2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. In 1819, only around two percent of the population of Britain had the vote, and most of the major industrial cities did not have MPs to represent them in parliament. On 16 August 1819, around 60,000 people assembled in St Peter’s Field, Manchester. They gathered peacefully to hear the gentleman Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and local speakers campaign for parliamentary reform and the vote for all men. The magistrates ordered the local yeomanry cavalry to disperse the crowd and arrest Hunt. The yeomanry, followed by the regular Hussar regiments, undertook a brutal attack on the peaceful and unarmed crowd. They killed at least sixteen men, women and children, and injured over 650 people.
Popular protest always involve challenges to the freedom to meet as well as the freedom of speech. Memory is also a central part of how political movements sustain themselves and continue their struggle. The press quickly dubbed what happened on 16 August 1819 as ‘Peterloo’, an ironic reference to the battle of Waterloo of four years previously. And Peterloo was a massacre. The extent of the injuries, many caused by sabre cuts wielded by the yeomanry, were listed in detail in the book of the relief fund set up to help the victims. The relief fund book is recognised as the first UK entry in the UNESCO Memory of the World register, as a testament to Peterloo’s role in the history of democracy and protest. Understanding the role of space and place in the commemoration of Peterloo is crucial to understanding the significance of the event both in Manchester’s history and for today’s democratic movements.
The Peterloo Massacre occupies a contradictory space in British political history. It has been highly celebrated by the left as a crucial episode in the long and hard-fought path towards achieving democracy in Britain, but its significance has been underplayed by conservative historians and political groups. In the 1840s, the Chartists deliberately connected their democratic programme to the longer heritage of the Peterloo radicals, expressing the link symbolically by routing their marches through St Peter’s Field. But, they could not erect a monument to Henry Hunt on the site of the massacre, instead building it next to the Round House chapel, a meeting site for reform societies located in the outlying warehouse district of New Islington. The Anti-Corn Law League claimed St Peter’s Field for the grand edifice to their liberal economic cause, the Free Trade Hall.
In the 20th century, the trade union and Labour movements incorporated Peterloo into their canon of significant events, but it did not form a major part of the more conservative and imperial national narrative promoted by Conservatives. A mural depicting the Peterloo Massacre was subsequently put up inside the Free Trade Hall, but there was no visible outside marker. The 150th anniversary commemorations in 1969 were muted, and it was only after the Labour Party took control of the council that a blue plaque was fixed to the side of the Free Trade Hall in 1972. But, even then, the wording of the plaque neutralised the reality of the massacre, referring to the actions of the military as merely ‘dispersing’ the crowd. A group of Greater Manchester residents formed the Peterloo Memorial Campaign, and it was finally replaced in 2007 with a red plaque inscribed with a more forthright declaration that the pro-democracy meeting was peaceful, and was ‘attacked by armed cavalry’.
The release of Mike Leigh’s feature film, Peterloo, and the preparations for the Heritage Lottery Funded commemorations, coordinated by Manchester Histories Festival, have finally given new prominence to the event and its legacy. The Peterloo Memorial Campaign has succeeded in its long-term goal of a permanent public sculpture, designed by Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller.
Place matters in the history of protest. The siting of the blue and red plaques, and of the new memorial were not simple matters of commemoration, but involved negotiation between different political and community interests about the most appropriate sites. The official logo of this year’s bicentenary commemorations is an outline of the boundaries of St Peter’s Field in 1819. Historian Robert Poole and others have drawn attention to the sole surviving remnant of 1819, a wall alongside the Friends’ Meeting House in central Manchester. A 2017 campaign to save the Sir Ralph Abercromby pub from demolition and redevelopment made great play of the building having stood on the site in 1819, and thereby being connected by proximity to Peterloo, even if myths around casualties being taken there cannot be proven. Peterloo has a central place in how Manchester residents see the historic identity of the city centre, almost to mythical status.
The legacy of Peterloo is much broader than the debates over its spatial commemoration in Manchester. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, was written in protest against the actions of the authorities, (though it was only published posthumously in 1832). Its last line, ‘Ye are many — they are few’, sought to rouse the collective strength of the working-class democratic movement. The phrase has been translated by subsequent political movements in Britain and across the world, including student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, anti-Poll Tax campaigners in 1990, and most recently echoed in the Labour Party’s 2017 campaign slogan, ‘For the many, not the few’. Peterloo reminds us of the long struggle for democracy and workers’ rights, and the power of collective action from 1819 to the present day. The memorial on the site of St Peter’s Field promises to show the importance of using space physically as well as symbolically to commemorate these movements and struggles.