Remembering Peterloo

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As the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre approaches, the event has been on my mind. This year, we will have a memorial meeting and attendees will contribute to a tapestry objects that they associate with Peterloo. I made the piece in the image above, which has the text of a banner in a Chartist demonstration in 1840. Like the Chartists, today’s Mancunians think that it’s important to remember the event. I want to write this to understand what it meant to me to make the piece above, and remind myself of the research I did into the Chartists’ feelings and thoughts about the event. For a summary of Peterloo, see this; for Chartism, see this.

Looking at my thesis, the material about the Chartist reactions to Peterloo was focused through the lens of Shelley’s poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy‘. At an earlier stage of research, however, I collected a lot of interesting content about the ways Chartists talked about the event more broadly. By the time of the demonstration featuring the slogan above — The Murder of Peterloo Shall Never Be Forgotten — it had been just 21 years since those murders. Imagine that Peterloo had happened in 1995, and that you, your friends and family, or comrades had been killed or mutilated by the sabres of the yeomanry. When you participated in your own movement demanding political reform, gathering in the streets and confronted by police or soldiers, you would remember Peterloo — not as a distant historical event but as a live one. Wounds may have scabbed over but you would connect your own experience with that of 21 years earlier.

Peterloo was remembered by Chartists as a pivotal and spectacular event in the recent history of radicals’ contact with the ruling class. This is not in itself surprising, but I also think that the act of remembrance had a specific political function — that they remembered Peterloo partly in order to imagine future clashes that would result in a different outcome. The Chartists intended this remembrance to be transformative — they would not straightforwardly identify with victimhood and suffering, but would register Peterloo as an example of a tyrannical power victimizing the people, an example that they had no intention of allowing to recur in their own period and to themselves.

Over the course of Chartism as a movement, their Peterloo rhetoric developed as Chartist strategy was tested and they experienced their own conflicts with armed opponents. In the early days of Chartism (the late 1830s), Peterloo was talked about as if it could not happen again because the authorities would not dare attack them or, if they tried, the Chartists would fight back, refuse martyrdom and redeem the deaths of 1819 in gaining liberty. By the early 1840s, events such as those in Preston and Ashton during the General Strike of 1842 could be described as the equivalent of Peterloo:

This town [Ashton] has been the scene of the most brutal and dastardly assaults on an unoffending and defenceless people that is on record since the never-to-be forgotten Peterloo, by a soldiery that is evident were made drunk for the purpose.1

I won’t go into this development in detail here, but just concentrate on a few examples from the early period and in the local context of Manchester and surrounding areas.

The Chartist remembrance of Peterloo was actually a reimagining of the event, and a mental rehearsal for future clashes with the Peterloo yeomanry’s successors. I use the word ‘rehearsal’ on purpose, as meetings by Chartists on the site of the massacre in the centre of Manchester were reported using theatrical metaphors. (I wrote about this previously in a piece about Maxine Peake’s Manchester International Festival performance of Shelley’s poem ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in a venue close to the site of the massacre.)

A report in the Chartist newspaper the Northern Liberator on the release of Peter McDouall (imprisoned for using seditious speech at a Chartist meeting at Hyde) describes the two- to three-hour long procession of around 2,000 Chartists, and their route through Manchester and Salford. Two days later, Chartists attended a dinner at the Hall of Science, Camp Field, which was near the site of the massacre. The Grand Hall was decorated with ‘portraits, banners, and flags, most of which had been used in the procession on Saturday evening’, including a banner that ‘bore a much worn and faded representation of the never to be forgotten “Manchester massacre”’. 2

This description of Peterloo, as an event that deserved a permanent place in the memory of the working class, is typical of the ways in which Peterloo was represented in the Chartist press. Banners at other demonstrations carried mottoes such as ‘The murder at Peterloo shall never be forgotten’ and ‘Remember the bloody deeds of Peterloo’.3 The imagining of Peterloo as a piece of theatre in the report of a demonstration in Manchester on the nineteenth anniversary of the event is striking, and the most explicit example of a tendency to think of it as a tragedy in the theatrical sense.4 The reporter noted that: ‘It has been customary with the Radicals of Manchester to celebrate that important though memorable day, by holding a meeting on the spot where the dreadful tragedy was performed’. The crowd assembled ‘at the “New Cross”’ and proceeded to the site of the event, where they were addressed by Edward Curran:

