Author and Green Badge Guide Ed Glinert recounts one of the most shameful events in modern politics.
“The 16th of August 1819 was a defining moment in English democracy. A date which rivals Magna Carta, the Civil War and the 1689 Bill of Rights in its importance. Yet most Britons have never heard of the Peterloo Massacre”. A bold statement from Ed Glinert, Green Badge Guide and author of a series of meticulously researched urban history books – including The Manchester Compendium. So why did this seminal moment fade from the national consciousness? And will the bicentenary shed light on one of the worst assaults on democracy in modern times?
“To understand Peterloo you need to appreciate the conditions in Manchester during the late 1700s. With the industrial revolution driving people from farms to factories, people flooded into the world’s first industrial city.
Manchester Convention Centre on former site of St Peters Fields.“Conditions were brutal. The city grew chaotically, with workers crammed into shanty-built houses, surviving on starvation diets and toiling for 13 hours a day. Its mills and factories were death traps, with children as young as six grafting alongside dangerous machinery. The average lifespan of a Mancunian was 17.
“Labour was a commodity. People had no say in how their town was run, with no local council, no Member of Parliament and no police. The houses where the workers lived were owned by factory men or aristocrats.
“Challenge the system and you were silenced. In 1817 the Tory government, fearing revolution, suspended the right to trial, and a group of local dissenters was arrested, clamped in irons and bundled down to London to be interrogated by the Home Secretary. Subdued and chastened, they were packed off back to Manchester. Can you imagine that happening today, people being questioned by the Home Secretary for attending a demonstration?
“Resentment simmered. The government militarised Manchester’s streets, deploying troops as a warning to dissenters. Despite this intimidation, a series of city centre demonstrations were organised.
“On the 16th August, 60,000 people gathered at St Peter’s Fields, demanding parliamentary reform. Men, women and children from across the region joined together hoping for change. The magistrates declared the demonstration illegal and arrested the ringleaders. “At 1.30pm, as the first speaker addressed the crowd, the cavalry charged. The soldiers, hardened by years of fighting in the Napoleonic wars, went in with sabres drawn,‘Each waving a bloody sword for the service of the Lord’, as the radical poet Shelley put it.
“As the wounded and dying cried out for help, soldiers chased away bystanders. By 2.00pm it was all over. The attack left 17 people dead and 684 injured.
“The authorities censored all reports of the protest. A Times journalist who was at the demonstration was arrested, and an unknown contributor filed the story for the paper.
“The editor of the radical reformist newspaper, the Manchester Observer, James Wroe – taking inspiration from the Battle of Waterloo – dubbed the demonstration the‘Peterloo Massacre’. Fifteen charges of seditious libel were brought against him.
“Speakers from the Peterloo protest were imprisoned, and the government swiftly passed further draconian laws to deter further unrest. Those responsible for ordering the attack on the demonstrators were exonerated.
“But people would not be silenced. The Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821 to promote the liberal interest in the aftermath of Peterloo. Dickens came to Manchester and, after witnessing appalling living conditions, was inspired to write A Christmas Carol and Hard Times.
“In 1832 Parliament finally responded to some of the demands of the Peterloo protesters. The newly elected liberal Whig government passed the Reform Act, which granted seats in the House of Commons to industrial cities such as Manchester. The act also extended the vote to one in five adult males.
“Though Peterloo remained absent from most accounts of British history, Manchester has kept its history alive. Every year supporters meet to commemorate the protest, reciting the names of the victims. And in 2019, for the bicentenary of the massacre, a public memorial will be unveiled, designed by award-winning artist Jeremy Deller.
“This year the story gets a wider telling, with Mancunian filmmaker Mike Leigh’s new film about the tragedy – the director commenting that Peterloo is too often missing from school history lessons.
“The site of St Peter’s Fields is now Windmill Street. The road – which locals want to rename Peterloo – stands next to the convention centre where, ironically, every two years the Conservative Party conference meets. It was the 19th century Tory Party Lords who stood implacably against the reforms demanded by the Peterloo protesters. A memorial is long overdue.”