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Peterloo: 100 years after the massacre - archive, August 1919 | UK news

Where first I heard of Peterloo

by James Haslam
13 August 1919

When I was a boy I was very fond indeed of creeping into the handloom cellar at night – especially o’ winter nights – to hear the men of the moribund craft talk and sing and, by the way, swear about hard times. What a quaint, independent set of industrials they were. But they talked and they sang sometimes of flowers, or love, or war, but mostly of hard social and political days. How they did anathematise the politicians of the hour, and, I am afraid, push revolutionary ideas into my young head.

I was to carry on – so Joss Wrigley said – their spirit of political revolt when they were dead and their wooden looms were made into firewood by the factory workers. They were the Radicals of Lupton Yard, and when I read The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane I thought if Rutherford had known them he might have handed them to posterity.

What was the Peterloo Massacre and how many were killed?

On 16 August 1819, up to 60,000 working class people from the towns and villages of what is now Greater Manchester marched to St Peters Fields in central Manchester to demand political representation. Their peaceful protest turned bloody when Manchester magistrates ordered Yeoman – a private militia paid for by rich locals – to storm the crowd with sabres.

Most historians agree that 14 people were definitely killed in the massacre – 15 if you include the unborn child of Elizabeth Gaunt, killed in the womb after she was beaten by constables in custody. A further three named people are believed to have either been stabbed or trampled to death.

Why is it called Peterloo?

The name was first coined five days after the massacre by James Wroe, editor of the Manchester Observer, the city’s first radical newspaper (no relation to the Observer of today). According to historian Robert Poole, Peterloo was “a bitter pun, comparing the cowardly attacks by the Yeomanry and soldiers on unarmed civilians to the brutality suffered at Waterloo.”

What did the protesters want?

They wanted political reform. The years leading up to Peterloo had been tough for working class people and they wanted a voice in parliament to put their needs and wants on the political agenda, inspired by the French Revolution across the Channel. Machines had begun to take jobs in the lucrative cotton industry but periodic trade slumps closed factories at short notice, putting workers out on the street. The Napoleonic Wars, which ended in 1815 with the Battle of Waterloo, had taken a heavy toll on the nation’s finances, and 350,000 ex-servicemen returned home needing jobs and food. Yet those in power seemed more interested in lining their own pockets than helping the poor.

At that point, only the richest landowners could vote, and large swathes of the country were not represented in Westminster. Manchester and Salford, which then had a population of 150,000, had no MP, yet Oxford and Cambridge Universities had their own representation. At the time the extension of the vote to all men, let alone women, was actively opposed by many who thought the vote should be restricted to those of influence and means.

Why is Peterloo important?

It paved the way for parliamentary democracy and particularly the Great Reform Act of 1832 which created new parliamentary seats, particularly in the industrial towns of the north of England. It also led to the establishment two years later of the Manchester Guardian by John Edward Taylor, a 28-year-old English journalist who was present at the massacre and saw how the “establishment” media sought to discredit the protesters.

Helen Pidd, North of England editor

Photograph: Rischgitz/Hulton Archive

It was there where I first heard of Peterloo. “Peterloo, Peterloo,” was often the subject of fierce conversation and denunciation. There were four of them in the cellar, in addition to an old woman who, sitting in the middle of the semi-subterranean workshop, wound coarse weft bobbins for them on a wooden wheel and spindle. Joss Wrigley was the leader of the poverty-stricken group. My father was the owner of the looms, all bought for a few shillings, and rented to the other three weavers for a few pence a week. Joss was a great talker. Ned Greenhalgh – gentle Ned – was a listener who nodded approval of Joss’s political outbursts. Nathan Clegg, who occasionally varied his weaving by a short term in the Debtors’ Gaol at Lancaster, helped Joss by swearing at capitalists and shopkeepers. Mary Miller, the bobbin-winder, sometimes shook with fear at the thought of what might be their plight if the police were to look in. Joss Wrigley had decorated – he called it decorated – one of his loom posts with verses from Ebenezer Elliott and democratic songs of Burns, cut from newspapers.

