August 16 was the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. On that date in 1819, 60,000 people gathered at St. Peter’s Field to listen to radical orator Henry Hunt and to protest against the Corn Laws and to seek Parliamentary reform. The local magistrates, frightened by the sheer numbers of protesters, ordered the yeomanry to disperse the crowds and arrest the demonstation’s leaders. The yeomanry (who were well-to-do tradesmen opposed to reforms) did a poor job of it and the 15th Hussars were ordered to charge the crowd and rescue the yeomanry. Eleven people were killed and 500 injured and the resulting outrage of the government’s support of the incident helped fuel the reform movement.
There are conflicting accounts as to what happened at “Peterloo,” the name, taken from Waterloo. Certainly the most famous of the protests of the time, it was not the first. The book I just turned in (Yay, it is done!) in part takes place after the Spa Fields riots (believed to be incited by provacateurs in the government’s employ) and the March of the Blanketeers, which was dispersed before reaching London. Before these events there were the Luddites, who did become violent, smashing the machinery of the mill owners.
The Tory government cracked down with harsh laws, the Gag Acts after the Blanketeers march and the Six Acts after Peterloo. These basically made it illegal to protest against the government.
It is easy to see these as extreme and unfair measures depriving citizenry of free speech, but one also must remember that the men passing the laws were doing so in the shadow of the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror, during which 17,000 were executed, must have made a deep impression upon the aristocracy. I think this made a deeper impression than the fact that a whole country was lost to the American Revolution, which, of course, was founded on the right to free speech!
I realize this blog leaves nothing for you to comment on! So my challenge is, post the question I should have asked at the end of this blog!