hargreaves’ ‘Spinning Jenny’ was in use; this turned out fine twisted yarn at 50 times the speed of a hand spinner and of a consistency and quality no hand spinner could begin to match. In 1771 Richard Arkwright set up his first cotton-spinning factory on the river at Cromford. It reversed the situation where a skilled weaver could use in a day the product of 20 hand spinners: no handloom weaver could hope to keep up with the quantity of yarn produced by one spinning machine in a day. By 1776 Arkwright and Co were employing 5,000 men, women and children in several factories; his business was valued at £200,000 and was still growing; he was the first cotton-spinning capitalist and later boasted that he could pay off the National Debt. All the weavers combined could not keep up with the quantity of fine yarn produced. Eventually the impetus to overcome this mismatch would lead to mechanised, industrial looms (powered by horses, then water, then steam) and the factory production of cloth. In 1784 Dr Edmund Cartwright patented a power-driven weaving loom. In the same year the first cotton spinning mill to be powered by James Watt’s steam engine opened in Papplewick, Nottinghamshire. On 25 June 1785 Arkwright’s patent was challenged successfully in the High Court by Thomas Highs and John Kay, who said they had made rollers for spinning cotton two years before Arkwright’s first patent.

Then the flood-gates were opened and within two years there were 143 cotton spinning mills in Britain, 41 of them in Lancashire. In 1789 a steam-operated spinning mill was opened in Piccadilly, Manchester, with plans for a 500-loom steam-powered weaving mill nearby. By 1800, with an existing cotton industry, the port of Liverpool nearby and local supplies of coal to drive and iron to make the steam engines, South Lancashire was poised for change. Steam power meant for the first time factories could be built together, in towns where there was a ready labour supply, no longer needing to be on rivers to supply the water to drive the wheels which drove the belts which took the power to the individual machines. (If you visit the Science Museum in Manchester you can see exhibits which chart this development; at one stage there was steam power to drive the machines on an AREA basis, rather than each factory having to have its own, separate steam engine, much as later there was developed a grid for electricity rather everyone needing individual generators).

In the few years after 1748, at Coalbrookdale, Abraham Darby perfected the coke smelting of iron [the town of Ironbridge in Coalbrookdale is named after the world’s first bridge made of iron which was built there and which survives to this day], zinc smelting was established at Swansea, at Birmingham John Roebuck worked the first lead-chamber process for the production of sulphuric acid, crucible steel was established commercially in the north of England, the Carron Iron Works were built, the Worsley-Manchester Canal was opened, Jesse Ramsden invented his screw-cutting lathe and John Wilkinson designed his boring machine. By 1776 James Watt’s steam engine was in use and Britain was extracting and consuming five times more coal than any other nation in the world” (Robert Reid, The Peterloo Massacre, Heinemann, London, 1989).

In her novel of 1861, Silas Marner, George Eliot described the life of her eponymous hero as a self-employed handloom weaver some 50-60 years earlier: banished from his chapel in one of the new manufacturing towns as a result of false allegations of theft, he retreated to a village in the country and set up his loom there, prospering and, after many twists and turns, eventually becoming an integral part of local society which looked to church and manor house for the leaders of the community. This was a rose-tinted view of pre-industrial society. More realistically, in the Introduction to his book The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844, a youthful Friedrich Engels (then just 24 years old) vividly portrays and analyses the life of a handloom weaver in the English countryside before the industrial revolution.

Before the introduction of machinery, the spinning and weaving of raw materials was carried out in the working-man’s home. Wife and daughter spun the yarn that the father wove … These weaver families lived in the country in the neighbourhood of towns and could get on fairly well with their wages, because the home market was almost the only one, and the crushing power of competition that came later, with the conquest of foreign markets and the extension of trade, did not yet press upon wages....[He] was no proletarian, he had a stake in the country, he was permanently settled, and stood one step higher than the English workman of today.

