All the People

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Part I – The mission to Manchester

February 2020 is the month that my novel, All the People, gets published (February 28 2020 by Troubador Publishing). It was more than ten years in the making: spent researching and writing, then more research and re-writing to result in a book on which my editor’s commented as follows:

“All the People is an absorbing tale of a city, the people who lived in it, and the often unforgiving spirit of the times…it successfully marries political conflict with human drama, delivering a plot that is both compelling and moving. You bring the setting to life with great eloquence and convincing authenticity, and your characters are intricately and thoughtfully constructed.”

I was compelled to write this novel because the stories of a family that I had unearthed were so fascinating and completely unknown. Students are given the histories of kings and prime ministers, army generals and those other leaders that reach the pinnacle of one definition or other of success. How little we learn of those who fight their battles just as hard, within the toughest of environments, but who do so to survive in the supposedly lower reaches of a society that effects to ignore them, despite their extraordinary achievements.

I will write about the journey on which I discovered the stories shortly, but, for now, I want to tell a little about the story , the characters and places that dominate All the People.

Our Lives are Harsh‘ – the natural order of England in 1832

All the People contrasts the rural life of James Hull, a farmer in Bedfordshire, to the harsh  conditions he would face in the depths of a ‘nether world’: the slums of Manchester, under the rule of mill owners. Here, most of the people existed on the edge of starvation, with illnesses that killed many at childbirth and sought them out throughout the short length of the lives. They subsisted in houses that shook violently when the winds blew and collapsed when it blew hard, close to the River Medlock into which the mills and factories discharged their waste, transforming it into a solid waterway, foul-smelling, with a viscosity of unrefined oil.

This contrast is between the farming world and the new existence he would be plunged into as a missionary. As one of the characters says towards the end:

“Our lives are harsh for there is starvation and intolerance of us, of all the people here as if we were a different race or wild animals.”

England had hardly been altered by the Reform Act of 1832, which only gave the business owners better representation in Parliament. For most, like those that All the People describes jeering at the building owned by Hugh Hornby Birley, the man that led the deathly charge of the yeomanry at Peterloo in 1819, on the anniversary of that event, life was a relentless struggle for survival. Many worked for Birley, whose family had bought the Chorlton Mill. The mill forms the cover of my book (shown above) and it exists to this day, on the corner of Cambridge Street and Hulme Street, where it remains  as an apartment block that also houses The International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

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When James came to Manchester, living in Granby Row, later the home of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, he was shocked by the poverty and deprivation. Imagine the change of life he and his family would experience.  James and Elizabeth had lost their eldest daughter just a few years before. Elizabeth had, in the book, refused the call to move north, but, when her daughter died, she relented. She suffered from what we would now call depression until her death in 1842. Her husband wrote of her at her funeral: “She had a bad nervous attack in May 1820 from the effects of which she never recovered. …..she could never bear to hear even good things…and she would never comfortably enjoy the singing at our (church) and other meetings.” In the book, it is the death of their daughter, Mary, that causes her depression, but, whatever the cause, she was clearly a very troubled soul.

James’s sanctuary from the relentless horrors of Little Ireland, the location in Manchester that was his mission and one that Friedrich Engels later called “the most disgusting spot of all” (The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844), was the Fairfield Settlement. This was a settlement of the United Brethren (the Moravians), an evangelical Protestant religion that James had joined when John King Martyn, a wealthy landowner in Pertenhall, Bedfordshire, had espoused the cause locally. In All the People, it is John that proposes James as a missionary.

Fairfield was a glorious testament to the way of life that the Moravians embraced. They built Fairfield to be a self-contained village (near Droylsden, six miles east of Manchester). It had everything needed including a farm, schools, factories for embroidered linen and even a tavern. Several of the buildings remain today under the auspices of the United Brethren. I was welcomed there to carry out a good deal of my research. It is where Elizabeth was buried in 1842 and James in 1856.

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James lived as a missionary near Little Ireland. It was the home, as its name suggests, of many Irish immigrants. Bringing evangelical Moravian protestantism to Catholics must have been quite a mission and All the People surmises that James, when he saw the evils that befell the inhabitants of Little Ireland, paid more attention to their survival in this world rather than the next. This set him against a society that viewed the natural order as God-given.

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Those that God appeared to have given most included the mill owners like Hugh Hornby Birley. In 1832, he was the most hated man in Manchester because of his deeds 13 years before at Peterloo. That there has never been a biography of Hugh Hornby Birley is perplexing. He was a man that was viewed as a successful businessman and civic leader but All the People suggests that, deep down, he was a very troubled man.

Part II – Hugh Hornby Birley……

 

 

The Ripples from Peterloo

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.

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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

August 1819:

Hugh Hornby Birley, Commander…………………