16th August 1819 should be a date that the British hold in its memory just as the world applies itself to Tiananmen Square. That there are such commemorations of its 200th anniversary this year is down to the hard work and insight of those like the Peterloo Memorial Campaign who, rightly, refuse to let a key date in our history fall from our memories.
In my research for All the People, the story of people caught up in the deprivations and class warfare of early nineteenth century Manchester, I was continually reminded of Peterloo. For years after 16 August 1819, it was remembered as the prime example of how people in this country rise against oppression: peacefully, with intelligence, wit and good humour to confront oppressors that are determined to ground them down. Mike Leigh’s film captured this well as do the wide range of books* on the grand assembly headed by Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt that was destroyed by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry’s killing and maiming.
That British history has mainly been written by the victors is a truism attributed to Churchill, Nehru and many others but it remains valid. Peterloo had no victors but those in power sought to recast the massacre as a battle. Fortunately, the journalists present, like John Tyas of The Times, were better able to record the truth and his editor was brave enough to print it. Yet, there has been an almighty struggle to retain the memory of that day in August, 1819.
For years, workers in Manchester would assemble around buildings owned by the Captain of the Yeomanry, Hugh Hornby Birley. He led them, sabres swinging, cutting into and trampling with their horses over men, women and children. At those buildings would come the workers and out of work from the town and surrounding areas to jeer as a sign of their hatred and torment, their conditions (starvation, ill-health and extreme poverty) unchanged or worsened. When the Reform Act of 1832 was passed through Parliament, giving the wealthy industrialists the vote and some towns like Manchester representation for the first time, nothing changed for those with no property.
Feargus O’Connor, an Irishman that led the Chartists in the latter part of that decade, used his newspaper, The Northern Star, on 20th August, 1842 to remind the world (or at least that part that read his working people’s paper) that the memories of Peterloo still rippled powerfully.
Crucial to O’Connor’s editorial that day was the memory of Henry Hunt and the memory of the Yeomanry. A memorial to Henry Hunt had just been erected in Manchester at John Stephenson’s Roundhouse Chapel that the ‘Plug Plot Rioters’ (as they were disparagingly termed) would have passed on their way through Manchester earlier in August 1842. They were on strike, still fighting for universal suffrage just as Hunt and those at Peterloo had been in 1819. Hunt was a hero to O’Connor and Peterloo the singular moment in history that acted as an inspiration in 1842.
Just as ‘memorial’ were the Yeomanry, signified by O’Connor’s insertion of the names of each member that took part on St Peter’s Fields on 16th August, 1819, headed by the name of Hugh Hornby Birley, mistakingly shown as “Commander’. Birley had spent the last 23 years as a businessman, philanthropist and civic leader in the town of Manchester, working to leave the legacy that he wished to be remembered by. The only one he left was the memory of his murderous deeds at Peterloo: O’Connor saw to that.
177 years on from that day, Manchester is alive with the memory of Peterloo in a way that could not have been expected 100 years ago when the centenary was commemorated by informal gatherings of those like the Independent Labour Party. In 1919, World War One had not long finished and working people (excluding most women) now had the vote but little power and few resources. Civic society remained class-bound and Peterloo was seen as a working class revolt, separate from those that ran the country and ill-suited to a collective celebration.
We live (at least for now) in different times. There remains so much to be done in the field of human rights and equality that the newer burdens of climate destruction and popularism and our own torture of Brexit seem to overwhelm. It is a good time to remember Peterloo and it is always a good time to recall a brave fight for justice. As we all watch the scenes from Hong Kong, a 2019 fight for universal suffrage and democracy against an unyielding foe that believes itself above the law, we know that much of the world remains as this country was 200 years ago. As we read surveys that show young people might prefer a type of leader that runs roughshod over democracy, it is a good time to remember the fight for democracy and the vote and the reasons it was always held to be so vital. For those put into positions of power quickly assume the mantle provided and rarely, if ever, remain uncorrupted. Without the checks and balances that democracy (via universal suffrage) provides, the risk of deprivations for the majority grows. It is why Peterloo must remain in our memories as one of the most important events in our history, why the ripples of Peterloo must always wash over us.
- Amongst Books on Peterloo, please read: Robert Poole, Peterloo, The English Uprising; Peterloo, Witnesses to a Massacre (Polyp, Eva Schlunke – a graphic representation); Peterloo, the Story of the Manchester Massacre, Jacqueline Riding.
- My book, All the People, is due for publication on 28 February 2020.
Transcript of part of O’Connor’s editorial:
And this was the way the middle-class men
of Manchester and Cheshire, the ” Yeomanry”
served a peaceable and unarmed people, seeking to
petition For a Reform in the system of Representation!
These were the terms of theUnion between
the middle and labouring class at that period.
This was the way one class, bleated, ‘blustering,’ big,
and inflated with gin and pride.—brandy and arrogance;
this was the way they attempted to prove
the ” interests of the two classes are identical’ ‘ !
and that the middle classes are the ” natural leaders
and protectors of the labouring portion of ihe community”
! O ! how arrogant, how puffed-up with
pride, they were then! How they sneered, and
scoffed, and turned up the nose of affected contempt !
How they gloated and glorified over the blood they had
shed—the suffering they had caused—the life they had
sacrificed! What ” heroes ” they then were!
Where are they now How many of them are
Yeomen now? How many of them have been able to
keep out of the Gazette, or out of the Insolvent
List? How many of them have been able to keep out
of the workhouse ? And how many of them have cut
their throats, or hanged themselves! Where is the
amongst them that would now glory in the
bloody deeds be then committed? Where is the
thing amongst them that would not give his ears to
have his name erased from the damning record—the
list of the “heroes”; of Peterloo?! It is in vain , however,
that he so wishes ! The character in which those
names are written are those of blood. They cannot be
washed out, but by the waters of Justice and those
have not yet been applied,—or Thistlewood, Ings,
Brunt, and Tidd would not have been the last
men Executed and BEHEADED in England for
High Treason !!! No ; the names are not to be
obliterated from the bloody list ! Here it is
Let the actors of the fiendish deeds of 1819 feast
their eyes upon it ! !!
Names, of the Manchester Yeomanry on the 16th of
Hugh Hornby Birley, Commander…………………