But towards the end of the second decade of the nineteenth century, some workers were beginning to realise that there could be no permanent improvement in their conditions unless they had a voice in Parliament.
They began to add their voices to those of the expanding middle class, who were already clamouring for reform of what up to now had been a rich man's club - and the rich were not keen on the idea at all.
Universal manhood suffrage was perhaps just a distant dream, but what people were groping toward was an end to the system of Rotten Boroughs, where the electorate could be bribed, and Pocket Boroughs, where seats were at the disposal of a patron or patrons.
More than 300 seats fell into this category, including burgage boroughs, such as Old Sarum - which was only ever populated on election day. Little wonder that the people of Manchester and its satellite towns, who had no parliamentary representation, were desperate for change. Radical speakers commanded ready audiences throughout the summer of 1819.
The Government and local authorities were edgy, talking ominously of sedition and revolution and reinforcing the police with special constables. Spies were everywhere, employed both by the Government and local magistrates, and those agents who could find no evidence of dirty doings were not averse to making it up. Rumours abounded of men gathering on the moors of an evening, marching and drilling with weapons.
This then, is the background to what happened at St Peter's Fields on August 16th, 1819. It was a glorious summer's day, and contingents from all those satellite towns poured into Manchester for a reform meeting which was to be addressed by Henry 'Orator' Hunt and Richard Carlile.
They were a happy and friendly bunch, determined to enjoy themselves on a great day out, dressed in their Sunday best and with their wives and children walking beside them - hardly the sort of crowd that was likely to turn ugly.
GEORGE CRUIKSHANK'S contemporary illustration of the Yeomanry attacking the meeting in St Peter's Fields, Manchester.
However, Manchester's 10 magistrates, under chairman William Hulton thought differently. Watching from a house on the edge of the field, they became increasingly nervous as the crowd grew towards 50,000. As fears grew, they obtained statements from a few townspeople who claimed the meeting posed a danger to law and order, and on this flimsy pretext, Hulton ordered Deputy Constable Joseph Nadin to arrest Hunt and his associates.
Bully that he was, Nadin baulked at the idea of forcing his way through the crowd and said it was impossible. So the magistrates made a feeble attempt to halt the proceedings by reading the Riot Act from a window of the house in which they were stationed, then called in the military, who were waiting in sidestreets nearby. Tragically, it was the Manchester Yeomanry who arrived first.