For the beating heart of the industrial north, the morning of 16 August, 1819, was no ordinary one. In what stands today as Manchester’s St Peter’s Square, an estimated 60,000 men, women and children gathered in peaceful solidarity to speak out in hope of a time when their rights to emancipation and freedom of expression would be acknowledged by the upper echelons of society. Among them, a diverse mismatch constituting humble Oldham spinners and outspoken professional journalists alike. Between them , a shared goal: to raise each individual voice into one, striving towards the ‘reform’, ‘universal suffrage’, ‘equal representation’ and ‘love’ which adorned the banners created and carried with pride. They cleaved to the prospect of democratic rights as an escape route from the desperate poverty which they were forced to endure.
Within hours, eighteen of those voices had been permanently silenced. A further 700 peaceful protesters sustained serious injuries, and the rest had been left shaken by grief, anger and utter disbelief. Suspicion, fear and panic drove local magistrates, tormented by Europe’s revolutionary climate, to order hussars and yeomen to charge into the crowds, brandishing sabres and clubs. Where the innocent protesters linked arms in solidarity to prevent the arrest of Hunt, the peaceful, charismatic speaker in anticipation of whom they have gathered, the cavalry broke through without mercy. Among the dead were a mother and her two-year-old son, slaughtered for nothing more than daring to share in the hope for a different world where the governed could speak out and the government would hear them.
Though the Peterloo Massacre has repeatedly been described along similar lines as ‘one of the nation’s most defining historic events’, it has nonetheless been airbrushed from the local and national history to which it has contributed so vastly. A Mancunian history student, taught by Mancunian History teachers, who merely stumbles across such an event by lucky accident surely has a duty to question why an episode which catalysed the implementation of so many fundamental democratic rights and freedoms has remained condemned to the shadows of the forgotten past for so long.
It is difficult enough to make out the psychological and socio-political causes behind what has often been referred to as ‘one of the bloodiest clashes in British political history’ as it is, but without an appreciation of the contemporary national and international context, the task becomes an impossibility. Taking place four years after the battle from which, with bleak irony, the clashes derived their name, Peterloo marked a culmination point of the rising social, economic and political tensions of early-19th century Europe. At home, the despised Corn Laws of 1815 placed tariffs on imported corn, leading to economic depression, unemployment, widespread hunger and dire poverty, the symptoms of which were particularly notable in the industrial north. It is telling that, as early as 1809, William Rowbottom, a local man from Oldham, Greater Manchester, wrote in his diary that, ‘there are hundreds in Oldham parish who are entirely without work… weaving is at the lowest ebb ever remembered’. Internationally, a period of climatic instability during ‘The Little Ice Age’, punctuated by the spectacular eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, led to an agricultural crisis which was intricately linked to the spate of revolutionary movements occurring across the continent and beyond.
Amidst such difficult conditions, the interests of an increasingly literate, politically conscious and demographically expanding population were drawn to radical theorists such as Thomas Paine, whose seminal Rights of Man presented the notion that freedoms such as of speech, press, expression, association and assembly, were human rights which could legitimately be demanded. For Paine, the French Republic served as a living demonstration of this. But as well as rallying popular support, the ruling elites were imbued with a paranoid sense of inevitability, expecting every match to set off a blaze, even in the absence of a spark.
From the immediate consequences of the massacre, it would be easy to presume that the clashes had not only slammed the breaks on democratic reform in Britain, but had sent the movement into reverse. In the interests of “national safety”, former-Prime Minister Viscount Sidmouth issued the notoriously reactionary ‘Six Acts’, which focused in particular on suppressing freedoms of speech, press, and assembly. Most strikingly, journalists were coerced into silence, threatened with prison sentences and accusations of treason. The government’s determination to restrict the creation of primary evidence relating to the massacre may therefore have served as a barrier to the event’s becoming more widely known, at least initially. Through efficient, unsentimental ruthlessness, the authorities attempted to wash their hands of the whole unfortunate affair, with all the appearances of having gained the upper hand.
However, this was a façade. The powers of press censorship were overstated, the bravery of journalists to subvert them under-estimated, and enough reports slipped under the radar to trigger national outrage. Once word had spread that the authorities had launched a brutal, uncalled-for attack on a group of innocent, defenceless people, the maintenance of the status quo was no longer an option. The polarisation between the dignity of the people and the barbarism of many of their persecutors was symbolically illustrated in the fact that the crowds wore their Sunday best for the occasion. The events that people read and spoke about breathed new life into calls for democratic reform on a far broader geographical and social scale. As such, the Peterloo Massacre has been directly linked to the establishment of the Chartist reform movement and the creation of Trade Unions, culminating in the implementation of the Great Reform Act of 1832. Though criticised for its limitations, the Act marked a milestone in political representation, securing Manchester its first two MPs. The events of Peterloo also triggered a journalistic legacy spanning almost two centuries, when businessman and publisher John Edward Taylor deployed the horrors of what he had witnessed to create The Manchester Guardian.
As we approach the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, The People’s History Museum’s Head of Collections, Jenny Mabbott, is more than justified in pointing out that ‘there couldn’t be a more appropriate time to reflect upon the themes of protest and democracy which this historical event brings to the fore’. In recent years, there has been a plethora of attempts to bring the forgotten clashes of 1819 to the forefront of popular public attention, involving high-profile actors, politicians and historians, among other significant public figures. In August 2017, for instance, Salford-born Christopher Eccleston (who recently starred as the tragic protagonist in the RSC’s Macbeth) read the Riot Act aloud from a top window of Manchester’s Town Hall during an evocative commemorative event. A few months earlier, Jeremy Corbyn had called for solidarity by reminding a transfixed, if not entirely sober, Glastonbury crowd that ‘ye are many – they are few!’. This the final line of Shelley’s ‘Mask of Anarchy’, a poem written amidst the outrage of the immediate aftermath of the massacre. And the historian and broadcaster David Olusoga listed St Peter’s Square as one of England’s most historically pertinent sites in his contribution to the History of England in 100 Places project, claiming that, ‘the nation is about to reconnect with this critically important event… the site needs to better known’.
This steady trickle of popular consciousness-raising activity is set to reach new heights on 2nd November 2018, with the general UK-wide release of Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, a film solely dedicated to retelling the events which shaped British political history to an oft-ignorant British public. Fittingly to be premiered in HOME, Manchester, on the previous day, one of the most striking elements of the production is that it was not filmed in the city in which the events took shape. Locations such as Guildford were deemed more appropriate, due to the relative lack of 19th-century Mancunian architecture threatening to spoil the authenticity of the scenery. Such necessary practical considerations could also be viewed as symbolic; Manchester may inevitably be losing the essence of its industrial past in a physical, structural sense. But historically, it has a duty to remain a palimpsest, retaining and remembering the vital foundational layers beneath what is immediately apparent, the relevance of which stretches far beyond the geographical confines of the proud northern city.