They gathered in their thousands to demonstrate for reform and a voice in the running of the country.
But, 200 years ago today, the response from the authorities was to send in the cavalry who cut down peaceful protests in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, with sabres.
Eighteen people were killed and hundreds more injured during the Peterloo Massacre, a landmark moment in British political history.
These were the days before photography had been invented, but incredibly 65 years later in 1884, 11 Peterloo veterans – all Oldham weavers and by then in their 70s and 80s – were gathered together for a stunning picture.
Just as they had been in 1819, they were still calling for reforms to extend voting rights. Historian and genealogist Michala Hulme has tracked down their living descendants to recreate the image.
Using historic census data, family trees and electoral records, she was able to locate living relatives of nine of the 11, and brought eight of them together to make a modern version of the image.
Many are still based in the North West but others travelled from North Yorkshire and Warwickshire for the photo.
And all are proud of their ancestors’ heroic battle for the vote.
Kirsty Wolstencroft, who still lives near Oldham, attended the photoshoot with her father and two children, is the four-times great-granddaughter of silk weaver Thomas Chadderton (third from left).
She said: “I’m proud that someone in my family had taken a step towards democracy and for people’s right to vote.”
Geoff Woolley, 83, from Alderley Edge, Cheshire, is great-great-grandson of weaver John Davies (seated, middle).
He is the only one of the descendants who was already aware of the photo and his connection to Peterloo.
He said: “I’m proud of the fact that the family were part of something helping to get the vote.”
On August 16 1819, around 80,000 people marched for up to 20 miles from many surrounding towns and villages to St Peter’s Field in Manchester to protest.
Voting rights were restricted to male adult landowners, and the introduction of the Corn Laws meant the price of food rocketed, putting mill workers on the bread line. But the Lancashire mill folk weren’t going to take it lying down.
Thousands of them marched from Bury, Stockport, Rochdale and Oldham to hear radical orator Henry Hunt speak.
But the authorities were uneasy. Worried about the uprising of the working classes, magistrates called in the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest Hunt, and the 15th Hussars to disperse the crowd.
According to the Oldham Chronicle, the 1884 photo was taken on a Reform demonstration in Failsworth, likely to support the passing of the 1884 Reform Act which uniformed the franchise between those who lived in counties and boroughs. A placard says: “Population of Failsworth nearly 9,000, resident voters 137.”
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In another historic passage about the photo, the group was described as “the last living of that gallant band of Failsworth Reformers who were present at that memorable but disgraceful massacre which took place at Peterloo in 1819”.
The text describes how the veterans were too old to walk in the Reform demonstration procession and were instead driven through the streets, carrying a banner, before being hosted at a reception.
Carrie Smithson, 40, is a descendant of silk weaver David Hilton. She said: “He was still campaigning over 60 years later. I feel I’ve inherited his passion.”
Michala, lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “It is very rare to have a photo of this period of working-class people with names and dates.”