Ah, Behold Their Sabres Gleaming

With sabres drawn, their sharpened blades flashing ominously in the shimmering sunlight, with Edward Meagher the trumpeter in the van, the sixty members of Birley’s troop of the MYC advanced towards the hustings. But the famous avenue of access was only wide enough for pedestrian traffic. Between the MYC and the hustings were thousands of men, women and children jammed as tightly as fruit in a bottle For a few paces an attempt was made to maintain order, to follow the officers in line abreast, but the further the horses were thrust into the dense throng the more frightened they became, and the less control the yeomanry had over them. The terrified animals reared and plunged while terrified people strove to get out of the way of their thudding hooves. But the very density of the crowd made such evasive action impossible. Men and women fell backwards into the arms of other men and women; the concertina pattern started; and the MYC lost any semblance of order. With ranks broken it was every cavalryman for himself, each vieing with the other for the honour of being the first to reach the hustings and drag the Radical scum into captivity.

Thus within seconds of the MYC’s advance, chaos and panic began to grip the field. In the hurricane path people already lay dying and injured, crushed by the horses’ hooves, slashed by sabre cuts. In the mad gallop there was no time to consider whether Radical scum or stalwart constable was being mown down or sabre hacked. Among the early casualties was Constable Moore, thrown to the ground and temporarily stunned by one of the cavalrymen who was supposed to be affording him protection. However, for the time being the chaos was limited to the area of the hustings, and the actual arrests were effected with comparative ease. Birley was among the first to reach the hustings. He approached Hunt and said, ‘Sir, I have a warrant against you, and arrest you as my prisoner.’ Hunt, at this point still urging the people round the hustings to keep calm, replied, ‘I willingly surrender myself to any civil officer who will show me his warrant.’ So Nadin, who had also arrived, stepped, forward saying, ‘I will arrest you. I have got information on oath against you.’ He then repeated the words to Johnson. Hunt descended from the hustings of his own accord but others were not so fortunate in their manner of leaving. Yeomanry and constables dragged Moorhouse off by his ankles and Johnson by his legs. Mrs Fildes’s white dress caught on a nail of the wagons and as she tugged at the material, frantically trying to free herself, she was ‘slashed across her exposed body by one of the brave cavalry’ Having been unceremoniously or viciously hauled from the hustings, the Radical leaders were dragged equally unceremoniously and viciously back through the chaos to Mr Buxton’s house.

Map showing principal towns mentioned in the text.

Even at this point the worst of the disaster could have been averted if anybody had been in effective command of the situation; if the MYC had contented themselves with performing the job they had been sent on to the field to perform, i.e., the arrest of the Radical leaders; if Manchester had lived up to its later reputation as a, permanent rain-sodden sponge. But there was nobody in authority to give sharp, sensible orders; the MYC were in no mood to trot tamely back to base; and it had not rained for days. Having tasted blood the MYC went berserk. The stifling heat worked on their wine-fuddled brains, the taunts and ridicule of the last two years swam in their seething brain cells. Now they had power. Now, once and for all, they would prove who were the masters. Leaving the task of escorting the prisoners to the special constables they turned their attention to the hustings, smashing the wagons, tearing the banners and Caps of Liberty: As they rampaged the dust rose from the hard-baked ground into the shimmering heat and there was no wind to dispel it. Thus what was, or was not, happening round the hustings was partially obscured from the fearful eyes of the watching magistrates.

In the meantime, and it was a very brief time, a few minutes at most, Colonel L’Estrange and the 15th Hussars had arrived on the field. At some point in this interval the Riot Act was read, once by Ethelston, once by magistrate Sylvester. Hay’s account of Ethelston’s reading is the essence of tragi-comedy, as during the reading the sabres were already hacking away. Hay said on oath: ‘He read it with his head very far out of the window [i e, of Mr Buxton’s house] he leant so far out, that I stood behind him, ready to catch his skirts for fear he might fall over. Mr Ethelston is a gentleman who I have occasionally, heard sing, and he has a remarkably powerful voice. When he drew his head back into the room after reading the proclamation, I observed to him, “Mr Ethelston, I never heard your voice so powerful”.’ Nobody mentioned the quality of Mr Sylvester’s voice. He actually went out of 6, Mount Street to read the proclamation from a card, but he did not get far, either physically or with the reading, as somebody pushed him, not surprisingly seeing what was occurring round the hustings. On being pushed he returned to the house and abandoned his attempt. The Radicals later doubted that the Riot Act had been read at all. However, it was read. That hardly anybody in the crowd heard it, and that the statutory hour was not allowed before the dispersal started, is beyond question. The discussion was of more academic interest than that surrounding the movement of the hustings, because if the magistrates’ ‘decision’ to disperse the crowd was justifiable, it was justifiable under Common Law which decreed that an illegal assembly could be dispersed without any reading of the Riot Act.