“What the moral and intellectual character of this class was may be guessed ...[So] shut off from the towns…that old people…never went thither until they were robbed of their trade by the introduction of machinery and obliged to look about them in the towns for work. [The] weavers usually stood upon the moral and intellectual plane of the yeomen [land-owning farmers] with whom they were usually immediately connected through their little holdings. They regarded their squire, the greatest landholder of the region, as their natural superior…They were ‘respectable’ people…They had their children at home, and brought them up in obedience and fear of God…They could rarely read and far more rarely write; went regularly to church, never talked politics, never conspired, never thought…and were, in their unquestioning humility, exceedingly well-disposed towards the ‘superior’ classes. But intellectually, they were dead; lived only for their petty, private interests, for their looms and gardens, and knew nothing of the mighty movement which, beyond their horizon, was sweeping through mankind. They were comfortable in their silent vegetation, and but for the industrial revolution they would never have emerged from this existence, which, cosily romantic though it was, was nevertheless not worthy of human beings. In truth, they were not human beings; they were merely toiling machines in the hands of the few aristocrats who had guided history down to that time. The industrial revolution has simply carried this out to its logical end by making the workers machines pure and simple, taking from them the last trace of independent activity, and so forcing them to think and demand a position worthy of men. As in France politics, so in England manufacture, and the movement of civil society in general drew into the whirl of history the last classes which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.”

Increasing urbanisation

As industry grew, so did the towns. In 1774 Manchester had a population of 41,032. In 1819 the population was nearly 200,000. Nearby Aston and Bolton had grown from 5,000 to 30,000 plus and Oldham to 50,000 plus in the same period. Lancashire quadrupled its population in this period and now had the largest population of any county in Britain apart from Middlesex (the county which had London within its boundaries). Together with the towns of West Yorkshire, just over the Pennines, the area had the greatest and most dense population of people working in manufacturing anywhere in the world. There was a similarly momentous change to the wealth of the nation during this time. In 1785 wool exports amounted to £4 million; the trade stagnated and by 1819 it was barely £6 million in value. Cotton exports in 1780 were valued at £355,060, but by 1800 that figure was £5.5 million and by 1819 it was FIVE TIMES even that amount. The trade had shifted focus, too. In 1813 £2 million of cotton cloth came from Calcutta to England. By 1830, India was importing £1.5 million of British machine-made cotton, destroying the industry of many Indian towns in the process.

Engels and Marx later foresaw that unprecedented social upheaval would follow from the process of industrialisation that they saw in Manchester in particular: “The history of South Lancashire contains some of the greatest marvels of modern times, yet no-one ever mentions them, and all are the product of the cotton industry” (F Engels, ibid.).

Class forces in Britain in 1819

It must be remembered that such an industrial revolution had NEVER happened before anywhere in the world, so there were no plans, no templates: everyone had to learn as they went along. That was as true for the established political ruling class as it was for the new industrialists and their new industrial workers, the first proletariat.

The fact was that in 1819 the rulers of Britain rarely came to the towns of the north of England and were ignorant of the reality or of the enormity of the changes resulting from the new technology. It was truly a revolution in the lives of the people involved in the newly mechanised industries, but one which was not appreciated by those in power. The lives of the latter centred around London and their country estates, and their education around the classics rather than science. For 22 years their attention had been solely focussed on winning the wars against France. Victory in those wars, and the hegemony of the world’s seas which came with it, laid the foundations for a massive expansion in empire and in trade, but the effects were not immediate. Rather, the immediate aftermath of the wars’ end was severe economic depression and consequent social upheaval.

What were the class forces in Britain in 1819? It is not sufficient to talk only of the ‘ruling class’ and the ‘working class’ without understanding of whom those very broad groupings consisted, for neither was a homogenous entity. What was the main contradiction between classes in 1819? There were more than two classes in play and more than one contradiction between classes at that time.

The ruling class was the bourgeoisie but that consisted of the merchants and bankers and the land-owners, not the manufacturers, who had been only petty bourgeoisie up until this point. The ‘old’ families of landowners, the aristocracy, might pride themselves on not being sullied by trade, but in fact the merchants and bankers and the landowners were inextricably entwined. The landowners sold their land’s produce on the market, and it was to shore up that market that the Corn Laws were passed in 1815. These provided that wheat, oats and barley could not be imported until the price of the home-produced grain had reached a minimum price. This did not just protect the landowners, it was also a speculators’ charter. Hoarding ensued in order to put up prices, and bread riots ensued when the price of bread was beyond most workers’ pockets. The wealth of the merchants and bankers was frequently brought in through marriage in order to bolster the aristocrats’ finances. Merchants and bankers grew rich, were ennobled and built their country piles. All sections of the British bourgeoisie joined in the profitable ventures in the colonies once the slave trade had made the American and Caribbean plantations extremely profitable. Not only did the cities of Glasgow, Liverpool and Bristol grow and thrive on the slave trade and the related maritime traffic, many of the Georgian stately homes we visit in the countryside today owe their existence to the wealth accumulated from the slave trade or from the slaves’ labour in the plantations, as do some colleges in the older universities.

