The Peterloo 'Massacre ' 1819, Plate by Phiz (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Was the Peterloo Massacre good for public health?

How pre-vaccination societies held greater freedoms than we do today

Artillery Row

On 16th August 1819, St. Peters Field was a petri dish. Tens of thousands of people from Manchester and neighbouring towns were gathered there, chanting, chatting and coughing; their sensitive soot-stained lungs propelling the worst their unbrushed mouths had to offer over fellow attendees. The denizens of thousands of unwashed cooking surfaces, latrine pits and pets merrily thronged amongst them, eagerly waiting to be taken to new households by their fresh hosts.

At the centre of it all, radical orator Henry Hunt stood upon a stage, spraying his own pathogens over the grateful crowd and gesturing with his hands as if conducting the swirling mass of microbes.

Thankfully for Lancashire, and the Nation, the brave men of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry weren’t going to stand idly by and watch this public health catastrophe unfold. Covering their mouths with makes-shift PPE, they drew their swords and spurned their horses forward…

Mass gatherings are a notorious incubator for disease and the risk of catching a deathly bug was greater in 1819 than it is now

In 1819, the average life expectancy at birth was around 40. There were no antibiotics, no antivirals, and no vaccines. Soap had yet to be invented. The curve for any wave of infections was above ICU capacity, because there was no such thing as an ICU. If you were over 60 and fell ill, a confession box was your best bet.

Mass gatherings are a notorious incubator for disease and the risk of catching a deathly bug was greater in 1819 than it is now – highly contagious tuberculosis probably accounted for more than 14% of all adult deaths in Victorian England, and was the greatest killer of every age group.

All this begs an uncomfortable question: knowing what we now do about how diseases spread, should the St Peter’s field meeting have been tolerated?

In the wake of the recent arrest of 19 protesters at Speakers Corner for breaching lockdown legislation, it seems that our current government’s answer to the question is ‘no’.

The new rules are far more exacting than the Seditious Meetings Act rolled 1819 rolled-out by Parliament in the wake of Peterloo (which made gathering of over 50 people subject to a Sheriff’s approval), and yet the disease they are designed to fend off would barely have been noticed in 1819.

Estimates from the US Centre for Disease Control suggest a coronavirus infection fatality rate of below 0.3%, compared to historical rates of 66% for TB and 20%-60% for smallpox (80% for children). With the bar set that low for banning people from hugging loved ones, going to ‘non-essential’ work and getting married, it is remarkable that Brits were even allowed outside until the 1960s.

But okay – maybe I’m being unfair. In 1819, the ralliers were demanding the fundamental right to vote, not rattling out conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and 5G. Unlike that of Lord Liverpool, the government which banned the current protests was fully democratically elected. It would be silly to force such a comparison.

Except I’m not sure this excuse holds water. The rightness of the Henry Hunt’s position wasn’t obvious to a society still recovering from the trauma of two decades of the French Revolutionary Wars – if it was, he wouldn’t have been considered a ‘radical’. And, even if Mr Hunt was ahead of his time, most of his supporters weren’t wayward enough to suggest something as outlandish as votes for women, whilst the attendees’ opinions on transgenderism remain hard to decipher. Moral progress may seem obvious of retrospect, but by nature of us progressing from something else, there is always a point at which a large constituency holds a different view. In 200 years’ time, our descendants will doubtless be appalled at something we are doing now. It is for this reason that we don’t base someone’s right to protest on popular sentiment towards their cause.

So no – our Mancunian spreaders don’t get off that easily. If protest has the same value now as it did then, the government’s justification for banning protests should hold up retrospectively. Sabres and truncheons it is.

I am, of course, neglecting a more fundamental point. Society in 1819 was over 130 years away from popular vaccines for ailments like whopping cough and TB; banning mass gatherings over that period may have delayed the political development that got us to the point at which the state was able and willing to roll-out max vaccinations across the population, as well as the union action which would eventually see miners equipped with life-saving masks. That’s a very different situation to a temporary ban of protests.

But this get-out clause still leaves us with awkward questions. Why, for example, were football matches ever appropriate? They (arguably) don’t further any life-saving cause. With the power of hindsight, was this fun worth the terrific loss of human life? Our government certainly thinks otherwise – with death rates lower than 1999, football stadiums still don’t look likely to open for some time.

Given that the vaccine for TB wasn’t widely rolled out until 1950, ought political rallies have been banned in 1949? If so, what about 1947 or 1946? Should the 1945 election have been postponed for a just few years until it was safe? TB was still the most common cause of death for most age groups and such measures might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

These questions aren’t idle brainteasers. We regularly demand that nations with much higher rates of death from infectious disease respect civil liberties, and the leaders of some are currently rejoicing at the new West-vindicated excuse to suspend freedom of assembly.

They also matter at home. With an expanding global population, greater urbanisation, international travel and the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, epidemics are becoming more frequent. If ‘2019-level deaths per 1000 + 5’ is now the UK’s cut-off point for personal freedom, there is a chance future epidemics will force us to start asking ourselves how we came to this conclusion, and why it was that our ancestors were so defensive of their rights in the face of a much greater risk of disease.

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