The University of Manchester Library recently acquired a slim pamphlet bound in blue board with a grubby white spine and a label stuck on the front cover. While small and nondescript – a mere 13 cm x 21cm – its impact is massive. The first clues of what lies within are the printed label which reads ‘The Relief of the Manchester Sufferers’ and the title page: Report of the Metropolitan and Central Committee, appointed for the relief of the Manchester sufferers; with an appendix, containing the names of the sufferers, and the nature and extent of their injuries. It is only as you turn the pages of the tabulated appendices that you get a sense of their full meaning; a poignant and powerful alphabetical list of injuries received by people attending a political meeting in 1819. It is a shocking record of violence inflicted by the state on its own people.
On 16 August 1819, civil and military powers viciously dispersed a peaceful Manchester meeting of around 60,000 people, held to discuss parliamentary reform. That afternoon at least 15 people lost their lives. Several others, in the days and weeks following, died of their injuries. A further 700 people were injured by mounted yeomanry brandishing sabres or battered by the truncheons of special constables. Others were trampled underfoot as the crowd panicked and fled. The shocking drama of St Peter’s Field soon became known as ‘Peterloo’ in mocking reference to the heroic battle of Waterloo some 4 years earlier.
Across the country money was collected to help the injured and the families of the dead. The report’s authors, the Metropolitan Committee, met regularly at the Crown and Anchor Pub on the Strand and worked closely with Manchester radicals. On 5 November 1819 they sent a deputation to Manchester which operated alongside the local committee to coordinate the best distribution of aid. In an era before the welfare state, this fund offered vital support, saving many of those hurt in the massacre and their families from complete destitution. Many victims hid their injuries from unsympathetic employers and parish officers who refused to support destitution caused by political activity. Alongside graphic accounts of injuries, the appendices of the pamphlet record the names, addresses, occupations and amount of compensation paid to those caught up in the violence.
It should be noted that, in addition to this printed volume, the Library holds a manuscript relief book recognised by UNESCO as having world history significance. The Peterloo Relief Fund Account Book records the names of 350 people who received payments from the fund. As with the Metropolitan Committee Report it gives descriptions of their injuries and the circumstances in which they were hurt. While information is duplicated between the printed and manuscript volumes, they are tantalisingly different. Take, for example, Mary Fildes, a leading figure in the Manchester Female Reform Group. In the printed list she is described as: ‘Beat about the head and face by Constables when escaping from the hustings’. The manuscript states that she ‘was much beat by Constables & leaped off the Hustings when Mr Hunt was taken, was obliged to absent herself a fortnight to avoid imprisonment’. This would suggest that, while the respective relief committees shared information, they each made their own investigations into the injuries and personal circumstances of those injured at St Peter’s Field.
On a personal level I can still recall the horror of opening the Metropolitan Committee Report and reading the names and personal circumstances of the victims and the descriptions of their injuries. It made me understand the anger of contemporaries – that these unarmed men, women and children were attacked and butchered simply for attending a peaceful meeting that called for political change. There was no official enquiry into the massacre and no redress for the victims. And yet, with uncanny prescience, page 4 of the report predicted that historians will provide some redress. Therein lies the power of this radical object. Two hundred years on, this slim pamphlet (and its chunkier manuscript companion) exposes the lies of Manchester magistrates and authorities who carefully downplayed the number of dead and injured and tried to pass off the event as a riot. Not only does it reinforce the scale of the massacre, the printed list of ‘the Manchester Sufferers’ humanises the story of Peterloo. It moves our thoughts away from numbers to actual people and, in doing so, gives voice to the victims.
After the Manchester massacre the Government retaliated with the Six Acts which effectively closed down the reform movement. Yet, in the longer term, reaction against the tyrannical response to Peterloo confirmed the right of free speech, assembly and peaceful protest in British politics. The relevance of Peterloo resonates through the centuries and across nations and political cultures. In 2019 the City of Manchester is focussing much attention on Peterloo, notably through the work of the Manchester Histories Festival and the installation of Jeremy Deller’s public memorial. And yet, while all bicentenaries shed new light on historical episodes, in practice they often tell us more about contemporary preoccupations. When revisiting Peterloo it is hard to avoid drawing parallels with today’s political climate where politics is again riven into two antagonistic camps. Brexit, like Peterloo, is causing a generation to think carefully about the meaning of democracy and political participation.