Tagged: Peterloo Masscare

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”.



Remembering the Peterloo Massacre: 1819-2018


Rather than write  directly  about the Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819 –  which I have done on a number of occasions before – I thought it would be useful  to bring together  some of the information about past  commemorations that I have gathered over the past year.

At the end of this article  I will set out my views as a socialist and historian on the current commemoration  and  the  plans  for a memorial.


On the first anniversary of the Massacre,  a thousand or so people attended  a meeting on St. Peter’s Fields,  where  they were addressed by John Saxton.  The seven committee members of the Manchester Female Reform  Society issued an address in which they declared, “May our flag never be unfurled but in the cause of peace and reform: and then may a female’s curse pursue the coward who deserts the standard…” In September 1820  they issued an address to  Queen Caroline, signed by 20,000 women, and  sent an address  to Henry Hunt.


In Ashton-underLyne  a large crowd gathered in the pouring rain  and marched to the town square.


On the anniversary  the radical newspaper Black Dwarf  reported;

On Saturday last, being the anniversary of the ever memorable sixteenth of August  1819, the teachers and scholars of the Union Sunday School, Manchester, with a number of the inhabitants of that town, attended at four o’clock in the morning, on St Peter’s Field, when the song of “The Slaughter” was sung by the scholars and the company present, and after praying for justice on the perpetrators of the deeds of blood so recently committed they quietly departed to their several occupations.

It was intended to have a public procession; but, owing to the excessive rain during the whole of the day, and particularly at the time appointed for assembling, the procession was reluctantly abandoned; enough, however, was done to show  that  the execrable deeds of that fatal day were not forgotten, nor likely to be so, during the lives of the present generation; and it is to be hoped, that this anniversary  will always be commemorated till such time as a full and fair investigation has been instituted, and the abettors and aiders of the dreadful massacre has received the punishment they merit.

At Ashton under Lyne and Charles Town, a black flag was displayed, with the inscription “Murder, 16th August, 1819” upon it, and the people assembled were harangued on the subject of the Peterloo Massacre.”

Charles Walker, Joshua Hobson, Samuel Clayton and James Higson were charged with sedition for their role  in the Ashton commemoration. Funds were raised in Ashton, Stalybridge and   Manchester  for their defence. They pleaded guilty in return for a complete remission.


Henry Hunt spoke at a meeting in Salford Town Hall on the anniversary. The magistrates  made sure that the police and army were at hand. Hunt was met at Pendleton by a band of music,   accompanied by several hundred people from Manchester. He was put in a landau with Reverend Dr  Scholfield, Mr Cox and Mr Mitchell, and they proceeded along Chapel Street, up New Bailey Street, Gartside Street, Quay Street and Peter Street,   and onto the site of Peterloo where he arrived “amidst loud huzzas and the waving of hats and handkerchiefs”. The Manchester Guardian reporter  estimated the crowd at 40,000 to 50,000 “consisting chiefly of lads, with a considerable sprinkling of women”.


At the  huge Chartist meeting on Kersal Moor on 24 September 1838 the events of 20 years earlier were still raw.  The memory of Peterloo was  represented by a number of banners,  one showed the scene on St Peter’s Fields in 1819  with the inscription “Murder Demands Justice, ” while another bluntly proclaimed  “Slaughter of Our Unarmed and Peaceable Brethren On the Plains of Peterloo, AD 1819″. Mr Hodgetts from Salford moved a resolution  in favour of the Charter,   referring to  Peterloo in his speech  which  caused a  great stir  in the crowd,

Dorothy Thompson, the pre-eminent historian of Chartism,  describes Ashton-under-Lyne  as “perhaps the most radical and Chartist of all the factory towns”, due in part to the celebrations organised by the women  on the anniversary of Peterloo.  William Aitken, weaver, schoolmaster and lifelong radical,   recalled in his memoirs:

My earliest remembrances of taking part in Radicalism are the invitations  I used to receive to be at “Owd Nancy Clayton’s in Charlestown, on the 16th August to denounce the Peterloo Massacre and drink in solemn silence “ to the immortal memory of Henry Hunt”. This old woman Nancy and her husband were both at Peterloo, and I believe, both were wounded, at all events, the old woman was. She wore on that memorable day a black petticoat which she afterwards transformed in black flag which on the 16th of August used to hung out and a green cap of liberty attached thereto. In the year 1838 a new cap of liberty was made and hung out with the black flag on the anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. These terrible and terrifying symbols of sedition alarmed the then powers that existed and our then Chief Constable – no lover of liberty – was ordered by a magistrate to march a host of special constables and all the civil power he could command to forcibly seize and take possession of these vile symbols of anarchy and base revolution. Off they marched…but the women of that part of the borough heard of the contemplated raid that was likely to befall their cherished emblems and the women  drew them in from the window and hid them. Up this gallant and  brave  band of men  went to the front door of poor Nancy Clayton  and placed themselves in daring military array while the Chief Constable with a subordinate marched upstairs  and amongst the women there he found my old friend ‘riah Witty who told the writer what follows. Imperiously and haughtily,   as became  the chief of so noble a band,  he demanded the black flag and cap of liberty. My old friend ‘Riah said,

“What has’t thou to do wi’ cap o’liberty? Thou never supported liberty, not aught ‘ut belongs thee?”

However the chamber was searched and the poor black flag was found under the bed and  taken prisoner…the house was searched  from top  to bottom for the cap of liberty but neither the genius of the chief nor his subordinate could find the missing emblem of revolution. Off this gallant band of men marched with poor old Nancy’s petticoat –  the  black flag never more to grace a radical banquet of potatoe pies and home-brewed ale.

The Saturday after this grand demonstration ‘Riah Witty met the Chief Constable, and she exclaimed, “Now thou didna find  that  cap o’liberty, did tha?” “No”, he said,  “ I didna ‘Riah, where wur it?”

She said “I know thou couldna find it, it were where thou duratna go for it”



The Manchester Man by Isabella Banks  was published , which  includes an  account  of Peterloo. In her appendix to the 1896 edition Mrs Banks writes:

The female sabred on the hustings was a Mrs. Fildes when I knew her. Her son, Henry Hunt Fildes, was in my father’s employ; and his nephew is now an artist not altogether unknown to the world… The memory of this inhuman outrage was not soon permitted to die out of the Manchester mind ; for so surely as Peterloo Day came round, it was commemorated by a long procession of working-men, headed by an immense banner on which the scene of the massacre was represented with startling effect, if not with consummate art. Year after year I beheld the long procession and its ponderous banner until I had outgrown my childhood and any likelihood of forgetfulness. But when these annual processions were abandoned, or what became of the scenic banner, I have no means of ascertaining…


Ford Madox Brown was  commissioned to paint murals for the Great Hall in the Town Hall. Peterloo was chosen as subject to begin with,  but was then abandoned out of   what the Manchester Guardian reported as  “deference to political susceptibilities”. It was replaced with a mural  showing the opening of the Bridgewater Canal.


Socialists in Manchester set up the Peterloo Centenary Committee,  comprising representatives of the Manchester and Salford Labour Party, Coop Political Committee, ILP, British Socialist Party, Railwaymen, WIL, United Socialist Council, Socialist Sunday Schools, Ex-Servicmne’s Union, Federation of Discharged Soldiers. The Committee organised  a number events and also publshed  a pamphlet by J H hudson, Peterloo: a history of the massacre and the conditions which preceded it.

C A Glyde produced a pamphlet The Centenary of the Massacre of British Workers, published in Bradford.

James Haslam  wrote in the Manchester Guardian that  he first heard of Peterloo as young boy  from handloom weavers who discussed politics in a cellar. His father owned the looms and rented them to other weavers.

The Manchester Guardian ran a lengthy article on 16th August  recounting the events of  1819,  written by F. A B. (almost certainly Francis Bruton, whose book on Peterloo was published in 1919).

That same day there was  Peterloo procession ,  at the head of which  was a red bonnet carried on a long pole. It assembled in  Queen Street, near Albert Square, and    then went along Deansgate  and turned up  Peter Street where there was a  pause for a singing of “The Marseillaise”. It then  continued  to Platt Fields. The speakers in the park included  veteran trade unionists Tom Mann and Ben Turner.

On Sunday there was a mass meeting in the Free Trade Hall called by the Manchester and Salford ILP. The speakers included  J H Hudson (chair),  Philip Snowden, Katherine Bruce Glasier and Annot Robinson. The report in Manchester Guardian  does not report what Katherine and Annot said , only what the men  said!.


June 1932.  The Cotton Pageant at Belle Vue  included a depiction of Peterloo. The organisers appealed for 1, 500 top-hats for the scene.


In early April the official celebration of Manchester’s century as a city decided to drop Peterloo from the commemorations. The pageant committee said that it might cause bitter feeling. The trade  unions said that it would do nothing of the sort , that the workers regarded it as an incident in their long struggle for liberty. After similar  protests  it was agreed to reinstate Peterloo. The Pageant organiser was called Nugent Monck . (By the way three Scottish societies in Manchester were invited to take part in the 1745 episode in the Pageant, while thirty red-headed girls were chosen to play  slaves from Gaul in the Roman episodes.)

