A graphic depiction of Peterloo

Peterloo: witnesses to a massacre

By Polyp, Eva Schlunke and Robert Poole

Published by New Internationalist, 2019, £11.99

Reviewed by Kevin Parslow

When peaceful protesters were slain in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, on 16 August 1819, the first media reports were articles in The Times and then the radical Manchester Observer, which gave the massacre its name, ‘Peter-loo’ – to echo the battle of Waterloo. Major Dyneley of the 15th Hussars Regiment dubbed it the ‘battle of Manchester’. Later accounts were accompanied by illustrations, notably those of cartoonist George Cruikshank. He illustrated The Political House that Jack Built, by satirist William Hone, and depicted the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry’s brutal assault on the crowd.

For Cruikshank, however, anybody was fair game for ridicule. Only days before the massacre he had caricatured the female reformers of Blackburn in a very unflattering, even hideous way. He could be bought, too. The following year, he accepted £100 not to portray the prince regent, later George IV, in an ‘immoral situation’!

Last year saw the release of Mike Leigh’s film, Peterloo. Now, depictions of the massacre have turned full circle. This new illustrated book has been published. There is no ambiguity about where the sympathies of its creators lie. Polyp (cartoonist Paul Fitzgerald), script editor Eva Schlunke and historian Robert Poole are all active supporters of the Peterloo Memorial Campaign. They have produced, through Paul’s drawings, an excellent account, particularly of the events of the day, detailed by Robert’s selection of mainly contemporary quotes.

They set the scene, explaining the economic, social and political conditions that existed in the run-up to Peterloo and which led to the immense anger and desperation among the working class of Manchester and the surrounding villages and towns. They quote Romantic poet Robert Southey’s description of Manchester to establish the conditions that the mass of people lived and worked under: “A hell-hole… all hurry and bustle… its people living in dark and airless streets, steeped in black air and blackened with smoke… Its poor crammed promiscuously into damp and filthy cellars”. They give brief outlines of some of the principal participants: Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, Radical leader, Samuel Bamford, the Radical handloom weaver from Middleton, the magistrates, and deputy constable Joseph Nadin.

The authors deal with the year 1819 and the events that led up to Peterloo but the day itself is the core of the graphic. A recession had followed the end of the Napoleonic wars. Then there was a brief upturn and workers felt more confident about employment, formed trade unions and fought for wage increases. But 1819 saw the return of challenging times, brought on by a financial crisis that hit the US as well as Britain. Work was lost, piece rates and wages fell, and many workers and their families were starving. Mass meetings were held throughout Britain. At many, the demand went up for assisted mass emigration to America or Australia as the only way to escape dire poverty.

Many others desired to fight. The book mentions the events in Stockport in February when the authorities were beaten back by a huge crowd of protesters. Hunt had spoken in Manchester in January and was asked back in August. Workers mobilised to hear him but so did the authorities. The magistrates, the civil power in the city at the time, banned the original protest arranged for 9 August, on the grounds that the meeting would elect its own member of parliament – Manchester had no MP of its own in 1819. When this proposal was revised for a meeting on the 16th, it was allowed but the magistrates mobilised the forces of the regular army and the volunteer yeomanry, made up of publicans and other small businessmen.

What I found particularly useful was the narrative of the day. Many written accounts give only partial descriptions of what happened. This book not only records the main events – the assembly of the protesters, the actions of the magistrates in reading (inaudibly) the Riot Act, the issuing of warrants for the arrest of Hunt and others, and the intervention of the military forces on the field. It also brings together fragments of the testimonies of ordinary people, putting into words what must have been a terrifying spectacle.

The brutal actions portrayed were those of a desperate and frightened ruling class. Here were tens of thousands of working-class people coming together, and their potential power raised the spectre of ‘Jacobinism’. The label was used in Britain for anybody with radical political intentions, referring to the great events of the French revolution 25-30 years previous.

To the Manchester authorities, backed up by the Tory government in London, the question of workers having an influence on the type of government in Britain was out of the question. That was the reason for the bloody dispersal of the demonstration, which lasted for just 30 minutes. Their attitude was summed up by Reverend Charles Ethelston, a Manchester magistrate: “Nothing, I think, could be more complete than the manner in which this business has been accomplished”.

This book also depicts some of the scenes that occurred outside St Peter’s Field, immediately after the massacre and later on. The injured did not always find sympathetic surgeons to stitch up their wounds. Some workers fought back, armed only with stones, though most fled into the surrounding streets. Many dived into the damp and filthy cellars to avoid the drunken yeomanry. Even some of the regular soldiers were disgusted by their behaviour. A charwoman, Mary Dowlan, said: “I have to thank one of the 15th Hussars for saving me, else I must have been cut. He put up his hand against Tebbutt, the tallow chandler that was cutting at me… He put his sword up to save me”.

Mary’s comment underlines that the members of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry were known to the protesters. In the evening, angry residents attacked a shop in the Ancoats district of Manchester where an acquaintance had entered with a ‘trophy of battle’, one of the banners from the meeting. Constables and military were attacked with stones, the Riot Act read once more and Joseph Whitworth became the last of the 18 victims of the day. John Lees from Oldham died of his wounds a few days later. The testimonies at the latter’s inquest are sources of much of the eyewitness reports of Peterloo. Estimates range between 400 and 600 injured.

What this book does, unlike the film, is briefly describe some of the immediate and longer-term political results of the massacre. These include the trial of Hunt, Bamford and others, the gradual extension of the franchise, including to women in 1918 and 1928, and the rise of the Chartists, the world’s first working-class party. It also refers to the immense industrialisation that destroyed the handloom weavers, replacing them with lower-paid factory workers.

The great benefit of this book is that it is a simple introduction to what the Peterloo massacre represented and the class forces at work, especially the early working class in Britain and its role in political and social movements. When reading it, I had the feeling it would be a good introduction for history students at school; one of the motivations for Mike Leigh to make his film was its relative absence from the history curriculum. Now I understand there will be an abridged online edition precisely aimed at young students. It will provide an excellent explanation of this bloody but important episode in working-class history.