The movie Peterloo tells the story of a mass demonstration in Manchester in 1819, where British forces ultimately broke up the protest that was calling for increased democratic representation. The government forces killed many of the protesters, leading to the event to be called the Peterloo Massacre. The area where the massacre occurred was known as St. Peter’s field, and since the famous battle of Waterloo had occurred just four years earlier, protestors criticizing the government gave the events the mocking name of Peterloo. How historically accurate is the movie Peterloo?
In 1815, the United Kingdom, after the Napoleonic wars, had vast wealth inequality with many areas very poor and receiving little to no representation in parliament. Economic stagnation began to take hold. Voting was still relatively restricted to the wealthy and those who held land, who held virtually all the power in the country. In fact, one had to prove they owned a portion of the land of a given value before they received the right to vote. The situation worsened as the country recovered from the war.
Furthermore, constituencies that could be represented in parliament were based on Medieval maps and drawings of districts, leading to some areas which were virtually uninhabited having more representation than places that had large populations. This was known as the rotten boroughs, areas that had representation without proportional population. The textile industries were hardest hit as the economy soured, with many workers losing their jobs after the wars. There were also tariffs passed, the so-called Corn Laws, which imposed tariffs on foreign grain, making it very expensive to buy food and the quality of British grain was much lower and increasingly expensive. Many people could not afford the higher food costs, leading to famine and with areas such as Lancashire and Machester being particularly hit hard.