Peterloo today

Friday marks the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre. On 16 August 1819, a huge crowd of 60,000 men, women and children gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester to listen to radical speakers and demand parliamentary reform. At this time, only around a tenth of adult males had the vote and many new industrial centres like Manchester had no MPs at all. Radicals had for half a century demanded change to the political system, since they argued that a system that represented the minority could never govern in the interests of all.

The authorities were alarmed at the prospect of such a large demonstration of working people and called in the military. It was common practice in the days before the introduction of a professional police force to do this, but the actions of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry that day have gone down in infamy. The yeomanry were mounted volunteers, drawn from local gentlemen, so were hardly disinterested pariticipants. The cavalry charged into the crowd in an attempt to apprehend speakers on the hustings and hacked at the trapped protesters with sharpened sabres. At least fifteen people died and hundreds were wounded. The event was dubbed ‘Peterloo’, in ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo (of which one of the victims was a veteran).

The bicentenary of Peterloo is being marked in numerous ways. Last year Mike Leigh released his film Peterloo, which movingly depicted the scale of the demonstration and the horror of the attack. BBC radio is broadcasting a series of programmes about the event. There is a new graphic novel and a reenactment, not to mention countless talks, events and conference papers on the subject. Historians of the massacre such as Robert Poole and Katrina Navickas have been very busy.

Peterloo has long been a totemic event among the British left, comparable to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Battle of Cable Street. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has taken to reading part of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy at his rallies, a poem written in 1819 in response to the massacre:

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!

This flurry of commemorative activity has prompted something of a backlash among the right. The Times has asked whether this was an ‘isolated outrage’ that has been given ‘an unjustified historical importance’, and did not miss the opportunity to bash the BBC for ‘filling its schedules’ with leftwing content. There is an irony here, in that The Times of 1819 was instrumental in spreading news of the massacre: it had a reporter on the spot and advocated the very reforms that the protesters were demanding. In 2019, however, the politics of Peterloo are very different, as it has become a battleground in the culture wars of Brexit and the current polarisation of politics.

Taking a step back from this, there is no doubt in my mind about the importance of Peterloo or the necessity of commemorating it. This summer I published a book entitled Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928 and decided to put a picture of Peterloo on the cover. This was partly a nod to the bicentenary, but in many ways Peterloo is a pivotal point in the book. The book charts the debate that took place between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries regarding who was fit to be a citizen: who should be made a full member of the political nation and, in particular, who should be given the vote?

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Chronologically, Peterloo falls around halfway between the Bill of Rights and the Equal Franchise Act, which begin and end this story. It was a key moment in the struggle for parliamentary reform: the climax of the postwar ‘mass platform’ and the last great reformist protest before the movement revived around 1830 to press for the Reform Bill. It was also a prominent moment in the history of men and women in politics, which is the key focus of the book. Women stood alongside men on the hustings and constituted around an eighth of the crowd, yet were around a third of the victims, suggesting that they were singled out for particularly brutal treatment by the soldiers.

The demonstration at St Peter’s Field was a peaceful protest demanding basic citizenship rights, and it was mown down by an establishment that sought to deny them those rights. The symbolism of the event is therefore unavoidable, however much today’s Times might wish otherwise.

Matthew McCormack