With L’Estrange’s arrival dispersal was the decision taken. Peering into the clouds of shifting dust the magistrates became convinced that the crowd was attacking the yeomanry. Their brave cavalry must at all costs be rescued, and the only way to do this was by dispersing the mob. It was in fact Hulton who gave the order for the dispersal. He met L’Estrange as the Hussars rode in. L’Estrange asked what was happening and what he should do. Hulton cried out, ‘Good God, Sir, don’t you see they are attacking the Yeomanry? Disperse them.’ Later Hulton had doubts as to the precipitance of his solo action but he said he knew he had the concurrence of his brother magistrates; a correct assertion as they were quite as much in a panic as he was. Lieutenant Jolliffe also believed that the dispersal was necessary. He saw the yeomanry as being in the power of those they had been sent to contain. The yeomanry were not in the power of the unarmed men, women and children, but they were now scattered. Having indulged in their orgy of destruction around the hustings they had ridden for the other banners, again each vieing with the other to see who could grab most as proof positive of glory. To the newly arrived Lieutenant Jolliffe, who had no idea what had occurred in the preceding minutes, it could seem as though the yeomanry were the attacked not the attackers.

Pausing only a few seconds to receive their orders Lieutenant Jolliffe and the Hussars charged on to the field. They charged from a position parallel with the hustings, having been led from their waiting stations off Deansgate not on the direct route via Peter Street, but on a circuitous one that brought them into a position facing the main body of the crowd. At this moment the main body was still in reasonable order. If this seems strange it must be remembered how swiftly everything had happened, how short a time had elapsed since the initial advance of the myc. The panic round the hustings and the individual activities of the yeomanry were spreading like the ripples of stones in water. There was also panic on the outskirts of the field where the spectators who had been informed of what was happening round the hustings and Of the Hussars’ arrival, by those who had climbed on to higher ground for a better view, were trying to make their escape. But the majority of the crowd, though aware that something had gone radically (if not Radically) wrong with the proceedings, was totally unprepared for the dispersal. Everybody was anxious, craning necks, standing on tiptoe, trying to ascertain what was happening, turning to their relations, their neighbours, to fellow members of Union Societies, asking what had gone wrong, what the glistening dust meant, whether Hunt had really been arrested, demanding of their contingent leaders what they should do. Then suddenly the Hussars were in their midst, trained, disciplined, professional soldiers who had been given their orders and were carrying them out, with horses trained and disciplined for the task of removing the enemy from the field. With no time to collect wits, panic spread like a bush fire, the terrible panic of being trapped, of being enveloped in mass fear, in a maelstrom of falling bodies, rearing horses, trampling hooves and slashing sabres. In the Hussars’ path the concertina pattern repeated and repeated itself; hundreds of people collapsing upon each other, while hundreds more were swept as though on tidal waves.

While the screams rent the sultry air, while the dust rose higher and higher towards the hot sun, while women with babies, men with children on their shoulders, young and old struggled to make their way from the death trap Saint Peter’s Field had become, the MYC continued to indulge in their moments of individual glory. Thomas Redford, carrying. Middleton’s green banner, held it high in the air until the staff was cut from his hand and, his shoulder was split open by a yeomanry sabre. Women crouched over their children’s bodies, crying to the yeomanry not to hurt them and had their heads cleft by sabres. Many times attackers and attacked knew each other personally. An old woman saw Tom Shelmerdine, whom she had nursed as a child, riding down upon her. She cried: ‘Nay, Tom Shelmerdine, thee wilt not hurt me, I know’ but ‘deaf to her supplications he rode her down’. As they plunged about their carnage the yeomanry underlined the message verbally, shouting: ‘Damn you, I’ll reform you’; ‘You’ll come again, will you?’; ‘I’ll let you know I’m a soldier today’; ‘This is for Waterloo’; ‘Spare your lives? Damn your bloody lives.’ Many of the Radical menfolk, trying to protect their wives and children or their wounded comrades or the banners or simply themselves, wished they had come armed with something other than their ‘self-approving consciences’.

Among the 60,000 struggling people was John Lees. He had what at the time seemed the good fortune to get himself a position near the hustings. As the yeomanry turned their attention from the arrest of Hunt to the battering of their enemies, John was slashed by a sabre, hit by a truncheon, and as he fell to the ground was ridden over by an MYC horse. The constable who lashed at him with the truncheon shouted, ‘Damn your bloody eyes, I’ll break your back.’ In the chaos there was the inevitable miraculous escape that convinces people of fate, of your number being up or not being up. A man had brought a cheese for his dinner. Not having eaten it he put the cheese under his hat for safe-keeping. When the Hussars charged, like everybody else he tried to make his escape, but he found himself in the direct path of a yeomanry cavalryman. Up into the air went the MYC sabre, down it came on the man’s head. ‘There it embedded itself in the cheese. Whether the yeomanry cavalryman rode off with it stuck to his sabre is not recorded, but the cheese saved one head from being split open. An old man called Thomas Blinstone was knocked down by a galloping horse and had both his arms splintered as the hooves rode over his outstretched body. But it was not his wounds that disturbed him most. It was the loss of his spectacles. Months later, -telling his story to the members of the Metropolitan Relief Committee, he said: And what is wur than aw, mesters, they’n broken my spectacles, an aw’ve ne’er yet been able to get a pair that suits me.’

