In the meantime the purely political troubles went on increasing : popular demonstrations were turned into riots; riots led to prosecutions and imprisonments. The King's counsellors still could suggest nothing better than repression as a means of meeting every popular demand. The health of the King was not good. George had wasted much of his life in dissipation, and people were prematurely studying the prospect in the event of his coming to an untimely end. He had no son, and his natural successor would have seemed to be the Duke of York, his next brother, and the general opinion about the Duke of York, rightly or wrongly, was that he had all George's bad qualities and not any of George's redeeming characteristics. Satire began to deal sharply with George, and those who had charge of the law began to deal sharply with the satirists. Despite all that law could do, the newspapers would criticise the King - that is, the newspapers which appealed to the instincts of the uncourtly crowd - and the sternest measures had not been able to suppress the newspapers. George became after a while reluctant to face his loving subjects in public. He made of Brighton a sort of Caprea retreat for himself as though he were a British Tiberius, and there he hid himself away for long seasons together from the sight of the London crowd. His life had been attempted once during his Regency - by some crazy fanatic very likely; but it was not personal fear which induced George to hide himself from the sight of his people; he was only sick of seeing them - that was all.
The Peterloo Massacre, as it was called then and for long afterwards, was the most momentous event in the history of the political agitation. Massacre, indeed, is a very strong word to use, and gives the idea of a purposed and an indiscriminate slaughter, which certainly could not be taken as a calm description of what happened at Peterloo. But when the story of the event comes to be coolly told, it will be seen that there was by one means or another enough of an outrage on public rights to excuse harsh phrases in speaking of the result. There was an idea amongst many of the radicals of Manchester that it would be a good thing to start Mr. Hunt ("Orator Hunt") as what might be termed the political delegate for the district. A public meeting was called by advertisement, inviting the inhabitants to assemble on Monday, August 9, 1819, in the area near the St. Peter's Church, for the purpose of discussing and adopting a plan of parliamentary reform and choosing a representative. The local magistrates issued a proclamation declaring the meeting to be illegal, and warning the public that no one could attend it without a breach of the law. Thereupon the promoters of the meeting announced by handbill that it was not to take place, but informed the public that a requisition was to be addressed to the local authorities calling upon them to summon a meeting on the earliest possible day to consider the most effectual way of bringing about a reform in the constitution of the House of Commons. An immense number of signatures was at once attached to the requisition. This most reasonable prayer was promptly and peremptorily refused by the local authorities; and thereupon the promoters of the meeting reverted to their original purpose, and announced that the meeting would be held in St. Peter's Field on the following Monday, the 16th. The inhabitants of Manchester in general, even the working classes, seemed to have taken but little part in the preparations; but all the surrounding districts were active in sending in their representative men and their crowds of followers. Orator Hunt was to take the chair.
Early on Monday morning the crowds began to move towards the place of meeting. The more organised and strictly marshalled part of the crowd was led by twelve young men, each holding in his hand a branch of laurel, which was understood for that occasion to represent the olive of peace. There were two flags with the words "Liberty and Fraternity," "Annual Parliaments and Universal Suffrage" emblazoned on them in letters of gold. The only emblem, which even the most strained construction could describe as a revolutionary sign, was a cap of liberty borne upon a pole. The cap of liberty may no doubt have recalled to many uneasy minds the direful associations of the French Revolution; but nowhere was there the slightest evidence or even suggestion that anything more was intended than the holding of an ordinary public meeting to advocate parliamentary reform. The leaders of the demonstration publicly admonished the meeting that no insult to any one was to be permitted, and that no excuse whatever was to be given to the authorities for any attempted disturbance of the proceedings. It was distinctly enjoined that if the peace officers should attempt to arrest any man engaged in the demonstration no resistance must be offered to the action of the authorities. The committee who had charge of the meeting had laid it down as a rule that no sticks or weapons of any kind must be carried by any of those engaged in it; and this rule was very generally, although not perhaps absolutely, obeyed. A number of married women and girls took a part in the procession, moving towards the ground where the meeting was to be held. Seeing that the meeting was swelled by processions of men from the various towns and villages of the district, it is not surprising that here and there some flag or emblem was displayed which the original promoters of the demonstration would not themselves have sanctioned. There was a black flag, for instance, bearing in white letters the words "Equal Representation, or Death." This flag, however, seems to have moved the meeting, when it was noticed, more to laughter than to any other expression of emotion. By the time the hour for opening the proceedings had nearly arrived an immense mass of people was gathered together on the space which had been designed for the holding of the meeting. A more orderly assemblage, up to that moment and for some time after, could not possibly have been seen anywhere, nor when disorder did afterwards break out was it in any degree due to any action on the part of the crowd. The disorder appears to have been due altogether to the futile and mischievous terrors of the local authorities, and to the ill-advised measures which were taken to guard against any possible breach of the peace.