There were also the petty bourgeoisie who, as ever, were a support to the bourgeois ruling class. These included the professional classes, the small landowners, small shopkeepers and all the skilled artisans who were self-employed sole traders or who perhaps employed an apprentice and a journeyman or two. The handloom weaver was one of these. The distinctions of class origin and status between all of these were jealously guarded but they all shared the common insecurity of their class: the fear of losing their toe-hold on prosperity and status and sinking into the class of the property-less labourer.

Such labourers existed in both town and country. Their numbers had increased steadily since the earliest enclosures ended the mediaeval strip-field system. Enclosures of the common lands (upon which the poor peasants relied for grazing and for firewood) accelerated throughout the eighteenth century, often with the object of introducing more efficient and scientific methods of farming.

Emergence of the industrial proletariat and bourgeoisie

With the first wave of the industrial revolution there came into existence two new classes – the industrial bourgeoisie and its counterpart, the industrial working class: the proletariat.

Where did the new working class come from? In the first place there were the dispossessed stocking-makers and hand-spinners from the Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Cheshire areas whose cottage industries had been rendered obsolete by the new factories. There were also landless labourers who came from all over England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland to find work: some of these were sent by parishes upon which they were dependent for relief as a way of providing for their needs as well as relieving the parishes of the expense of their upkeep. (For example, the forebears of Jeremy Paxman, who were in receipt of the old parish outdoor relief, were sent by their parish from rural Suffolk to the mills in Bradford: see Who Do You Think You Are, Series 2, BBC 1989). In 1819 these numbers were growing but were still small compared to what they would become later in the century. In the first place, in 1819 most weavers were still handloom weavers who would be dispossessed in turn and drawn into industrial production in the years following Peterloo. In the second place, when the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 removed all outdoor relief, specifying that relief could only be given to those who entered the workhouse, able-bodied unemployed workers found the option of industrial work in the new factories preferable to going into the workhouse, where families were split up and conditions deliberately were intended to be worse than for workers in employment.

Where did the new industrial bourgeoisie come from? In many cases at the beginning they were from the ranks of the former hand-spinners and handloom weavers themselves, as well as from among the inventors of the new processes/machines and other bourgeois or petty bourgeois who had enough capital to get started and who, like Arkwright, sought to make their fortunes. They struggled to maximise their profits in every way they could, imposing long hours on their workers and finding many ways of reducing what were good wages for the period, including the imposition of many and various fines for workers’ misdemeanours and the ‘Truck’ system of payment by tokens which could only be redeemed in the factory owner’s shop (where items were at higher prices than were charged in the market outside). These practices gradually became outlawed as the overall prosperity of the factory owners increased and the larger manufacturers could dispense with them and so gain a competitive advantage over the smaller manufacturers who could not.

Political representation of the industrial bourgeoisie

These new industrial capitalists were not represented in the government either nationally or locally in 1819, nor were the new towns being created by industrialisation recognised by the existing governing parties as the force they were becoming, needing both internal government and external representation in Parliament. The manufacturers had to express their demands by means of petitions to the government. The manufacturers were generally in favour of complete laissez-faire policies so that they could be left alone to pursue their work of making cotton cloth and making profits. They were vociferously against any hindrance in their way and so opposed both the import taxes on the raw cotton and the taxes on the finished cotton cloth as well as the Corn Laws which made it that much harder for their workers to obtain the means of subsistence and hence put pressure on them to increase the wages of their workers. They opposed any interference in the running of their factories at that time and (some) only expressed support for the idea of a minimum wage in 1819 purely as a necessity created by the other, fiscal, interferences with their affairs and as a means “to see that [the workers] and their families have the common necessaries of life…rather than let them get into the hands of the demagogue orators’ (Extract from a letter from a ‘Manchester manufacturer’ to the Manchester Gazette 14 August 1819). [NB There were 6 weekly Manchester newspapers in 1819: the Manchester Mercury, Manchester Chronicle, Exchange Herald, and the British Volunteer all supported the local oligarchy and the Tory government, the Manchester Gazette was for the middle-class reformers and the Manchester Observer was the organ of working-class Radicals.]