The tides of humanity were swept towards the outskirts of the field. There further chaos met them. For the avenues of escape were wholly or partially blocked. The adjacent streets were choked at the far end with further oncoming Hussars and men of the 31st and 88th Foot, on one of the lower sides by the Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry who had arrived with the 15th Hussars (though they were not used in the actual dispersal), and on the other by Major Dyneley bringing up his six-pounder guns at a hard gallop.

Much as the yeomanry started and contributed to the havoc, the dispersal proper was effected by the 15th Hussars. It was they who were responsible for the majority of deaths and injuries. Many Radical witnesses later testified that the Hussars tried only to hit with the flat of their sabres (not always successfully in the chaos), that they were not deliberately lashing out with their blades as were the yeomanry. Nevertheless most of the casualties were caused by the Hussars. For it was not the sabre cuts, vicious as their wounds were, much as the image of silver blades glistening in the sun and descending on defenceless heads that is associated with Peterloo, that wreaked the greatest havoc. More of the dead, and certainly of the wounded, suffered from being trampled upon by the horses or from the pressure of ‘being literally piled up to a considerable elevation above ground level’—the description being Lieutenant Jolliffe’s.

The place where- the worst pile-up occurred was near the Friends’ Meeting House on the outskirts of the field in a direct line-from the hustings. There the greatest tidal wave of humanity was swept by the charging Hussars, and beached. In front of a nearby house one tongue of the wave was trapped. In simple, vivid language the female occupant of the house later described what happened. ‘The people came in great crowds past my door, and a parcel of them beat down the fence. The stumps were all down on the ground, and also the stones were out of their, places. There was a large stump with a stone at the bottom. It was an oak stump about twelve inches square. The people were so pressed against it that they could not get away. They [the MYC] kept cutting them in the corner, and the shrieks would astonish you, and they were laying on them all the time as hard as they could upon them, and an officer belonging to the soldiers [i.e., the Hussars] came up and said, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, for shame, forbear. The people cannot get away.” Just as he was saying so the rail broke and let a whole number of the people into my cellar.’ The person at the bottom of the falling pyramid was a Mrs Martha Partington of Eccles. She was ‘took up dead’.

It was round and inside the Friends’ Meeting House that the only pocket of resistance occurred. In front of the building was a pile of loose timber, carelessly overlooked by Mr Horrall and his scavengers. Behind the timber, a pile of stones and other missiles was found. Pressed and harried by the yeomanry as they were, many people seized upon the timber and stones to defend themselves. A considerable number found sanctuary inside the Meeting House. There is no doubt that missiles were flung at the yeomanry from near and inside it. Somebody threw a brickbat which unhorsed one of the yeomanry. Bamford, who had seen part of the tidal wave, said that somebody was ‘a heroine, a young woman of our party with her face all bloody, her hair streaming about her, her bonnet hanging by the string, and her apron weighted with stones’, and that she kept her assailant at bay for several minutes before unhorsing him. It was also from the Meeting House that the one probable Radical shot of the day was fired. Loyalists later testified to hearing several shots, but nobody put ‘the several’ at higher than eight. The Radicals held on to the Meeting House for a short while, hurling as many missiles as they could find from its windows. Then a farrier of the 15th Hussars rode at a small door on the outer wall and his horse struck it with such force that the door flew open. Other Hussars rode in and resistance was at an end. As Sir Francis Burdett later, said in the House of Commons, answering charges that as stones and missiles were thrown the crowd must have come armed: ‘When once they were attacked what could you expect? Were people in the quiet exercise of one of their most undoubted privileges to be unresistingly bayoneted, sabred, trampled underfoot, without raising a hand, or (if the noble Lord would allow), without putting their hands in their pockets for the stones they had brought with them?’ Of pikes not a mention was heard, not even from Norris and Ethelston.

By 2 o’clock, only twenty minutes from the moment the MYC had drawn up in confusion outside Mr Buxton’s house, less than fifteen from the moment the 15th Hussars had charged, it was all over. The Field of Saint Peter was virtually deserted. The special constables were grouped round No.6 Mount Street, people were sheltering or tending their wounded on the outskirts of the field, Major Dyneley’s six-pounders were rattling across the hard baked ground, but the main 14,000 square yards had been emptied of humanity as if by magic.

To Lieutenant Jolliffe, ‘The field and the adjacent streets presented an extraordinary sight; the ground was covered with hats, shoes and musical instruments. Here and there lay the unfortunates who were too injured to move away, and this sight was rendered the more distressing by observing some women among the sufferers.’ Major Dyneley had ‘I must not say the pleasure of seeing the field of Battle covered with hats, sticks, shoes, laurel branches, drum heads. In short, the field was as complete as I have ever seen one after an action.’ But it was Samuel Bamford who wrote the most moving (and most paraphrased) description of the scene after the dispersal: ‘Within ten minutes from the commencement of the havock, the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down through a sultry and motionless air… the hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two drooping; whilst over the whole field, were strewed the caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress; trampled, torn and bloody. The yeomanry had dismounted—some were easing their horses’ girths, others adjusting their accoutrements; and some were wiping their sabres. Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning—others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more. All was silent save those low sounds, and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds.’