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The Manchester Observer account of the Peterloo Massacre

This article appeared in the pro-Parliamentary Reform newspaper, The Manchester Observer, on 21 August 1819, a few days after the bloody break-up of a meeting on St. Peter’s Field. The paper condemned the authorities’ ‘cowardly and bloody attack’.

Performed by Paul Marlon.

Archives Alive: Peterloo

The Archives Alive: Peterloo project is a collaboration between Royal Holloway, University of London, and The National Archives, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. This series of short films forms part of a wide programme of activity marking the 200th anniversary of the massacre – an important milestone in the history of the struggle for rights and representation – and its aftermath. Find out more on The National Archives’ blog.


Manchester Observer Account of Peterloo, 21 August 1819

Four days have elapsed since the tragic occurrence, we find the the time too short to record with correctness the transactions in general, a month would be insufficient to detail all the individual and truly deplorable cases which have been communicated to our office. 

For the information of those who do not regularly read the Observer, it may be necessary to state, that in order to make the Meeting a perfectly legal one, one, which even the magistrates themselves could not deem other, the Meeting which was to have taken place on the previous Monday was relinquished, and another announced for Monday last, free from the objection which was supposed to exist in the first notice.

The morning was extremely fine, and well calculated to produce the attendance of an immense assemblage. So early as ten o’clock every thing was in motion, and everyone with the expectation of a peaceful meeting; nor do we think, that one person in ten thousand, anticipated the least harm from the Reformers; for few, if any shops, were closed. 

The assemblage was doubtless very imposing, but when silence was commanded, whilst the resolution was put to appoint Mr Hunt to the chair, the populace were answered by the exhibition of their townsmen’s sabres. Even this demonstration of hostility excited no alarm, the spectators conceiving, that they were only in readiness to suppress and commotion which might occur, never dreaming that the legal protectors of the public peace would be the first illegally to break it. >

Before we relate the most wanton, cowardly and bloody attack, made by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry, and others, we beg leave to digress, in order to state some transactions which took place in the house of Mr Buxton. 

The Magistrates, with a number of gentleman of the town, were here in consultation, and the opinion of the Magistrates was divided as to the proper mode of proceeding. This difficulty, however, was soon got rid of by 30 civilians, resident gentlemen of Manchester, voluntarily offering to make oath, that they conceived the peace of the town was endangered. 

The Magistrates would not, and durst not apparently have acted, without this legal cobweb garment to cover their nakedness. 

No sooner had this thirty sworn and signed the Manchester Magna Charta, than the Boroughreeve was called upon to mount his charger, and lead on the Special Constables. 

Few, if any of the Meeting, even yet, supposed that this martial display was intended for anything more than securing Mr Hunt. 

Mr Hunt was called upon to deliver himself up, which he offered to do to a Magistrate. As soon as Mr Hunt was secured, followed a scene so truly bloody and horrific, that no pen or tongue could paint in its true colours. 

Without reading the Riot Act, which that despicable sycophant, Mr Aston, has the unblushing impudence to assert was read – without the usual notice to disperse did they dash in upon this peaceable and defenceless multitude. A most terrific shriek now rent the air. 

Had the military only attacked robust men, only wounded those who had offered them insult, much less infamy would have been their lot. But it is notorious, that some of our gentlemen not only struck the quickest but the heaviest on those who were the most defenceless. The women seemed to be the special objects of the rage of these bastard soldiers.

There appears to be five or six dead – as many mortally wounded, and not less than 300 wounded. The tragic relation is much heightened from the universal conviction, that all the blood which has been spilled, has been most wantonly and unnecessarily spilled. 

Are the people to be told when they ask for bread, that they shall only have a bullet or sabre? Or if they ask for constitutional liberty, are they to be confined in a jail? Yes, all this if some men must govern.

Catalogue reference: HO 42/192, folio 5.

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