On August 16, 1819 in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester England, 60,000 peaceful protestors marched with banners declaring UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE (at that date even men couldn’t vote, unless they owned land) REPRESENTATION, and LOVE. Other than the cart the speakers stood on, it wasn’t so different from the women’s marches last week.
The Manchester protesters were peaceful, but at the time, the Riot Act was in force. This abominable act had been passed during another turbulent time in the early 18th century. It allowed a mayor, bailiff, sheriff, or any other “head officer” to declare a riot anytime more than twelve people were assembled “Unlawfully, riotously, and tumultuously.” If the group didn’t disperse within an hour after the act was read, they were guilty of felony—and punishable by death.
You can guess how that went. Fearful landowners and the local magistrates panicked, thinking the French Revolution had reached their shores. Which, in a way, it had. The old order was being questioned, and the establishment was resisting change. This push and pull between rich and poor, people with power and people without, is a constant throughout history. Unfortunately, it often takes violence to effect change.
In the case of Peterloo, the magistrates gathered 600 Hussars—the king’s finest soldiers—along with canon, 400 cavalry, and 400 special constables. And then they sent the local Yeomanry to arrest the speakers. Some of the Yeomanry were reportedly drunk. Many of them held grudges against the free-speaking people in the crowd. It was akin to setting Skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan loose on a crowd of women, blacks, and gay rights activists. Emotion ruled the day.
Given what we’ve seen in places like Ferguson, MO, we still haven’t learned the result of unleashing armed military on a large crowd. Predictably, the crowd panicked, ran, and when trapped, undoubtedly fought back. Seeing the turmoil, the military charged to protect the Yeoman, not the crowd. By early afternoon, 700 people, including women and children were injured and 18 were dead. And that was just using sabers, not guns. Journalists, speakers, and organizers were arrested, most for High Treason. In an attempt to muzzle the news, anyone reporting on the event was jailed—if not already dead.
But out of that calamitous riot rose today’s Manchester Guardian newspaper, plus the Chartist Movement that led to trade unions. It was the final influence that forced Parliament to pass the right to vote—although it still took years. In my Unexpected Magic series, set in 1830, they’re still fighting the battle in the Lords. The fight for suffrage brought down several prime ministers, including Wellington and Grey, of opposing parties. The establishment refused to accept that the common man, the public for whom they passed laws, had the ability to think for themselves—rather like the aristocratic South thinking black people were too simple-minded to be educated.
History has proven that people without power or wealth do have the ability to effect change, if they’re willing to take the risk. Blessedly, the power of the vote can bring about peaceful change—provided people are willing to step out of their comfort zones and push for it.
I was fascinated reading the history of the Lords for THEORY OF MAGIC. That houseful of aristocrats routinely read petitions from every small village and organization all across the country, and all the petitions demanded suffrage and the end of slavery—forcing that elite group to recognize the tide was turning against them. Today, we use web petitions and phone calls. How many of you have fought for change, whether by marching or other means? Do you think petitions matter?