Women at the Peterloo Massacre

The Peterloo massacre took place on 16 August 1819. A crowd of tens of thousands of working men and women and some children, which had gathered on St Peter’s Field on the edge of Manchester to demand political reform, was attacked without warning by armed yeomanry and soldiers with drawn swords. The crowd was brutally dispersed in a few minutes. Hundreds were injured and at least 18 people killed. It was one of the most traumatic political events in Manchester’s history, whose echoes can still be heard today. The role of women both in the events leading up to the meeting and on the day itself has often been overlooked.

Local radicals had called the open-air meeting to demand political reform of parliament as a remedy for economic distress. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester had grown from a small market town to a large industrial city, but it still had no member of parliament. No working man had the vote. The people were excluded from formal political life.

The reform movement had been in existence in one form or another since the 1790s, inspired by the American and French Revolutions and the writings of Thomas Paine. It had been driven underground by government repression during the wars against France but re-emerged after 1815. The movement attracted a new energetic audience amongst the working people of the expanding towns of the north created by the industrial revolution.

The movement included women who organised Female Reform societies in Manchester, Blackburn, Oldham and Royton.

In Blackburn, Alice Kitchen of the Blackburn Female Reform Society said that “our homes which once ample testimony of our industry and cleanliness…are now alas! robbed of all their ornaments… behold our innocent children… how appalling are their cries for bread.”

On 10 July 1819 the radical newspaper the Manchester Observer printed an address from the Blackburn Society which called on every man in England to join reform societies and fight for annual parliaments, universal suffrage and election by ballot “which alone can save us from lingering misery and premature death.” They also referred to the importance that women attached to their position as mothers and educating their children in democratic ideas. “We have already come forward with the avowed determination, of instilling into the minds of our offspring a deep-rotted abhorrance of tyranny.”

The women in the Stockport Society explained in their Articles of Association that it had been founded “for the purpose of co-operating with their male associates:”

“We who form and constitute the Stockport Female Union Society, having reviewed for a considerable time past the apathy, and frequent insult of our oppressed countrymen, by those sordid and all-devouring fiends, the Borough-mongering Aristocracy, and in order to accelerate the emancipation of this suffering nation, we, do declare, that we will assist the Male Union formed in this town, with all the might and energy that we possess, and that we will adhere to the principles, etc., of the Male Union…and assist our Male friends to obtain legally, the long-lost Rights and Liberties of our country.”

The Manchester Female Reform Society was also formed in July 1819 and issued an address entitled “Dear Sisters of the Earth”. It was an appeal directed at other women “to the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of the higher and middling classes of society”:

“It is with a spirit of peaceful consideration and due respect that we are induced to address you, upon the causes of that have compelled us to associate together in aid of our suffering children, our dying parents, and the miserable partners of our woes. Bereft, not only of that support, the calls of nature require for existence; but the balm of sweet repose hath long been a stranger to us. Our minds are filled with a horror and despair, fearful on each returning morn, the light of heaven should present to us the corpse of some of our famished off spring , or nearest kindred, which the more kind hand of death had released from the oppressor…Every succeeding nights bring with it new terror, so that we are sick of life and weary of a world, where poverty , wretchedness, tyranny and injustice, have so long been permitted to reign…”

Like their sisters in other societies they blamed the aristocracy and land-owners for their plight . “The lazy boroughmongering eagles of destruction” who have “nearly picked bare the bones of those who labour” will “chase you to misery and death until the middle and useful class of society is swept by their relentless hands from the face of creation.”

The address also condemned the recent war against France and the carnage at Waterloo as having imposed upon them a burden of taxation, ended once-flourishing trade and commerce, and left thousands of widows and orphans destitute and unprotected. The only beneficiaries had been landowning MPs whose property had risen in value. They declared that could no longer “bear the ponderous weight of our chains any longer”, leaving them with no choice “but to tear them asunder and dash them in the face of our remorseless oppressor.” The address was signed by Susannah Saxton as Secretary of the Society

The Society drew up a further address to Henry Hunt, one of the principle speakers at the Peterloo meeting, which they had intended to present to him at the meeting on along with the Society’s banner, which showed a woman holding the scales of justice and treading the serpent of corruption underfoot. The meeting was dispersed before this the presentation could take place and so the address was printed in the Manchester Observer.

In these addresses the women, whilst expressing solidarity with men and asserting their right to comment publicly on political questions, made no claim for political rights for themselves, at least publicly. Their private thoughts are more difficult to discern as, unlike the men, none of the women later published political memoirs.