My father sometimes played the fiddle to soothe their nerves – played old English airs and Jacobite songs. There was a stove in the cellar, which was lighted when they could afford to buy coal. I used to hear most about Peterloo when the looms were silent and the stove was burning and the decrepit weavers were “winding on” a new warp by candlelight. One of them would guide the threads through the healds, two would sit on each side straightening the yarn and picking out foreign particles; Joss Wrigley usually sat on a stool unfolding the warp, and, having the least responsible task, he would talk the most.

It was then that “Peterloo” rang mostly in my ears. Often I wondered where Peterloo was till I learned it was at Manchester, a few miles away. Frequently I was puzzled to know why it was that they spoke so bitterly of it. Subsequently, I was informed that Joss Wrigley knew all about it, because he was there in support of the People’s Charter, as Joss described it. Joss was a slim, nervous man with white hair and long beard; for a man of 77 years he was still sprightly physically and alert mentally. It was from these older time weavers’ lips I first heard the names of Sam Bamford and Henry Hunt.

I remember saying to my father one morning when he was playing his well-resined fiddle, “What was this Peterloo about? “Ask Joss,” he said, “It were afore my time. Joss were theer. Fro’ what he says, it were a damnable thing – summat as workin’ folk should never forget!”

I was now particularly curious to know. And one day when Joss came from the cellar into the kitchen to beg some tea to drink with a meal of bread and cheese I put the question – boy-like – bluntly to him. I have never forgotten some of his Doric phrases. He drew me between his knees, and said, partly with pride and partly with indignation:

Peterloo, lad! I know. I were theer as a young mon. We were howdin’ a meetin’ i’ Manchester – on Peter’s Field, – a meetin’ for our reets – for reets o’mon, for liberty to vote, an’ speak, and write, an’ be eawrsels – honest, hard-workin’ folk. We wanted to live our own lives, an’ th’ upper classes wouldn’t let us. That’s abeawt it, lad. We were howdin’ a meetin’, a peaceful meetin’, an’ they sent t’ dragoons amung us to mow us deawn. T’ dirty devils – they sent t’ dragoons slashin’ at us wi’ their swords. There were some of us sheawtin’ ‘Stop! Stop! What are yo’ doin’ that for? We on’y want eawr reets.’ An’ they went on cuttin’ through us, an’ made us fly helter-skelter – aw because we were only howdin’ up t’ banner o’ liberty an’ t’ reets o’ mon.

I could not understand then why Joss was trembling with rage. I could not then understand why he, having lived for over fifty years after the event, should still permit it to disturb his mind. I suppose it had got in his blood, and he could not live it out. I presume also that continuous years of poverty, together with years of political injustice and vagaries, and dear food, through which he had lived, had helped to nurse his hatred, which he resolutely passed on to others. His political career began at Peterloo – a dramatic beginning, to be sure. It ended in a damp, dark handloom cellar, at the age of 81.

This is an edited extract. Read the article in full.

The Guardian, 16 August 1919.
The Guardian, 16 August 1919. Click to see larger image.

The meaning of Peterloo

by JL Hammond
16 August 1919

The teaching of history has always tended to emphasise the wars which the poor have levied against the rich; it has been inclined to pay less attention to the wars that the rich have levied against the poor. A century ago such a war was in brisk progress in England, and nowhere was it carried on with less scruple or mercy than in Lancashire. Peterloo was the most dramatic symbol of that war, and therefore it came to stand, in the imagination not merely of the poor but of the minority of comfortable and educated people who resented such proceedings, for all the abuses and injustices that were associated with the ancient regime in England.

Lord Robert Cecil had a good phrase the other day about people who wanted to perpetuate the war mind. The Peterloo massacre occurred four years after the conclusion of the war with Napoleon. But in the mind of the governing class of England the war with Napoleon was only part of the general struggle against all the forces and desires represented by the French Revolution. Those forces and desires were present in England as they had been in France. Hence the war mind was perpetual. If a man had found himself in Bolton or Oldham in 1813 or in 1819 he would have found himself in a district under military occupation, governed by magistrates who spoke in their letters to the Home Office of the mass of the people of those towns as if they were admittedly a hostile population. These magistrates employed spies, and spies of the most scandalous character, and they were not ashamed of obtaining a conviction on the sole testimony of men whom they knew to be untrustworthy. They were able to lock up men and women under the Vagrancy Acts, and they used this power freely. The Combination Acts made it impossible for a workman to take a single step to improve his position without the risk of prosecution, and by using the Combination Acts against the workmen and allowing the employers to combine openly whenever they liked the magistrates were able to put the great mass of the workpeople entirely under the power of their masters. It is only from a study of the Home Office papers of the period that we can learn how mercilessly the ruling authorities made war on the general body of the Lancashire workpeople a century ago.