In yonder window (pointing to a window opposite,) sat a number of magistrates, who read the Riot Act, and who afterwards rioted in the blood of an unoffending and starving people. (Hear, hear.) That scene had passed away; they were then subjected to a temporary defeat, but he hoped they had now sufficient courage never to allow either the sabres of the Yeomanry, or any other weapons drive them from that field again. (Loud cheers.)

Curran could claim authority for his account; as a veteran of Peterloo, his first-hand experience of the massacre made him a suitable guide and narrator of its events. The impression given is that the crowd, some of whom may have been present nineteen years before, is asked to take the role of the crowd at Peterloo and they are shown the stage position of the magistrates who addressed their forebears. The dead and injured are referred to several times as ‘their mother, fathers, sisters, and brothers’, and this may have been literally true for some attendees.

Besides public meetings in Manchester on the site of the massacre, there was another symbolic event that was used to remember it: smaller, comparatively more intimate meetings to commemorate the birthday of Henry Hunt, a leader of the Peterloo demonstration. These were cultural events; poetry, songs, and paintings of the massacre were vital elements. A celebration in Ashton-under-Lyne at the house of a veteran of Peterloo, Mrs Walker, saw the chairman quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Songs were sung, and ‘the room was embellished with patriotic decorations’. There were toasts to the memory of figures like Thomas Paine, Cobbett, ‘and other great men, who laboured for human regeneration, and, lastly, to the memory of Robert Burns’.5

Another celebration in Ashton-under-Lyne the following year was similarly decorated with portraits of Hunt and animated with song. The chairman read a letter written by William Aitkin from prison, in which he noted that although Hunt’s name:

did not shine conspicuously on the silent pages of the history of our country, […] it is engraven in the brightest characters of affection on the hearts and minds of a long suffering and insulted people.6

The article ‘Henry Hunt’s Birthday. Radical Dinner at Manchester’ described the way in which the attendees ‘seemed as much affected’ by gazing at portraits of Hunt and other patriots, ‘as if were in reality gazing upon the last remains of that immortal patriot’. An original song by Mr Heims was sung. As the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor stressed in his speech, however, the purpose of such symbols was not to offer an apolitical aesthetic experience but to provoke the audience to do justice to the aims of those martyrs. O’Connor:

had attended meetings pretending honour to departed heroes and martyrs, where statues of marble and busts of stone were considered fittest emblems to represent the principles of heroes; but when he moved, as an amendment, that the recognition of their principles would be the most imperishable monument of their patriotism, he was met by Whig yells and factious scorn (Hear, hear and cheers.) They were there tonight to perform a more noble work than that of bedaubing the market place with inanimate figures, cold emblems of recollection. They were building a fresh temple in the hearts of youths which he saw about him while they were watering the recollections of veteran patriots, so that the name of Hunt, the immortal champion of liberty might still live green in their memory. (Tremendous cheering.)7

Stimulation of feeling, therefore, is important political work: ‘cold emblems of recollection’ are dead letters when compared to the organic, vital figures ‘watered’ by tears of sympathy and respect.

In references to Peterloo in the Chartist press, there is a correspondence between different forms of Chartist activity — cultural events like dinners and commemorations of Hunt’s birthday, demonstrations and their speeches (as in Curran’s dramatic speech), and public lectures — and this stimulation of feeling. The Chartist Henry Vincent followed Curran’s speech to the crowd assembled on the site of Peterloo with a speech that saw political capital in the feelings provoked by the scene:

We are here not merely to make speeches […] but to declare in the face of England’s Aristocracy, that the remembrance of that bloody deed, will stimulate us to renewed exertions until their unhallowed power is destroyed.8

He ends by referring to the rejuvenating effect of being on the site of Peterloo:

My friends, I feel somewhat fatigued, having spoken every day for the last fortnight; but the remembrance that I am on the plains of Peterloo, inspires me with renewed vigour. Methinks even now the departed spirits of the murdered patriots of Manchester hover over us, (hear hear), bidding us to ‘go forward’ in the great work until you are placed in the position that you ought to attain; until you have made England what she ought to be — a Democracy.

