‘Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.’
—The Masque of Anarchy, Percy Bysshe Shelley
On 16 August 1819 a large crowd—variously estimated at between sixty and eighty thousand—assembled in an open area in the centre of Manchester known as St Peters Field. It was a warm, summery day and many of the people—men, women and children, all dressed in their Sunday best—had come on foot from the towns and villages around Manchester to hear speakers advocate for the reform of Parliament and the extension of the vote to all men.
The first speaker had not been speaking for long—a matter of minutes—when mounted cavalry entered the area at a brisk trot. Pausing briefly to brandish their newly sharpened sabres, they drove their way to the platform and arrested the speakers. Deciding then to take down the flags and banners dotted around the field—which read ‘Universal Suffrage’, ‘Annual Parliaments’, ‘Vote by ballot’ and ‘No corn laws’—they proceeded to cut their way through the crowd to get at them.
Men and women were cut down by sabres while others were trampled underfoot by horses. An estimated 18 people died and over seven hundred were seriously injured. Within ten minutes, the entire field was cleared apart from the bodies of the slain and wounded and a scattering of hats, bonnets, shawls and shoes.
It had only been four years since the battle of Waterloo, when Napoleon suffered his final defeat to the combination of the British and Prussian armies. The massacre at St Peter’s Field was quickly and bleakly dubbed ‘Peterloo’. The outrage was long and lingering. On hearing the news, Shelley wrote his famous poem The Masque of Anarchy, lines of which have been picked up in recent years by UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. But such was the fear of repression; it was not published until thirteen years later, in 1832.
Men and women were cut down by sabres while others were trampled underfoot by horses. An estimated 18 people died and over seven hundred were seriously injured.
Why did it happen? While in Manchester recently, I visited the People’s History Museum—the national museum of labour history. In the bookshop was a book, The Peterloo Massacre by Joyce Marlow. On the cover it said, ‘Containing a full and faithful account of the inhuman murders and other monstrous cruelties exercised on unarmed and distressed people calling for liberty and universal suffrage.’ And below that, ‘Soon to be a major film.’
I bought the book. It’s a good read. Joyce Marlow wrote it in 1969, around the 150th anniversary of the massacre. It sets out the context clearly. South Lancashire at the time was the centre of the British cotton industry and the cradle of the Industrial Revolution that would change the whole world. The population of Manchester itself had increased five-fold in the previous fifty years to over a hundred thousand. It was the second biggest city in England after London. But it had no member of parliament.
The spinning and weaving of cotton in Britain had been transformed by the steam engine and a succession of ingenious inventions in the late 18th century. First came the spinning jenny that created 16 to 18 times more yarn that the old spinning wheel. Capitalists then set up jennies in large buildings and use water power to drive them. The price of yarn dropped, woven goods were cheaper, demand increased, more weavers were required and weavers’ wages rose. This was the beginning of the factory system, which received a boost with the invention of the spinning throstle. The jenny and throstle were then combined in the mule. The carding engine and preparatory (slubbing and roving) frames were invented about the same time, then Boulton and Watt steam engines were applied to the process. Very quickly the number of hand spinners plummeted and virtually all spinning of cotton occurred by means of machines in a factory.
Handloom weavers managed to maintain their independence—albeit by working in damp cellars (which kept the yarn supple)—but only by undercutting the price of cloth produced in factories by the power loom. The returns were meagre.
The Science and Industry Museum in Manchester still has a working collection of powered cotton spinning and weaving machines from the period. Housed in the former Manchester station of the world’s very first steam locomotive railway line (the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, built in 1830), the collection of machines are turned on twice a day to provide a thunderous demonstration of the cloth making process.
The population of Manchester itself had increased five-fold in the previous fifty years to over a hundred thousand. It was the second biggest city in England after London. But it had no member of parliament.
At the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars, Marlow describes the mood of the Lancashire workforce as one of ‘sullen acquiescence.’ If working conditions in the dank cellars and William Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ were not bad enough (the powered machines were dangerous to life and limb, the air was hot and full of cotton particles, the noise was deafening and the hours were long) wages had dropped with the falling price of yarn and despite improving market conditions, factory masters refused all attempts at an increase. The cost of living had also gone up. As the war entered its final phase, the government had passed the Corn Laws. These protected landowning gentleman farmers—one of the key groups that supported the ruling Tory party—by banning the importing of cheaper foreign grain, thus driving up the price of bread.
Marlow provides pithy pen portraits of the key players in the developing drama. On the reform side, a motley collection of middle class Radicals, Methodist preachers, firebrand orators and pamphleteers and on the loyalist side, the magistrates who ran Manchester, the yeomanry cavalry (a local militia made up of shopkeepers, publicans and small businessmen), the Home Secretary in London, Lord Sidmouth and Major Byng, hero of Waterloo and head of the regular army troops in the north.
She deftly details the succession of incidents that lead up to the powder keg that was Peterloo, laying the blame for the atrocity firmly at the feet of the loyalists. Of a government, deeply paranoid at the prospect of a British follow up to the French Revolution of thirty years before and determined to resist any reforms, that set up a network of spies that provided highly exaggerated and unreliable information about the plans of the reformers. Of the Manchester magistrates who panicked at the sight of a large, peaceful crowd protesting against the established order. And last but not least, the yeomanry cavalry, who having sharpened their sabres in the days leading up to the meeting, spent the morning getting drunk and then unleashed a violent, uncontrolled assault on innocent men, women and children.
It has been called many things, from Britain’s Tiananmen Square to the beginning of real democracy in Britain. It is obviously a significant event in British history. And with its bicentenary coming up next year, it is a worthy subject for examination and commemoration. So veteran English filmmaker Mike Leigh has written and directed a film about Peterloo. It has just been released in the UK and was shown in Sydney last week as part of a mini British Film Festival.
It has been called many things, from Britain’s Tiananmen Square to the beginning of real democracy in Britain.
It’s an ambitious film. A long film. Technically, well made. Leigh has acknowledged Marlow’s book as one of his sources. But his film overreaches by trying—like Marlow’s book—to tell the whole story of the event. There is a vast parade of characters, most of which are two-dimensional. It’s hard to distinguish who is who among the Manchester reformers and even harder to distinguish between the various magistrates. While Leigh uses the device of a ‘typical’ family whose bugler son comes back from Waterloo with post-traumatic stress syndrome to try to establish a narrative thread, the family members are not really developed as characters.
Unfortunately I think it falls into the trap of being too heavily weighted on the side of historical accuracy at the expense of drama and engagement. So it ends up feeling more like a docudrama than a regular feature film. Ultimately the film works best at the level of a classroom history lesson.
Which in the end is no bad thing. Like so many other attempts to create a fairer society, Peterloo went unacknowledged in the history books for many generations. The bicentenary, the push for a memorial in Manchester, Mike Leigh’s film and the new edition of Joyce Marlow’s book, will all focus attention on an infamous episode.
As Shelley wrote:
Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse
And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW’