John Knight and the Approach to St Peter’s Field, by Jo Femia

Image courtesy of Manchester HistoriesPeterloo Massacre, print published by Richard Carlile, 1 Oct 1819. Contributor: Manchester Central Library (ref: GB127.m01563)

My dad knows John Knight. They are fellow weavers, though since the start of this fight for working people’s rights and fair representation in Parliament, John has been busy with his many meetings to spread the word. People are poor and some barely have enough to eat and clothe themselves and their families, there need to be changes to alleviate these difficulties, brought on by rising food prices. I see less and less of Dad as he is offering his support for this cause and is at meetings throughout the area.

We've heard about the factories in Manchester, those that are spinning and weaving cotton, and that they are taking away work from our hand-loomed woollen industries.  Dad and others say the raw cotton is coming off ships from America. It is the descendants of the slaves who are growing and harvesting the cotton, but their conditions are dreadful. We know that the slave trade was banned by an act of Parliament about 12 years ago. The government are allowing this importation of cotton and are therefore extending and supporting slave labour, and thereby breaking the law.
Another development is that there is to be a march to Manchester, well, more of a walk. A peaceable collection of people will meet in St Peter’s Field from all the towns around, to hear John Knight’s friend and colleague, the famous Henry Hunt, give a speech to the crowd gathered there. John and others will follow on with their speeches.

My friend and I are excited as we will be wearing white outfits, indeed all the women and girls will be similarly attired.  There is to be music too, some of the local musicians will play to help us keep in step or rhythm, and create an optimistic atmosphere.  It will be harmonious, no weapons will be carried, so my dad says.

At last the day of our walk arrives.  The family is up early as usual, just time for a snatched breakfast then we meet at the assembly point with our lunch packs, as if going on a picnic outing.  Several hundred of us start out over the moors, where the grasses are shimmering in the sunshine of this August morning. John Knight is leading us. It will take several hours to reach Manchester, but people are joining in together. Such companionship makes the journey pass quickly. Several steep inclines have to be negotiated on our journey as we descend from the moors to the flatter land that surrounds Manchester.  At St Peter’s Field we join hundreds or thousands of similar folk who have travelled from other outlying areas, Middleton, Rochdale and some even as far as Wigan.  The area feels enclosed, claustrophobic, with so many people there, all jostling for a position where they can see and hear the speakers on the makeshift platform.

There is excitement and anticipation as Henry Hunt is introduced to the crowds and begins to speak.

By Jo Femia