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John Lawrence Hammond was a Manchester Guardian special correspondent and leader writer.

The Guardian, 16 August 1919.
The Guardian, 16 August 1919. Click to read the letter.
Peterloo, a 2018 Film4 production with Rory Kinnear.
Peterloo, a 2018 Film4 production with Rory Kinnear. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

Peterloo: the centenary in Manchester – new attack on democracy

18 August 1919

“Peterloo, 1819: Labourloo 1919.” That was the inscription on one of the banners carried on Saturday in the Peterloo centenary procession. A hundred years had passed since, near the spot where Saturday’s procession assembled, some 60,000 persons gathered together to ask for their elementary political and social rights, were dispersed by cavalry, eleven dead and about 600 wounded remaining on St. Peter’s Field. Though the triumph of their cause was not immediate, if, indeed, it can be said even yet to have arrived, their agitations and sacrifices were not wholly vain, for thirteen years later the Reform Act was on the Statute-book.

The battle still goes on; Saturday’s demonstrators evidently sees the situation to-day very clearly as a battle, and as nothing less. As much was said in a dozen speeches and written on no few banners. “Labour is the scourge of all wealth,” said one banner. The uncompromising “all” was a little startling, and left one hoping that the originator of the phrase had a definition of wealth different from our own.

It was an interesting and motley procession that emerged, in the hot August afternoon, from the cool streets that flow into Albert Square and pieced itself together as it got to Deansgate. Then, with bands playing and banners flying, on foot or in waggonettes, men, women, and children moved southwards down Peter Street. The red bonnet carried on a long pole that came at the head of the procession stopped when the demonstrators were ranged along the Prince’s Theatre and the Free Trade Hall. Here, on the very ground where, a century before, the horror of Peterloo was at that moment being enacted, heads were bared and the “Marseillaise” was sung, and “We’ll wave the scarlet banner high” went up from a thousand throats.

This ritual observed, the procession made its way slowly along Oxford Street to Platt Fields. Four platforms were in readiness, and from them a succession of speakers addressed crowds that were smaller than one had expected. Apart from those who had come with the procession, and the customary Saturday afternoon frequenters of the park, but few people seemed to be interested in the demonstration.

‘The Massacre of Peterloo, or Britons Strike Home’, 1819 (1904). Artist: George Cruikshank
‘The Massacre of Peterloo, or Britons Strike Home’, 1819 (1904). Artist: George Cruikshank Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

A Free Trade Hall meeting
The Free Trade Hall was filled yesterday afternoon by a mass meeting called by the Manchester and Salford Independent Labour Party Federation to celebrate the centenary.

Mr. J H Hudson, who presided, pointed out that the event they were met to commemorate was one of the greatest in the history of the modern democratic movement in England, and said they were fortunate in being able to assemble in a hall built on the site of that event. The celebrations showed that the meaning of Peterloo in the democratic movement of to-day was well understood. Peterloo taught the workers that the real enemy of freedom was not fastened up in St. Helena, but was entrenched in their own country. Contrasting the power of the strike with the power of the vote, he asserted that if the workers refused to develop the power of the vote they could not expect to win the better conditions for which the Peterloo martyrs had met.

Mr. Philip Snowden, who had an enthusiastic reception, said they would do no honour to the memory of those who met on that spot a hundred years ago if their tribute were merely a demonstration. They must honour their memory by taking up and completing their unfinished task. To-day they were having controversies about the respective spheres and the respective utility and value of industrial action and political action. Than had had them all through the century. Unfortunately the great democracy of this country had yet to realise that it was neither by industrial action nor by political action that their salvation was going to be achieved but by a wise and constant combination of the use of both. (Cheers.) It would be time to decry political action when political action had been tried. Parliament was what the people made it. He had no patience with those who condemned the Parliamentary institution until the working people had captured that institution and made the utmost of its possibilities. (Hear, hear.)

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