16th August 1819. St. Peter’s Field, Manchester. A crowd of 60,000 people assembled demanding better working and living conditions, they also wanted to see political reform. The peaceful demonstration was met with violence by the authorities; fifteen people were killed, including two women and a baby, many hundreds more were injured. The day stands as one of the most infamous in domestic British history. Peterloo has become a rallying point for the left and a reminder that our freedoms were hard one. Jacqueline Riding’s academic but highly readable account of the event, the lead up to and aftermath of the massacre, is a richly detailed and comprehensive account. Both energetic and totally engaging, Peterloo is also insightful.
Peterloo ranks with Magna Carta and the Peasants’ Revolt as a pivotal moment in British democratic history. This tragic atrocity provided the impetus for change. Though, of course, the pace of change is never rapid and many of the effects were slowly witnessed, the Great Reform Act of 1832, the development of trade union movement, various Factory Acts and so on. We see in this book that there was a resistance to change after Peterloo but even King Cnut knew you can’t hold back the tide. Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that power has to learn the hard way, each and every time it is challenged. The price is always paid by the people but Peterloo was a giant step in advancing the popular cause, although it came with a terrible and bloody price. The bi-centenary next year is marked with a new film by Mike Leigh simply called Peterloo, it’s due out in the UK on 2nd November. Having read this account it is comforting to know that Riding was the historical consultant on that project, this augers well for the film. No doubt there will be other books on the subject soon but this comprehensive study is an impressive, even handed, survey that brings a complex moment in history to life. As Peterloo is one of those events that should never be forgotten, some think in the current uncertain times it could even happen again, this clear account explains why the event is so important to our democracy and our understanding of the past.
Peterloo re-examines the evidence and painstakingly avoids over-inflating or dramatising the events. Riding has a knack for finding the little telling details that make this story very human. This is a compelling social history. Riding brings us an in-depth view of the political, social and economic background, across the country and specifically in Manchester. This details the growth of the dissent movement and the reaction of the Church and State to it. Culminating in the events of 16th August 1819 at St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, there after known by the epithet, The Peterloo Massacre.
Why Peterloo? I think it’s obvious to everyone that it is analogous with Waterloo. One of the more poignant details of the story is that some of the same people who fought as Waterloo found themselves facing each other on a different field three years later. This time in Manchester not Belgium. Major Dyneley, promoted to that rank at Waterloo, writing his report after the events in Manchester stated, “the first action of the Battle of Manchester is over & has I’m happy to say ended in the complete discomfiture of the Enemy.” A statement Riding describes as the most extraordinary on the subject. Dyneley thus compared St. Peter’s Field with the great battlefield and labelled the people the “Enemy”. Wroe writing in the Manchester Observer a few days later, calling for witness testimony to counteract the official version of events, coined the phrase ‘Peter-Loo Massacre! It has stuck ever since.
The road to Peterloo began long before Waterloo, the battle that decided Europe’s future. In Britain there was high unemployment and deprivation. The growth in the National Debt had led to the introduction of Income Tax. Coal mines and textile mills were growing but fragile around Manchester so wages and conditions were poor (the work often leading to physical disability), housing stock was bad and Habeus Corpus was soon to be suspended. The Corn Laws, making this dietary staple more expensive, hit the poor very hard. Manchester on the “cusp of the full transformation to the industrial city….”
Riding has rightly placed the personal stories of the men and women at the head of the struggle for rights to the fore. So we get to know: Bamford, Healey, Hunt, Carlile, Johnson, Cobbett, Knight and Mary Fildes. One further triumph of this history is to give due emphasis to the women of the time. Riding has given voice to the women’s cause, and their part in this, both as agitators for change and in having their blood spilled alongside the men. One of the most tragic stories of the day is that of the woman knocked who saw her child fall from her hands and killed. Women were subject to chauvinist attitudes and crudity by the reactionary forces but also among their own number. “The degree to which female political activity was regarded as a threat to the natural order is reflected in the extraordinary odium directed towards women who engaged in it, both in newspapers and via satires and caricatures.” Riding says. Then there is this taken from the ‘Much wanted Reform among females’ cartoon by J. Lewis Marks: “Come home and get Dinner ready you Old Baggage I’ll Reform you.”
Public meetings and gatherings were not new, nor strikes, demonstrations or large crowds. What happened at St. Peter’s Field was not premeditated but it certainly could have been avoided. On the day the Yeomanry Cavalry and the Salford Yeomanry Troop were wound up, they were ill trained and unsuited to the task of crowd management. Maybe the disciplined Hussars could have handled the day better. The Crowd was good tempered, loud, waving banners and playing music. The magistrates saw a gathering hoard, their fear may well have been genuine, they felt a breach of the peace was likely. Henry Hunt took to the hustings to address the crowd. When things got heated he asked them, “all to keep order and to restrain anyone in the crowd who attempt to disturb the peace.” Losing their nerve the magistrates issued an arrest warrant for Henry Hunt. As the troop moved in chaos ensued, The Riot Act was read and the yeomanry cavalry charged, cutting people down as they rode through the crowd, “sparing neither age, sex nor rank”. As Hunt saw it:
“riding over and sabring all those could not get out of their way.”
The leaders of the assembly were arrested and convicted including Hunt and Samuel Bamford. The matter polarised radicals and conservative alike but accounts of the day meant that the magistrates’ view of events was challenged. The radical movement initially suffered. The government firmly refused an enquiry and introduced The Six Acts, a repressive bill granting new powers against public protest. However, the disquiet never died. By 1820 Manchester had an MP, the Guardian newspaper was established in 1821, and The Reform Bill, the most wide ranging change to government to date, was introduced in 1832.
Peterloo is an impressive feat of modern historical writing, deeply researched and entertaining.
Paul Burke 5/4
Peterloo by Jacqueline Riding
Head of Zeus 9781786695833 hbk Oct 2018