“Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin.”
– Dwight Eisenhower
This area was part of St Peter’s Fields, site of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. The Free Trade Hall was completed in 1856 to commemorate the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.
On 16 August 1819, a civil protest for democracy was held in St Peter’s Fields. Only 2% of the population had the vote: most citizens were completely unrepresented. Around 70,000 people attended the protest meeting where speakers called for votes for all. The event began peacefully but magistrates ordered local militia to break up the crowd. Unarmed citizens were attacked with swords, pistols, and batons. It’s estimated 16 people died and 600 injured. Leading speakers were arrested, including famous Radical Henry Hunt, sentenced to over 2 years in prison. The event became known as the ‘Peterloo’ Massacre – combining St Peter’s Fields with the Battle of Waterloo. A red plaque remembers this historical event, which casts a shadow on the city’s reputation for free speech and open expressions of public opinion.
Richard Cobden gave the land for the Free Trade Hall site. The concert hall, funded by public donations, was home to the Halle Orchestra from 1858 until 1996. The ground floor shows the coats of arms of Lancashire towns that took part in the Anti-Corn Law movement. On the upper floor you can see carved figures representing free trade, the arts, trade and the continents.
Events at the Hall continued a tradition of debate and demonstration about political issues. In 1872 Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli gave his One Nation’ speech, making reference to social reforms. In 1904 Winston Churchill spoke in defence of Britain’s free trade policy, and was heckled by members of the suffragette movement. The following year, activists from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were thrown out of a public meeting: politician Sir Edward Grey refused to answer Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney’s question on Votes for Women. Pankhurst began a meeting outside the Hall, and when police tried to move them on she was arrested and brought to court. This was the beginning of the WPSU’s militant campaign for the vote.
The Hall was bombed during the Second World War. Fortunately its exterior survived but much of the interior was rebuilt in the 1950s. In later years, the Hall hosted concerts with performers from Bob Dylan to The Sex Pistols. The final public speech at the Free Trade Hall was delivered by the then Dalai Lama in 1996.
The Hall was put up for sale by the Council in 1997, and is now a hotel.