Peterloo: The Manchester Massacre

On 2nd November Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” goes on general release following its premiere today in Manchester – a first outside London. Maxine Peake, a Corbyn fan, describes it as an ensemble piece. There are no leads amongst more than 100 actors.

Liberals, especially those in the north familiar with Labour’s authoritarian underbelly, should claim the Manchester Massacre of 1819 as part of our heritage, part of the slow march to universal suffrage. I spoke about it as I wound up a Lib Dem debate on Yorkshire Devolution in Bradford Council Chamber this week I said:

This year 2018 we have marked the centenary of votes for women.

Events from 200 and 100 years ago remind us that the extension of democracy , was achieved through persistent campaigning and a long, long struggle. It did not come through spontaneous generosity on the part of governments. People demanded it and kept on demanding, and some even died for the cause.

On the Lib Dem benches we do not see devolution as simply about moving money around, whether it be through combined authority, city region or, God help us, an elected regional mayor. Power to the people, power to Yorkshire, is about the extension and enhancement of our democracy. We should demand it, we should campaign for it and we see little virtue in a celebrity based substitute for the full monty of regional devolution.

On 16th August 1819 people converged on Manchester’s St Peter’s Field from various parts of Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. The military commander for “the Northern District,” who should have been in charge of crowd control, decided that he had a pressing engagement at York Races.

People practised marching in step as a way of maintaining discipline but this was reported by Government spies to the Home Secretary as a threat to public order. On the road to Manchester many Methodist favourite hymns were sung as well as campaign songs set to hymn tunes. Many were unfamiliar with public demonstrations and as ever the avoidance of violence was crucial to getting the message across.

Confronted by a gathering of 60,000 the magistrates panicked and set the drunken yeomanry and the relatively more disciplined Hussars on the crowd. By the end of the day fifteen people, including two women and a child were dead or dying and 650 injured. It was an event which in due course led John Edward Taylor to found the Manchester Guardian.

“Peterloo” the film is described by Mike Leigh as a dramatic distillation of events described a comprehensive history by Jacqueline Riding, “Peterloo, the story of the Manchester Massacre”, which manages to be both academic and entertaining. It uncovers much history that has been neglected, perhaps even suppressed. It has much to say about the empowerment of working class people, the capacity for incompetence on the part of Government and the power of peaceful protest. I recommend reading it and then re-reading the Preamble to our Constitution, reflecting on its message for own desperate times.

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Underhill 18th Oct '18 - 5:19pm

    There were gaps in the mechanisms for public order.
    The Reform Act 1832 had not done enough to provide democratic legitimacy for the rulers or acceptance by the ruled. Further reforms are needed now.
    An unarmed police force was needed but non-existent.
    Would demonstrators even know that the Riot Act 1714 had been read?

  • Laurence Cox 18th Oct '18 - 7:05pm

    A good article but with one error; you should have said:

    “This year 2018 we have marked the centenary of votes for some women.”

    The 1918 Representation of the People Act extended the franchise in Parliamentary elections to all men over 21 and to women over 30 subject to certain property or educational qualifications. it was not until the 1928 Act that all women over 21 had the vote.

    It is also worth noting that the Pankhursts opposed univeral suffrage. See Emily Thornberry’s review of Nan Sloane’s new book: The Women in the Room: Labour’s Forgotten History

  • Richard is quite right. The Riot Act was read but only heard by the civil authorities so the crowd were not aware that they were obliged to disperse within the hour.
    Lawrence and David are of course correct about 1918 and “some women” but some of us were very happy to celebrate the centenary of the initial breakthrough. Why I believe it right to claim Peterloo as part of our heritage is because we are the people who recognise that the development of our our democracy is an ongoing journey whereas Labour and the Tories (at least in terms of electoral process) are happy with the status
    quo. The people in St Peter’s Fields knew that it was a long, slow process of reform.
    Meanwhile apologies for the over-enthusiastic “amendments” by an intuitive Mac folks but you can work out the original!

  • Simon Banks 30th Dec '18 - 5:13pm

    Richard Underhill: the Reform Act of 1832 was 13 years AFTER Peterloo. Peterloo was one of a chain of events that led to the act.

    Similar demonstrations, as the Whig leader in the Commons pointed out, had taken place in several other places without trouble. The intent of the marchers had not been violent and sensible authorities had not over-reacted.

    The behaviour of the yeomanry (farmers and spare-time soldiers) recalls some clashes in the North-wet and Pennines in the Civil War, when townspeople in largely Protestant small towns often supported Parliament and the gentry of the surrounding rural areas were strongly Royalist and hated their opponents with something of class conflict about their attitude. There was a massacre when Bolton fell, though Manchester (a small place then) was saved thanks to the organising abilities of a German mercenary!

  • Simon Banks 30th Dec '18 - 5:14pm

    North-west. “North wet” is appropriate, though.

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