Stimulation of feeling is not only important political work in itself; it also inspires other forms of political work, and both combine in Chartist rhetoric and activity to create a virtuous circle. Mr Tillman’s public lecture in Manchester on ‘the spirit of liberty’ linked not only the spirit of the people in 1819 and that of the Chartists, but the ‘spirit of liberty’ with blood. According to the reporter:

[Tillman] made a few very striking remarks upon Hunt, and the blood that was spilt at Peterloo, and that the spirit which excited the people of that day was yet warm in the breast of many before him; and the blood of the martyrs had been the means of fortifying the principle, and, if possible, had made them more ardent in the cause of liberty.9

A ‘spirit’ that is ‘warm in the breast’ appears to have the desire for liberty as the very life-blood of the people. It also, given the familial relations drawn between the reformers of 1819 and the Chartists, and the fact that the lecture was delivered in Manchester, hints at literal consanguineous relations. Their forefathers’ spilt blood only fortifies the desire for liberty; warm blood is emotive and political power.

When I made the piece for the tapestry, I was surprised that it was an emotional experience for me. Peterloo has been an academic subject of interest to me going back to my undergrad days, when I chose to talk about it in one of those general ‘give a presentation’ projects in my first-year tutorial group, and when one of my peers stated it was not that important because ‘not many people died’. I wish now that I had counted out 15 of us in the room, to point out that when you know the people, you might feel differently about a ‘few’ deaths.

When I was cutting out the letters and sewing them onto the fabric, it was an experience in which the action of making something allowed me to meditate on the event. The strength of the word ‘murder’ was brought home to me while I designed and made the piece. The need for the ‘M’ to be wider than the other letters, sewing on the second ‘R’ of murder — these were practical issues to solve, but not purely so. The experience of creating something made me think for hours about the subject, and in a way I don’t recall experiencing when finding and marshalling the historical evidence, some of which features above. By the end, I felt properly indignant and wondered if the Chartist banner makers had a similar experience.

At the two commemoration meetings, too, I had a strong emotional reaction. When the names of the dead were read out, by Maxine Peake on the Sunday and John Henshaw on the Tuesday,  I felt really properly angry and understood totally why Chartists wanted to honour the dead by making political gains. Here are a few photos of the assemblage of the tapestry, and one of the commemoration on Tuesday when it was displayed.

  1. Brutal and Cowardly Attack on the People by an Infuriated and Drunken Soldiery, Northern Star, 10 September 1842, p. 8.
  2. ‘Liberation of Mr. McDouall from Imprisonment’, Northern Liberator, 29 August 1840, p. 7.
  3. ‘Apprehension of the Rev. J.R. Stephens’, Northern Liberator, 5 January 1840, p. 2; ‘Trail of the Rev. Mr Stephens’, Northern Liberator, 24 August 1839, p. 7, respectively.
  4. ‘Great Demonstration in Commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre’, Northern Star, 18 August 1838, p. 8.
  5. ‘Ashton-under-Lyne’, Northern Liberator, 16 November 1839, p. 5.
  6. ‘Ashton-under-Lyne. Hunt’s Birth-Day’, Northern Liberator, 14 November 1840, p. 3.
  7. ‘Henry Hunt’s Birthday. Radical Dinner at Manchester’, Northern Star, 10 November 1838, p. 8.
  8. Great Demonstration in Commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre, Northern Star, 18 August 1838, p. 8.
  9. Public Lecture by Mr Tillman, Northern Star, 12 September 1840, p. 8.

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