As part of the centenary events there was an exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery entitled “ Manchester in Nineteen Century  Pictures and Records” which comprised 198   works, of which half were portraits,  including Peterloo.

There was an exhibition in Manchester Town Hall Extension  of historical items, including a sabre from  the Cheshire Yeomanry, lent by Quartermaster Sergeant Wrigley of the 6th Manchester Regiment who received it from the grand-children of the man who had  picked it up on the day of Peterloo.

On 18 June the Communist Party organised their own version of the Manchester Pageant at the Manchester Athletic Ground. The event was begun with a parade  of youth, men and women’s contingents alternating. The men  had a workers’ uniform of blue or white  open-necked shirt and grey flannel trousers, the women were dressed similarly. Each carried a red flag.

The pageant consisted of a number of banners painted with scenes and slogans. It began with Peterloo and Chartism and ended with banners calling for “ A Manchester with no unemployment, ” “ A Manchester without the threat of war, ” and “A Manchester that belongs to its people”.


Fame is the Spur by Howard Spring was published. Spring was a former Manchester Guardian journalist,   whose novels  were very popular in the 1940s. Spring once wrote “it was not until I started to write novels and took Manchester as their settings that I realised how deeply the city had bitten into my consciousness.”

The novel recounts the rise of Hamer Shawcross from the streets of  Ardwick to becoming a Labour Minister in the 1930s.  Shawcross’s grandfather “The Old Warrior”  was at Peterloo and often recounts the events of the day, which  he begins by taking down a sabre from above the fireplace, a sabre  he took from the field of  Peterloo.

He tells how he and his sweetheart emma  marched with Sam Bamford from Middleton. When they got to Manchester there were many thousands filling the town. Orator Hunt passed them in his horse-drawn carriage with a woman all in white, wearing a red cap.  Then they were attacked by the military. The Old Warrior put Emma behind him and pushed his way through the panicking crowd. He was confronted by a soldier waving a bloody sabre.

I rushed to meet him shouting “God damn you, you bastard! You’re a poor man like us. What are you doing?

 I waved my stick, and I could hear the leather creaking in the saddle and see the shine of his lovely boots. And then, when I was on him, his horse reared up, and I could see its front hoofs dangling over my head with the shoes gleaming, and the big veins in its belly. I struck upwards with my stick and got the beast in the belly, and then Emma shrieked and pulled me backwards. …Then the horse was gone , and there was Emma,  lying on the ground.  She was dead…

The Old Warrior went in pursuit of the soldier

I whirled my stick – good solid oak it was – and you could hear his elbow crack like a broken stick  when I hit it. My  anger was not cold any longer.  God alone saved me from murdering the  man. I was red and blind. The sabre fell on the field and I picked it up, dropping the stick from my hand. I swung it round my head and aimed at the middle of him with a blow that would have cut him in two. He dug his  spurs into his horse. And the beast gave a sideways leap that ended my blow in the empty air. Then the soldier pulled him round and fled with one arm dangling at his side as though it were tied on with string.

The novel was filmed  in 1947 with Michael Redgrave in the main role, and also  made into a TV series by the BBC in 1982, with Tim Piggott-Smith in the main role.


February 1949  – a proposal to change the  St Peter’s ward to  Peterloo ward, moved by Alderman Sir Miles E Mitchell  and Alderman Wright Robinson was rejected.


When the Free Trade Hall reopened after being rebuilt following war-time bombing there was a mural about Peterloo  by Sherwood Edwards in the foyer.


In February 1961 Peterloo was included in a display of documents mounted at Central Library, selected by local history librarian, Mr H Horton. The centrepiece was a diary kept by Henry Hunt whilst in Ilchester prison following Peterloo. On 16th Augsut   1820 he wrote,  “I eat no meat today, I sincerely pray that I may live to witness the condign punishment of every soundrel that was instrumental to, or accessory to, or principal to, or in any remote degree concerned in those  infamous, crule, cowardly, unprovoked, and premeditated assassinations, cuttings, and murders of peaceable mne, women, and children at Manchester this day twelvemonths.”


In the Guardian on 20 July 1969   A J P Taylor reviewed a new book by Robert Walmsley, Peterloo; the Case re-opened. At the end  of the review Taylor  concluded that,  “The magistrates  and yeomanry were defending a corrupt system. The demonstrators were demanding their just rights, even if they used sticks and stones as well as arguments. Henry hunt spoke for the people of England… when the defence of order leads to the killing of innocent people, the guilt always  lies with the guardians of order”.

