‘Dear Sisters of the Earth’: Peterloo bicentenary

On 16 August 1819, a mass meeting on St Peter’s Field in Manchester calling for democratic reforms was attacked in cold blood by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. At least 18 people were killed, and nearly 700 injured.

The women taking part in the meeting were a particular target of the violence. To mark the bicentenary of the massacre, here we publish an extract from an address by the Manchester Female Reform Society delivered on 20 July 1819. The President of the Society, Mary Fildes, addressed the crowd at St Peter’s Field on 16 August. Fildes was later involved in the campaign for birth control and active in the Chartist movement.

Among the events planned to mark the bicentenary is the Peterloo March For Democracy, which will converge on a rally in the city centre from ten assembly points on Sunday 18 August.

‘Much wanted: A Reform among females!!!’ The women reformers were mocked in satirical prints such as this one from 1819 (cc) British Museum 

Dear Sisters of the Earth,

It is with a spirit of peaceful consideration and due respect that we are induced to address you, upon the causes that have compelled us to associate together in aid of our suffering children, our dying parents, and the miserable partners of our woes.

[…]

From very mature and deliberate consideration, we are thoroughly convinced, that under the present system, the day is near at hand, when nothing will be found in our unhappy country but luxury, idleness, dissipation, and tyranny, on the one hand; and abject poverty, slavery, wretchedness, misery, and death, on the other. To avert these dreaded evils, it is your duty therefore to unite with us as speedily as possible; and to exert your influence with your fathers, your husbands, your sons, your relatives, and your friends, to join the Male Union for constitutionally demanding a Reform in their own House, viz. The Commons’ House of Parliament[1]; for we are now thoroughly convinced that for want of such timely Reform, the useful class of society has been reduced to its present degraded state – and that with such a reform, the English nation would not have been stamped with the indelible disgrace, of having been engaged in the late unjust, unnecessary, and destructive war, against the liberties of France, that closed its dreadful career on the crimson plains of Waterloo[2]; where the blood of our fellow-creatures flowed in such mighty profusion, that the fertile earth seemed to blush at the outrage offered to the choicest works of heaven; and for a space of time was glutted with the polluted draught, till the Almighty, with a frown upon the aggressors, drew a veil over the dismal scene!

Let us now ask the cause of this dreadful carnage? Was it to gain immortal happiness for all mankind? Or, if possible, ‘was it for a nobler purpose?’ Alas, no! The simple story is this, that all this dreadful slaughter was, in cold blood, committed for the purpose of placing upon the Throne of France, contrary to the people’s interest and inclination, the present contemptible Louis[3], a man who had been living for years in this country in idleness, and wandering from one corner of the island to the other in cowardly and vagabond slothfulness and contempt. Let it be remembered at the same time, that this war, to reinstate this man, has tended to raise landed property threefold above its value, and to load our beloved country with such an insurmountable burden of Taxation, that is too intolerable to endure longer; it has nearly annihilated our once flourishing trade and commerce, and is now driving our merchants and manufacturers to poverty and degradation.[4]

We call upon you therefore to join us with heart and hand, to exterminate tyranny and foul oppression from the face of our native country. It affords us pleasure to inform you, that numbers of your ranks have voluntarily mixed with us, who are fully determined, in defiance of the threats of the Borough mongers[5], to aid us in our just and constitutional career.

[…]

We can no longer bear to see numbers of our parents immured in workshops – our fathers separated from our mothers, in direct contradiction to the laws of God and the laws of man; our sons degraded below human nature, our husbands and little ones clothed in rags, and pining on the face of the earth! Dear Sisters, how could you bear to see the infant at the breast, drawing from you the remnant of your last blood, instead of the nourishment which nature requires; the only subsistence for yourselves being a draught of cold water? It would be criminal in us to disguise any longer the dreadful truth; for, in the midst of all these privations, if we were to hold our peace, the very trees of the forest, and stones of the valley, would justly cry out! […]

Source: The National Archives

Notes

[1] Manchester had a rapidly growing population at the time, but not a single MP to represent it. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, textile workers in Manchester were suffering the consequences of a major economic depression. They were further impoverished by the Corn Laws, tariffs on the import of foreign grain, which were driving up the price of food. The campaign for parliamentary reform was tied to a struggle against the government’s economic policies.

[2] The massacre on Peter’s Field would be referred in the press to as Peterloo in reference to the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815). The British victory at Waterloo was celebrated by the establishment, but for many working class people and radicals, it merely represented the culmination of a bloody war fought to stop the spread of the French revolutionary ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. Many of the ordinary soldiers who fought at Waterloo returned to find themselves in poverty. This part of the address makes a powerful link between an anti-war message and the campaign for democracy.

[3] Louis XVIII (1814-24). The restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France heralded a period of conservative reaction across Europe.

[4] The Napeolonic Wars left Britain with a huge national debt. The struggle for representation was also a struggle over who should pay for a crisis the ruling class had made.

[5] ‘Borough mongers’ were those who bought or sold ‘rotten’ boroughs: seats with tiny electorates that were controlled as the private property, to be given, bought or sold, by the landowning class. 

See also:

200 years after Peterloo, do we face a new wave of repression?

16 August 1819

Read and hear more:

Peterloo 1819. Protest. Democracy. Freedom

Five things you need to know about the Peterloo Massacre

Maxine Peake read Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy‘ at the John Rylands Library in Manchester on Monday 12 August 2019. Watch here.

Read Paul Foot’s discussion of the political poetry of Shelley here.

The historian E. P. Thompson essay ‘The Ghosts of Peterloo’ (1973) has been republished by Tribune.

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