Some reflections on Mike Leigh’s film “Peterloo”….

As a socialist historian who has researched and written about Peterloo and included it in my  history courses on Radical Manchester, I was  very much looking forward to Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo.  Clearly a great deal of research has been done and a great deal of time and money expended on the production with many fine performances  from all of the cast. I particularly liked  Neil Bell’s portrayal of Sam Bamford, whose memoir Passages in the Life of a Radical , published in 1844 is  a key source on  the events of 1819.

And yet, whilst accepting that a story of such magnitude cannot be  told in full (even in a film which lasts 154 minutes)  I  was left frustrated by  some of the  omissions in the story. In my view the time spent in the first half,  showing the many meetings held in the months before Peterloo, could have been  curtailed and instead the film could have shown events such as  the  March of the Blanketeers which took place in  Manchester in March   1817.

Several hundred marcher assembled at St Peter’s Fields (the same spot where Peterloo took place two years later),  intending to march  to London to present petitions  to the Price Regent. They carried blankets to sleep in on the way.  Before  they  set off, they were addressed by Samuel  Drummond and John Bagguley, who  attacked the excessive spending of the government, high rents, the Corn Laws, the libel laws, the suspension of habeas corpus  and the Prince Regent’s ministers.  Drummond said . . . “. We will let them see it is not riot and disturbance we want, it is bread we want and we will apply to our noble Prince as a child would to its Father for bread.”

One local magistrate noted the presence of female radicals.”The women of the lower class seem to take  a strong part against the preservation of good order and in the course of the morning of the 10th, it was very general and undisguised cry amongst them that the gentry had had the upper hand long enough and that their  turn has now come.”

The marchers never got to London. Instead,  shortly after setting off, they were  pursued by  mounted troops and arrested. Just one man from Stalybridge, Abel Coudwell, allegedly succeeded in getting to London and presenting his petition to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth. The authorities in Manchester followed up their operation by claiming that “a most daring and traitorous conspiracy “had been discovered  and  on 28 March  arrested a number of reform leaders, including  Samuel Bamford and John Knight.

Another episode not  shown in the film took place in the autumn of 1818 when   thousands of male and female  weavers struck work in Stockport,  Manchester   and Ashton-under-Lyne and marched  between the towns with bands and banners.  Their  mass meetings were addressed by Baguley,  Drummond  and other reformers,  who were thus able to preach to thousands their  message that political reform was the remedy for economic distress .

The Female Reformers of Manchester are shown in the film with part of their eloquent address “Dear Sisters of the Earth” being used,   but there were  also similar societies in other towns.  Women  in Blackburn led the way,  appearing at a public meeting in the town on 5 July. A radical newspaper reported that “they were very neatly dressed for the occasion, and each wore a green favour in her bonnet and cap.” Their address was read to the assembled crowd by John Knight, in which The women said they determined  to  instill  into the minds of  their children”

“… a deep rooted abhorrence of tyranny, come in what shape it may, whether under the mask of civil and religious government, and particularly of the present borough-mongering and Jesuitical system which ahs brought the best artisans, manufacturers, and labourers of this vast community, to a state of wretchedness and misery  and driven them to the very verge of beggary and ruin.“

The film gives the viewer the  impression that  Peterloo was the first  time that Henry Hunt had spoken in Manchester,  but this is not in fact  the case. He had spoken in St Peter’s Fields  in January 1819, invited by the Manchester  radical leaders. Hunt addressed a crowd of at least 8,000 people, a colourful gathering with flags and banners and bands .

The meeting approved a lengthy Declaration  which  set out the Radical  programme in detail.  This   was unequivocal  in its view of  where  political power originated from,   stating  “That  the only source of all legitimate power, is in the People, the whole People and nothing but the People That all governments, not immediately derived from and strictly accountable to the People, are usurpations, and ought to be resisted and destroyed.”  It went on to declare that:

That every individuals, of mature age, and not incapacitated by crime or insanity, has a right to a vote for the election of a Representative in Parliament: and to refuse or with hold from any individuals the exercise of this just and lawful right, is to deprive him of all security for his life, liberty, and property, and reduce him to the abject condition of a slave; for a man cannot be said to be really free, or to enjoy either life, liberty or property, when  these  may, at any time, be taken from him, at the arbitrary will of another: and by laws that are made without his own consent.”

The Declaration also called for annual parliaments and universal suffrage and defended the right of the people to possess arms to defend their liberties.

Hunt stayed on in Manchester for a few days. One evening when visiting the theatre, he was assaulted by a number of military officers who claimed he had hissed when “God Save The King” was called for.  Hunt contacted  Samuel Bamford, who came into Manchester with a party of  ten  hearty young men, carrying cudgels,   to accompany him to the theatre on York Street and protect him if necessary.   They were joined at the pit-door by a group of Irish labourers with the same intention. In the end the manager, Mr Ward, cancelled the performance, whilst Hunt addressed the crowd from his carriage.

I was quite taken aback that the film ended with no account of the numbers killed and injured. In his excellent book The Casualties of Peterloo Mike Bush  estimated  that at least 18 people were killed on the field or died of their injuries some time later, while 654 were reported  injured, many seriously, Bush compiled these numbers  from the various lists drawn up by Committees who raised money to relieve the injured.

Neither does the film say what happened next. In the immediate aftermath there were protest meetings in different parts of the country, while the government targeted Henry Hunt and other reformers  who were jailed for two years. Richard Carlile, who wrote the first account of the events in Sherwin’s Political Register, published just two days later on his return to London,  was jailed in October 1819 for five years  for publishing the works of Thomas Paine.

What happened on 16th August  1819 was not forgotten. When a new mass movement, Chartism, arose  there was a huge meeting on Kersal Moor, Salford in September 1838 at which a number of banners referred to Peterloo. One showed the scene on St Peter’s Fields with the inscription “Murder Demands Justice,” while another bluntly proclaimed  “Slaughter of Our Unarmed and Peaceable Brethren On the Plains of Peterloo, AD 1819”.



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