The Peterloo Massacre by Joyce Marlow

Review published on June 13, 2018.

A year short of the bicentennial commemorations of one of the pivotal moments in British history, the republication of Marlow’s book is very welcome. This is a remarkably fresh and vibrant history despite being written fifty years ago for the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary. This is particularly true when you consider socio-economic history was a fledgling art form in 1969. This is a comprehensive and in-depth look at the political history but also the economic and social background to the events that took place on the 16th August 1819 at St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, there after known by the epithet, The Peterloo Massacre.

Marlow is very good at scene setting and drawing sketches of the characters involved. The Peterloo Massacre encompasses a detailed reconstruction of the events that unfolded on the day but it is also a clear account of the build up and the aftermath. Marlow has a very readable style even when it comes to more complex issues. When the new books celebrating the bicentennial are published next year it will be interesting to see what new research has uncovered but I doubt they will put Marlow in the shade.

Marlow opens her account by personalising the events of 16th August, relating the story of John Lees, a 22-year-old veteran of Waterloo. Cut down not by enemy fire or enemy blade but the sabre of a British soldier. In all, fifteen people died, hundreds were injured (the actual number of wounded is disputed). The event has been a call to arms for the left and a cultural reference point ever since. Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy helped foster the view of Castlereagh (the government spokesman) that posterity favours:

“I met murder on the way,
He had a mask like Castlereagh”

Tragically, the first victim of the day was a babe in arms, a two-year-old child knocked from his mother’s grasp by the galloping Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry. Of course, the origins of the tragic day begin with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of Manchester, the arrival of urban slum housing, erratic wages, lack of work and lack of representation in parliament. Marlow is very clear on the difference between the local and national issues that played a part in this day.

“While wages remain high most people accepted the conditions. Money, if not producing happiness, took the edge off unhappiness….”

A telling observation, people were not seeking happiness but to survive. Naturally, when the wages shrank discontent rose.

As for Parliament, it was not just that the masses did not get a vote (elections were based on property rights) but also, as yet Manchester had no seat in the house. Marlow notes the significance of the Corn Bill, which caused fluctuations in price based on supply, that meant in poor harvests the price of a staple diet went up. There were protests and public meetings across the country and speakers like Cobbett who spoke of the need for reform. But honest protest was seen as a challenge to authority and readily equated to sedition. No doubt the volatile atmosphere from the continent created tension. As radical sentiment rose the magistrates of the city feared rebellion.

Lord Grey commented on the Radicals: “Is there any one of them with whom you were trust yourself in the dark.”

Mass meetings fuelled fear among the ruling elite and the owners. The population of the area was heavily nonconformist and this angered the conservative Anglican Church and ruling elite (my shorthand, not Marlow’s).

On the day of the public gathering, the soldiers, yeomanry and special constables were amassed to deal with the crowd. An estimate that 60,000 people turned up is generally accepted. Lieutenant Colonel L’Estrange commanded the army operation. Henry Hunt, leading Radical, arrived to address the crowd. The magistrates panicked when he spoke from the hustings and ordered his arrest. Rather than the army, The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry were called upon, they charged through the crowd to get to their target.

Hunt advised the crowd to: “Stand firm, my friends, there are only a few soldiers, and we are a host against them.”

Chaos ensued, the Radical leaders were arrested and dragged off. At this point the riot act was said to have been read, but clearly this could not have been heard by the crowd and no time was granted to disperse. Suggestions that the Yeomanry were under attack led The 15th Hussars to charge the crowd, sabres drawn, some say using the flat of the blade, inevitably there were casualties. People were stabbed, trampled, crushed and slashed. It was all over in twenty minutes.

The matter polarised the radicals and conservative but accounts of the day meant that the magistrates’ view of events was challenged. The arrested leaders of the day were charged, five of them sentenced to jail terms, including Hunt and Samuel Bamford. The radical movement suffered. Even though The Manchester Observer challenged the official view, the government firmly refused an enquiry and introduced The Six Acts, a repressive bill granting new powers in case of public protest. However, the disquiet never died. By 1820 Manchester had an MP, the Guardian newspaper was established in 1821, and The Reform Bill, the most wide ranging change to government to date, was introduced in 1832. Although not an entirely academic study, that was not the intention, this is a very accessible and thoroughly enjoyable, well researched history.

Fans of this history may like to know that Marlow also produced works on The Tolpuddle Martyrs and The Suffragettes. This book is the basis for the upcoming Mike Leigh film starring Maxine Peake, due out in November.

Paul Burke 4/4

The Peterloo Massacre by Joyce Marlow
Ebury Press 9781785038648 pbk May 2018


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