There is a film by Mike Leigh, "Peterloo" one to mark the centenary of the disaster as St. Peter's Fields in Manchester in 1819 when a major political meeting/demonstration was confronted by military contingents and many deaths occurred. The figures given are not reliable probably omitting many later deaths from injuries.
My introduction to this was the film "Fame Is The Spur" of 1947 about a reformer whose family has a sword taken from a soldier in 1819 at the disaster and kept it to preserve the memory and the family tradition of political action. The reformer becomes a success in politics but loses his principles and the sword goes rusty.
King George III was a sick and dying man in his last year of life and in July 1819 the question of the alleged adultery of the Princess Caroline, spouse of the Prince Regent, later King George IV was commanding the attention of the Cabinet and London press. He had no successor.
There was a collection of Royal Dukes, none of whom had a successor, save one, the Duke of Kent, whose daughter, Victoria was born in May. Rumours that she was actually the child of the Duchess's footman were not supported by evidence.
1819 was a year in which one of the five worst financial crashes in the USA occurred, resulting in a collapse of the economy. It was also where an increasing proportion of the raw cotton of the Lancashire cotton industry came from. This crash had effects on the British and European markets, notably in serious shortages of specie, that is ready cash and difficulties in the credits of the City of London.
When we say shortages of money today it is remote from the reality of shortages of the early 19th Century. It means in a society that depended on specie (hard cash) for almost all its day to day transactions there was not enough to be had. Banks crashed and businesses failed to add to all the confusions.
Not that the government was idle, earlier in the year it has tried to address the problem, but it was too little, too late and failed to deal with the core problems. To quote Lord Addington, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Lord Liverpool Tory government.
The first resolution, namely, "That it is expedient to continue the restriction on payments in cash by the Bank of England beyond the time to which it is at present limited by law," was agreed to.
The second resolution, namely, "That it is expedient that a definite period should be fixed for the termination of the restriction on cash payments; and that preparatory measures should be taken, with a view to facilitate and ensure, on the arrival of that period, the payment of the promissory notes of the Bank of England in the legal coin of the realm," was agreed to.
The third resolution, namely, "That in order to give to the Bank a greater control over the issues of their notes than they at present possess, provision ought to be made for the gradual repayment to the Bank of the sum of 10,000,000l.; being part of the sum due to the Bank, on account of advances made by them for the public service, and on account of the purchase of exchequer-bills under the authority of acts of the legislature," was agreed to.
Upon the fourth resolution being read, namely "That it is expedient to provide, by law, that from the 1st of February, 1820, the Bank shall be liable to deliver, on demand, gold of standard fineness, having been assayed and stamped at his majesty's Mint, a quantity of not less than 60 ounces being required in exchange for such an amount of notes of the Bank as shall be equal to the value of the gold so required, at the rate of of 4l. 1s. per ounce." was agreed to.
Then there were the problems of Empire. In the Caribbean the abolition of the slave trade had upped the prices of slaves leading to heavy borrowing by the plantation owners who were running out of cash. This was both making a demand for more finance from The City and contributed to the specie shortage and added to risks.
In India, the East India Company was fighting on a number of fronts and had expanded north into Nepal. It was needing more cash and added to the demands for silver. The Royal Navy was busy carrying the many convicts transported to expand other colonies. More were needed so magistrates were expected to provide them as a necessary source of basic labour to cut the costs of expansion.
Lurking at the back of the minds of many of the upper classes and especially the King and Cabinet were the memories of the French Revolution that had begun only thirty years before and what had happened there in a France plagued with similar problems at the time.
When they looked at Hunt, Johnson and Saxton and their fellow reformers they saw the ghosts of Desmoulins, Robespierre and Danton of France and others. Among the extreme reformers there were some who might want to guillotine the upper classes. A question was that in France reform had led to Napoleon and there seemed to be no shortage of ambitious reformers who might follow his example.
The mass meeting at St. Peter's Fields was not the only one that year, there had been others earlier involving the same reformers and where trouble had occurred so when they came to Manchester the local magistrates, in the absence of any proper command structure, decided to attack.
Among the troops were the local Yeomanry, the Manchester and Salford, along with the Cheshire Yeomany who had experience earlier that year at a similar meeting at Chester. While we assume these to be simply local men of higher class, we do not know what experience many of them had during the wars that ended in 1815.
Of the regular army there was some artillery, a firing or two of grapeshot could break up most threats. There were two cavalry regiments, the 15th Hussars and the 23rd Dragoons who had been in Spain and at Waterloo. The 15th Hussars in particular had a noted record and took part in the famous charge.
Also there were two regiments of infantry, one the 31st, Huntingdonshire, which had been in Spain, but not at Waterloo. The one that sent a shiver down my back was the 88th, The Devil's Own, The Connaught Rangers. This regiment was one to be feared and astonishing it should be used for civil duties.
This is excessive for what is alleged to be a simple meeting, large perhaps, of ordinary people wanting reform and a say in elections and government. But what the government saw in the series of meetings around the Northern industrial areas was the formation of a large band of revolutionaries that might march on London and could not be stopped.
What they might have been singing is a question. Might it have been "Brighton Camp" that is "The Girl I Left Behind Me" or one of that era? All too likely in London the Prince Regent and Government might assume that it could be an English version of the "Marseillaise" or "Veillons au salut D'Empire".
Peterloo was a catalogue of mistakes, blunders and a panic reaction. How different from our democratic governments of today.