Manchester Libraries produced a portfolio of 20 documents to make the 150th anniversary.

The Peterloo Gallery in Manchester commissioned a series of prints by Ken Sprague which were displayed in the gallery in August.  He said “ I didn’t want blood and guts . They showed that aspect well enough at the time.” Merete Bates in the Guardian thought that the content often  seemed irrelevant “a landscape, a still-life, the occasional figure study”. She thought that the artist had failed “not through lack of knowledge but by pleasing without disturbing” Kenneth Sprague was born  in January 1 1927 and  died July 25 2004. He worked for the Daily Worker, Morning Star and other publications as well as producing posters and much other work.

The Peterloo Gallery closed in January 1980 after North West Arts cuts its funding. It was started  by Lillian Gethic  in 1968 with £100 of her own money

On 8 August 100   children acted out the story of  Peterloo in two perforances in the  Library Theatre. This was the result of two weeks work with the children from 20 Manchester schools  by the Library Theatre Company under the direction of Gloria Parkinson.

There was folk concert on 16 August  in the Free Trade Hall, at which  the performers included  Harry Boardman and Leon RosselsonMichael Foot, MP,  also spoke. The narrator was  the actor Randal Herley. A Peterloo  banner from Middleton  was brought on stage.


The City Council suggested changing the name of   Peter Street  to Peterloo Street. In April 1972  preliminary notices were posted about the change,   but this was stopped  in September by a magistrate after shop-owners took out summonses. John Bamber, stipendiary magistrate  said,  “I think we are getting matters entirely out of proportion to think that a city of Manchester’s importance should have to change the name of one of its best known streets to commemorate a not very creditable incident that took place there 153 years ago.” The chairman of the Highway Committee, Alderman Joseph Ogden, “We’ll  just have to leave it as it is, as Peter Street.” The objectors included the YMCA and the Midland Hotel.


Rochdale progressive rock band Tractor recorded  a concept album,  The Peterloo Suite,  comprising  5 songs  which was going to be put out  on  John Peel’s  Dandelion Records, but this folded before the release. It was finally officially  released in 2011.  You can listen to it here.


As part of the City of Drama in Manchester there was a performance based on the events of Peterloo in Upper Campfield Market. It  was modernised, though,  with riot vans, and mobile phones being deployed during the promenade performance. It was written by Mike Harris and produced by Dave Moutrey. Over 100 volunteers took part. ( A copy of the script is available at the Working Class Movement Library).  The show was publicised by an event for journalists in Albert Square on 16th August.

2007 to 2017

Regarding the Peterloo Massacre Memorial Committee – which  since 2007 has been organising an annual  event of the  reading of the names of those killed,  and is campaigning  for  permanent memorial – I think  this has   plucked Peterloo out of  its immediate political, economic and social context, and repackaged it as a one-off event which is portrayed as a milestone on the road to democracy. (The Whig interpretation of history reheated, essentially)

And at an event which was about politial reform as a response to hunger, unemployment  and poverty, which has  inescapable  parallels with Foodback Bank Britain  in 2017, they refuse to allow present-day camapigners  to speak at the commemoration or even carry banners.

But you can’t talk about Peterloo without talking about the radical  Republican ideas of  Tom Paine set out in both parts of  “The Rights of Man” in 1791 and 1792 .  These were ideas that still terrified  the authorities  in 1819.  Richard Carlile, for instance, due to be one of the speakers at Peterloo,  was jailed  for five years shortly after,  just  for selling Tom Paine’s work.

And I don’t think you can talk about Peterloo without talking about  the acute economic  distress in the years before  which, for instance,  led to attacks on  mills in  Middleton in April  1812  (in which more people were killed by the Scots Greys than at Peterloo), and at an attack on the Royal Exchange the same month.

Finally,  you have to talk about the class element at Peterloo: that a small,   very wealthy minority who controlled the political system were determined to maintain their privileges, if need be, by killing people in the streets. Which is exactly what they did at Peterloo, with no regrets. This was an analysis  that was not all controversial on  previous anniversaries. As noted above  1919 the Committee was made up of local socialists  and trade unions,    while in 1969 a concert at the Free Trade Hall  had socialist folk-singers and Labour MP,  Michael Foot.

Rather than giving money to a static memorial, in my view  it would be better spent on supporting  campaigning  groups in Geater Mancheste whoare , fighting austerity, zero hours,  benefit cuts etc.  The monument would then  be a  continuing visible  fight for a better society.  (Si monumentum  requiris  circumspice, to adapt a motto)