Jump to content
The Education Forum

Peterloo Massacre


John Simkin
 Share

Recommended Posts

Article by Martin Wainwright in the Guardian (13th August, 2007)

http://arts.guardian.co.uk/art/news/story/0,,2147877,00.html

There are mugs and candlesnuffers in museums saying "Do not forget 1819" and school essay questions going back to the earliest days of exams, but the site of one of Britain's greatest social upheavals is still marked only by a modest - and only partially true - blue plaque.

This week, the city whose conscience was seared by the death of nine men, a woman and a child at a mass demonstration demanding the vote, will see the launch of a campaign for a "prominent, accurate and respectful" memorial to the brief mayhem known to history as the Peterloo massacre.

People and institutions in Manchester and Salford are banding together to press the city council for a "worthier monument" than 32 words on the plaque which fail even to say that anyone was killed, alluding instead to the crowd's "dispersal by the military".

Events this Thursday - the massacre's 188th anniversary - will highlight concern that Peterloo is in danger of being forgotten. "We're talking about something here on the scale of Tiananmen Square in terms of democratic history," said Paul Fitzgerald, who draws radical cartoons under the name Polyp and is one of the organisers of the Peterloo Memorial Campaign. "It's ridiculous that all we have is this euphemistic plaque. We intend to commission a sculpture in the end, but in the meanwhile, let's get people talking."

The project is backed by local trade unions, and Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians who say the occasion has for too long been treated "as a secret".

"Even people who know the history come to Manchester and fail to find out where Peterloo happened," said Derek Clarke, secretary of Greater Manchester Trade Union Councils. "I arrived from north Wales to work here, and it took me ages to pin down the actual site.

"We don't want to fall behind our neighbours, such as Hyde which has just unveiled a statue outside its town hall of the Chartists, who drew much of their inspiration from Peterloo. The massacre was one of the most influential events to happen in Manchester's history."

Peterloo saw an estimated 60,000 people gather peaceably to back demands that the growing industrial towns of Britain should have the right to elect MPs. Less than 2% of the population had the vote at the time, and resentment was sharpened by "rotten boroughs" such as the moribund Wiltshire village Old Sarum which had 11 voters and two MPs. Manchester and Leeds had none.

Plans to elect a "shadow parliament" put the wind up the Tory government which was also frightened that the power of Henry "Orator" Hunt, the main speaker at Peterloo, might turn the Manchester crowd into a mob. The local volunteer yeomanry, described as "younger members of the Tory party in arms", was ordered to disperse the meeting, with fatal results.

"The magistrates effectively let local shopkeepers and businessmen, people with a stake in the status quo, loose on the crowd," said Mr Clarke. More than 1,000 disciplined regular troops, including an artillery unit, stayed in the background but added to the air of crisis. As well as the 11 deaths, and possibly a 12th which historians are still researching, hundreds of people were wounded by sabre slashes and crushed in the panic.

The name Peterloo, combining Manchester's traditional meeting place St Peter's Fields with the battle of Waterloo fought four years earlier, was coined immediately by the radical Manchester Observer. The immediate result of the tragedy was a complete crackdown on reform, but it proved hugely influential in the longer run.

"It is fundamental to the history of our democracy," said Tristram Hunt of Queen Mary College, London University, who last year organised a national competition in the Guardian for radical landmarks in need of better commemoration which saw Peterloo come second only to Putney parish church, site of the 1647 Putney debates where rank and file members of the Roundhead army argued the case for a transparent democratic state.

"It is really great news that Manchester is on the march about this. Peterloo has a direct and powerful lineage to the Chartists."

Manchester has seen previous, short-lived attempts to highlight the massacre before, but the reaction in the immediate aftermath - that the violence was a stain on the city's reputation - has regularly resurfaced and sapped enthusiasm. The Labour-led city council has prevaricated about anything grander than the plaque on the Radisson Hotel.

Last year's Labour conference in Manchester saw delegates surprised at what some called a virtual conspiracy of silence. Former Labour city councillor Geoff Bridson said: "It is like a secret episode from the past."

Renewed civic pride offers a real chance to change all that, said Dr Hunt. "The old, rather uncertain Manchester was scared of its history. Now it is confident enough to look back with pride."

The campaign is backed by the three museums of working class and "people's" history in Manchester and Salford. The director of the national People's History Museum, Nick Mansfield said: "Peterloo is a critical event not only because of the number of people killed and injured, but because ultimately it changed public opinion to influence the extension of the right to vote and give us the democracy we enjoy today. It was critical to our freedoms."

One of the lasting memorials of Peterloo crosses the former site of St Peter's Fields daily, tucked under the arms of passers-by or downloaded to their computers and iPods.

It is the Guardian itself, which was founded by a group of moderate Manchester reformers as a direct result of the massacre, when it became clear that demonstrations and direct action were not going to change the government's mind on widening the vote.

Instead, a campaigning newspaper was set up under the editorship of one of the group, John Edward Taylor, who had been a witness at Peterloo. The events of August 16 1819 have become known as the Peterloo Massacre, but Taylor avoided the word in favour of "tragedy", in his evidence, Notes and Observations.

He acknowledged that some of the city magistrates were good men and that most of the yeomanry were "incapable of acting with deliberate cruelty".

This made all the more powerful his conclusion that others were "men of violent political character whose rancour approaches absolute insanity".

post-7-1187258324_thumb.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Article by Martin Wainwright in the Guardian (13th August, 2007)

http://arts.guardian.co.uk/art/news/story/0,,2147877,00.html

There are mugs and candlesnuffers in museums saying "Do not forget 1819" and school essay questions going back to the earliest days of exams, but the site of one of Britain's greatest social upheavals is still marked only by a modest - and only partially true - blue plaque.

This week, the city whose conscience was seared by the death of nine men, a woman and a child at a mass demonstration demanding the vote, will see the launch of a campaign for a "prominent, accurate and respectful" memorial to the brief mayhem known to history as the Peterloo massacre.

Interesting the Guardian gives the number of deaths based on official government figures. In reality the numbers were much larger than this. Families were worried they would be victimized and so buried the dead in secret. Michael Bush gives the actual numbers in a letter to the Guardian (15th August, 2007): "It is great news to hear (History, August 13) that a Peterloo memorial campaign has been organised. But hopefully the organisers and journalists will get abreast of recent research. It is now known there were as many as 18 deaths, not 11-12, with total casualties revised upwards from around 500 to 700, with the majority of injuries inflicted by the military rather than by the crush of the crowd. All this is examined in my recent book, "The Casualties of Peterloo". In addition, the massacre was the work not only of Mancunians serving as volunteer cavalrymen but of regular troops, since 340 Hussars also charged the crowd."

For a detailed account of this massacre see my website pages:

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRpeterloo.htm

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/peterloo.html

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...