The Peterloo Massacre by Robert Reid - review by George Stern

George Stern

First Lessons in Crowd Control

The Peterloo Massacre


William Heinemann 320pp £17.50 order from our bookshop

Robert Reid follows his acclaimed Land of Lost Content, about the Luddite revolt of 1812, with this fascinating account of Peterloo – a cavalry charge into a crowd in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, in 1819. This was an act of ‘the most repressive regime in modern British history’. Peterloo was followed by the notorious Six Acts and the imprisonment of most radical reformers. British workers, says Reid, had the freedom of blacks in South Africa after Sharpeville. Eleven were killed at Peterloo – less than Bloody Sunday in 1972.

In those days England had virtually no police: magistrates, helped by a few constables and special constables, did both policing and judging. They could call in the army as with the Luddites in the Yorkshire woollen towns. Unrest moved to the cotton town of Manchester. General Byng, descended from the admiral shot ‘pour encourager les autres’, was now the chief general in the north. When I lived in Manchester in the (nineteen-) forties, the dour City Corporation’s ambition was to turn off our water whenever the rain stopped. Byng sagely remarked ‘what a dog’s hole is Manchester’ and settled in a palatial Yorkshire mansion convenient for the races.

England’s oppressors were the triumvirs Castlereagh, Eldon and Sidmouth, ministers who overshadowed Liverpool, Tory prime minister 1812–1827. These lords were distinctly middle-class. Sidmouth, Home Secretary and inventor of PAYE, was known as ‘the doctor’, having told the House of his father’s prescription of bran for his patients. As Addington, he

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