Friday, 26 September 2014

Peterloo and The Manchester Man

I grew up knowing about the massacre of Peterloo. It's part of the history of Manchester. All I really knew as a child, though, was that ten people had been killed when cavalry charged a crowd that had gathered to hear a speaker on St Peter's Fields - which became known as Peterloo as a reference to the battle of Waterloo.
It was much later that I read Mrs Linneus Banks' novel The Manchester Man, which went into far more detail about the massacre, pieced together from eye witness accounts from her own friends and family.
There was no doubting whose side Mrs Banks was on - and it wasn't the one wielding the sabres and firing cannons down the streets of Manchester at unarmed men and women.
The time was 1819, and the country was still in economic difficulties following the end of the Napoleonic wars. Food was scarce, and there were protests about the Corn Laws, which kept bread prices artificially high. Protesters were also concerned about parliamentary representation - most working men were not allowed to vote (and no women could vote, of course). One of the leading radicals was Henry Hunt, who was going to speak at the meeting on St Peter's Fields.
Newspapers reporting on previous meetings had poured scorn on the scruffy appearance of the working men who had attended, so for this meeting there was a concerted effort to wear Sunday best, and many women there wore white dresses. They wanted to look respectable, and they wanted a peaceful rally. They carried banners, and groups were led by bands.
Meanwhile, the magistrates of Manchester were horrified by such a large gathering - some estimates say 80,000 - and they wanted to arrest Henry Hunt. So they called in the military. There were 600 men of the 15th Hussars; several hundred infantrymen; a Royal Horse Artillery unit with two six-pounder (2.7 kg) guns; 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry; 400 special constables; and 120 cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, relatively inexperienced militia recruited from among local shopkeepers and tradesmen. It was the Yeomanry who started the charge with drawn sabres against an unarmed crowd - and the first casualty was a two year old boy who was being held in his mother's arms as she crossed the street, just as the Yeomanry galloped along it. She wasn't even involved in the meeting.
On occasions such as these, the Riot Act was supposed to be read to a crowd before any action was taken, to give them the opportunity to disperse - in this case, as Mrs Banks says, the Riot Act was read "in an inaudible voice" from a house in Mount Street where the magistrates were directing events, and not on the Field itself.
She goes on: "Thus Nadin [one of the magistrates], the cowardly bully, having a warrant to apprehend the ringleaders - although he had a line of constables thence to the hustings - declared he dared not serve it without the support of the military.
His plea was heard; and thus, through the blindness, the incapacity, the cowardice, or the self-importance of this one man, soldiery hardened on the battlefield, yeomanry fired with drink, were let loose like barbarians on a closely-wedged mass of unarmed people, and one of the most atrocious massacres in history was the result."
Henry Hunt was, indeed, arrested, but at the cost of between ten and fifteen lives, and between 400 and 700 wounded.
The authorities arrested several journalists who had reported on the massacre, and the Manchester Observer was closed down after several police raids - leading to the formation of the Manchester Guardian. By the end of 1820 every significant working class radical reformer was in jail. Four members of the Manchester Yeomanry were also taken to court, but were all acquitted on the grounds that they were dispersing an illegal gathering.
In due course, the Free Trade Hall was built, partly on the site of St Peter's Fields, and there used to be a blue plaque commemorating Peterloo. However, it didn't mention any of the deaths. In 2007, a new plaque, with the following wording, was put up instead:
"On 16 August 1819 a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries."

Mrs Banks said that she remembered marches in commemoration of the massacre, but that they had been discontinued by the time she wrote The Manchester Man. Looking around the internet, I saw a picture of a modern march, with banners that were copies of the originals - but as soon as I clicked on the page I was informed that the Police had blocked the site and if I carried on I'd be liable to a £100 fine!!!! (it's called deathtotyranny). So I didn't.

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