Men cut down by sabres, others arrested and jailed for no justifiable reason - the workers of Manchester and surrounding towns could hardly complain that they did not know what to expect at the hands of unfeeling authority.
It was in the March of 1817 that three rabble-rousing radicals - John Johnson, John Bagguley and Samuel Drummond - persuaded the area's starving handloom weavers to carry a petition to the Prince Regent in London, calling on him to help alleviate their distress and to end the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, which had been introduced the previous September following the Spa Fields Riot in London.
At a meeting of Manchester Constitutional Society in Ancoats on March 6th, 1817, Johnson told the prospective marchers: "If your leaders could get you as far as Birmingham, the whole would be done, for I have no doubt you would be 100,000-strong. Then, gentlemen, it would amount to an impossibility to bring anything to resist you."
As they planned to sleep rough, the marchers were to carry rolled up blankets or overcoats on their shoulders, to keep them warm at night. They were quickly dubbed "The Blanketeers."
It seemed an honest and harmless enough endeavour, but the omens were wrong right from the start. Perhaps anticipating the reaction of the Manchester magistrates, moderate leaders shunned the march while radicals like Joseph Johnson, John Saxton and John Knight actively discouraged their followers from being drawn in.
Middleton radical Sam Bamford was another who advised his friends to steer clear.
He wrote later: "I endeavoured to show them that the authorities in Manchester were not likely to permit their leaving the town in a body, with blankets and petitions, as they proposed; that they could not subsist on the road; that the cold and wet would kill numbers of them, who were already enfeebled by hunger and other deprivations.
"That they need not expect to be welcome wherever they went, especially in the rotten boroughs. That many persons might join their ranks that were not reformers, but enemies of reform, hired perhaps to bring them and their cause into disgrace; that if these persons began to plunder on the road, the punishment and disgrace would be visited on the whole body; that they would be denounced as robbers and rebels and the military would be brought to cut them down or take them prisoners.
"Whether it was in consequence of what I said I cannot tell but I was afterwards gratified in hearing that no person from Middleton went as a Blanketeer."
The march organisers themselves were aware of the problem.Drummond urged the marchers to behave with decorum while Bagguley warned that anyone causing trouble would be handed over to the magistrates.
SAM BAMFORD (right) urged workers not to try to carry their petition to the Prince Regent (left).
St Peter's Fields was chosen as the starting point for the march and up to 10,000 people gathered on March 10th to see the Blanketeers off.
But while Bagguley and Drummond were still talking to the gathering, the magistrates, whose spies had warned them of possible violence on the march, read the Riot Act and then sent in the King's Dragoon Guards. Bagguley, Drummond and 27 others were arrested. Johnson and fellow radical William Ogden had been apprehended the previous day and had spent the night in gaol.
In the confusion, many men decided to begin the march anyway.
When the magistrates realised this, they despatched soldiers and special constables after them. One group was overhauled about a mile out of the city, while the main group was hunted down at Lancashire Hill at Stockport.
The military weighed into the marchers with sabres and muskets.
Several were wounded, one cottager, just happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, was shot dead as he watched from his doorstep. Several hundred men were arrested. A few struggled on as far as Macclesfield and even Ashbourne in Derbyshire, but only one - Abel Couldwell of Stalybridge - made it to London to hand over his petition..
There is evidence that the Home Office spy William Oliver had spoken to the Blanketeers' leaders before the march. Later that year, Oliver was exposed as an agent provocateur, who incited Jeremiah Brandreth to lead a march of Derbyshire workers and begin an insurrection. Brandreth and two others were hanged and beheaded.
As a direct result of the Blanketeers' March, Manchester magistrates decided they needed a military force of their own to deal with civil unrest. They formed the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry - and it was this ill-trained collection of sabre-wielding shopkeepers and tradesmen who, in August 1819, charged into the crowd at a reform meeting on the same St Peter's Fields and massacred innocent women and children.