E.P. Thompson & the Peterloo Massacre

It was a bright day in August, 1819, and between sixty and a hundred thousand men, women and children had gathered on St Peter’s Field in Manchester to demonstrate for constitutional and democratic reform.  Instructed to arrest radical dissidents speaking to the demonstrators, mounted Yeomanry charged into the crowd, cutting their way through those in their path. Hundreds were injured and eleven killed, earning this brutal episode in British social history the title ‘massacre’. Studying as he did the formation of the English working class, British Social Historian E. P. Thompson examined Peterloo in depth in his seminal The Making of the English Working Class, and, in these days of renewed social upheaval, it seems an appropriate case study with which to examine both the event and Thompson’s innovative ideas on society, class and their importance.


Perhaps Thompson’s most influential contribution to British social history was his revolutionary thesis that Social Class was first and foremost an active historical process within society, over a passive, unshakeable structure to categorize men with. In the famous preface to The Making of the English Working Class Thompson outlined his view of class as:

an active process which owes as much to agency as to conditioning. A historical phenomenon [found] in the raw material of experience and consciousness…when some men, as a result of their experiences, feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

Here the conditions are set for understanding Thompson’s perspective as a social historian; one stressing agency, experience and Marxian class conflict. The events of Peterloo can provide us with as good and poignant example as any of how important and useful Edward Thompson’s history remains.

To establish why Peterloo happened at all, we must look back into socially incendiary times that gave rise to the demonstration on St Peter’s Field on that day in August. Facing, in some ways, strikingly similar economic times to those we face today, Britain suffered a period of austerity and depression. The slump in the country’s industrial economy that occurred after the strains of two decades of the Napoleonic Wars had caused mass unemployment among working people, enhanced by the many returning service men disbanded after 1815. Radicalism was fostered amongst this atmosphere, with themes of constitutional reform and enfranchisement- key demands of the St Peter’s field crowd- central. As Thompson described, Peterloo ‘was the outcome of an extraordinarily powerful and determined ‘constitutionalist’ agitation, largely working-class in character’, and in highlighting the class based nature of the event’s formation, he provides the most plausible answer as to why the demonstration took place. The marchers’ temperament, or constitutionalist ‘identity of interests’ united them into a mass gathering for political reform; a defiant act against the disenfranchisement of the working class from politics that existed in 1819.

While other historical interpretations are keener to stress the pressure on the Yeomanry to act and arrest their targets in the crowd that had gathered on the field, it seems Thompson’s interpretation comes closer to understanding why they actually chose to begin cutting down the peaceful protestors. Class divisions undoubtedly divided the participants; the protestors being overwhelmingly working class, and the Yeomanry comprised of the local bourgeoisie, such as manufacturers and merchants. These divisions were physically pitted against each another that day, and they boiled over for the Yeomanry into violent fury- could anything else have conceivably driven them to draw sabres on a pacific crowd?:

the attack was made on this multitude with the panic of class hatred…[the Yeomanry] were the men who pursued the banners, knew the speakers by name and sought to pay off old scores, and who mustered and cheered at the end of their triumph…There is no term for this but class war. But it was a pitifully one-sided war.

Peterloo thus stands as a concrete example of Thompson’s key ideas on British society at this time, played out in the most brutal fashion. Class divisions, encouraged by the economic downturn, had brought the protestors and the Yeomanry both to the field (the Yeomanry were all volunteers), and the class war Thompson describes was demonstrated in a brutal reality on the field.

The titles ‘Peterloo’ and ‘massacre’ were both earned in the event’s immediate aftermath, and both hold testimony to how brutal the day’s proceedings were. The ‘Peter-loo’ epithet is particularly striking- a reference to the bloody battle of Waterloo four years before, no doubt still fresh in the consciousness of some of the demonstrators. Indeed, the astuteness of Thompson’s analysis is further demonstrated by uniquely highlighting the depth of the event’s immediate impact: ‘Within two days of Peterloo, all England knew of the event. Within a week every detail of the massacre was being canvassed in ale houses, chapels, workshops, private houses.’ That the colloquial and evocative name originally offered has become the episode’s official title is telling evidence to support this.

To assess Peterloo’s wider impact to British social history we can look to its imprint in local and national memory and it’s more enduring legacies, of which Thompson showed to be momentous. Firstly, it is important to appreciate Peterloo as a genuine turning point in British social and political history. Not only did it spark an immediate outpouring of horror and anger from the British populace at the time, but it precipitated abrupt and Draconian action from those in power at the time, culminating in the infamous Six Acts, which clamped down on public protest and wrote serious progressive reforms off the table for decades. His analysis of the backlash which drove the radical leadership towards the Cato Street Conspiracy a year later, with immensely gripping, detailed research, further demonstrates the depth of Peterloo’s national impression. Further consequences included the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper, still thriving as the broadsheet Guardian newspaper today. A further and perhaps defining positive effect of that brutal day’s events was the crucial fact that it was a nightmare impossible to conceive of again in Britain-

Even Old Corruption knew, in its heart, that it dare not do this again. Since the moral consensus of the nation outlawed the riding down of an unarmed crowd, the corollary followed- that the right of public meeting was gained…never since Peterloo has authority dared to use equal force against a peaceful British crowd.

With these words Thompson touches on how important the Peterloo massacre was to British history. His own analysis stands out as the most pertinent and useful, as it best explains how such a tragedy could happen and how much it mattered then as now; his view of class as an active process, and the relevance of class conflict, both demonstrated by the dynamic and conflict ridden struggle of the day. It would be a shameful tribute to the victims of Peterloo if this fundamental event to the course of British history is not remembered as such, and it consequently deserves a proper monument, as many have already suggested, lest we should ever forget.

(First published in the University of Sheffield’s New Histories Online Magazine, 15/3/2012. http://newhistories.group.shef.ac.uk/wordpress/wordpress/?p=3414 Editing and additional research by Liz Goodwin).


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