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”.
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”.
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 Rosselson. Michael 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)