The description of the bloody attack on the meeting by Samuel Bamford, a leading Radical, in his book Passages in the Life of a Radical (1844) is well-known and almost invariably quoted in any account of Peterloo. Less well-known is the equally vivid account by his wife Jemima in the same book:

“I was determined to go to the meeting, and should have followed, even if my husband had refused his consent to my going with the procession. From what I, in common with others, had heard the week previous, ‘that if the country people went with their caps of liberty, and their banners, and music, the soldiers would be brought to them,’ I was uneasy, and felt persuaded, in my own mind, that something would be the matter, and I had best go with my husband, and be near him; and if I only saw him I should be more content than in staying at home. I accordingly, he having consented after much persuasion, gave my little girl something to please her, and promising more on my return, I left her with a careful neighbour woman, and joined some other married females at the head of the procession. Every time I went aside to look at my husband, and that was often, an ominous impression smote my heart. He looked very serious, I thought, and I felt a foreboding of something evil to befall us that day.
I was dressed plainly as a countrywoman in my second best attire. My companions were also neatly dressed as the wives of working men; I had seen Mr Hunt before that time; they had not, and some of them were quite eager to obtain good places, that they might see and hear one of whom so much had been reported.
In going down Mosley Street, I lost sight of my husband. Mrs Yates, who had hold of my arm, would keep hurrying forward to get a good place, and when the crowd opened for the Middleton procession, Mrs Yates and myself, and some others of the women, went close to the hustings, quite glad that we had obtained such a situation for seeing an hearing all. My husband got on the stage, but when afterwards I saw him leap down, and lost sight of him, I began to be unhappy. The crowd seemed to have increased very much, for we became insufferably pressed. We were surrounded by men who were strangers; we were almost suffocated, and to me the heat was quite sickening; but Mrs. Yates, being taller than myself, supported it better. I felt I could not bear this long, and I became alarmed. I reflected that if there was any more pressure, I must faint, and then what would become of me? I begged of the men to open a way and let me go out, but they would not move. Every moment I became worse, and I told some other men, who stood in a row, that I was sick, and begged they would let me pass them, and they immediately made a way, and I went down a long passage betwixt two ranks of these men, many of them saying, ‘make way, she’s sick, she’s sick, let her go out,’ and I passed quite out of the crowd and, turning to my right, I got on some high ground, on which stood a row of houses – this was Windmill Street.
I thought if I could get to stand at the door of one of those houses, I should have a good view of the meeting, and should perhaps see my husband again; and I kept going further down the row, until I saw a door open, and I stepped within it, the people of the house making no objections. By this time Mr Hunt was on the hustings, addressing the people. In a minute or two some soldiers came riding up. The good folks of the house, and some who seemed to be visitors, said, ‘the soldiers were only come to keep order; they would not meddle with the people;’ but I was alarmed. The people shouted, and then the soldiers shouted, waving their swords. Then they rode amongst the people, and there was a great outcry, and a moment after, a man passed without hat, and wiping the blood of his head with his hand, and it ran down his arm in a great stream.
The meeting was all in a tumult; there were dreadful cries; the soldiers kept riding amongst the people, and striking with their swords. I became faint, and turning from the door, I went unobserved down some steps into a cellared passage; and hoping to escape from the horrid noise, and to be concealed, I crept into a vault, and sat down, faint and terrified, on some fire wood. The cries of the multitude outside, still continued, and the people of the house, up stairs, kept bewailing most pitifully. They could see all the dreadful work through the window, and their exclamations were so distressing, that I put my fingers in my ears to prevent my hearing more; and on removing them, I understood that a young man had just been brought past, wounded. The front door of the passage before mentioned, soon after opened, and a number of men entered, carrying the body of a decent, middle aged woman, who had been killed. I thought they were going to put her beside me, and was about to scream, but they took her forward, and deposited her in some premises at the back of the house.”

According to recent research by historian Michael Bush for his book The Casualties of Peterloo, at least 18 people were killed , of whom four were women. These were named as:
Margaret Downes, Manchester – sabred
Mary Heys, Chorlton Row – trampled by cavalry
Sarah Jones, Manchester – truncheoned
Martha Partington, Barton – crushed in a cellar

At least 654 people were recorded as being injured of whom 168 were women.

Some of the crowd fought back. Samuel Bamford recorded the following anonymous fighter:

“A heroine, a young married woman of our party, with her face all bloody, her hair streaming about her, her bonnet hanging by the string, and her apron weighed with stones, kept her assailant at bay until she fell backwards and was near being taken; but she got way covered with severe bruises.”

The Manchester Female Reform Society continued in existence after Peterloo. Another address was made to William Cobbett in November 1819. Cobbet had returned from the USA with Thomas Paine’s bones, disinterred by William Benbow, but had been prevented from entering Manchester with them by the authorities. A third address was made to WG Lewis from Coventry when he chaired a meeting in Manchester in April 1820 to raise funds for political prisoners.

Article by Michael Herbert

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9 thoughts on “Women at the Peterloo Massacre

  1. My Great-great-great-great Grandmother, Mrs Mary Fildes, was the President of the Manchester Female Reform Society and was on the hustings with Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford and the others.
    It is quite possible that she was “the anonymous fighter” whose actions Samuel Bamford describes.

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  3. Do you know if the full Articles and Addresses of the Societies are accessible online anywhere? They would be immensely valuable for my research.

    It is unlikely that Mary Fildes was the anonymous lady mentioned by Bamford, as she was on the hustings attempting to protect the flags brought by the various local reform societies before escaping the scene to avoid arrest (see Michael Bush, ‘The Women at Peterloo’ in History Vol 89, from Oct 2004).

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