The British Left and Contested Memories of Peterloo

In contrast to the enormous condescension of conservative commentators, the left has tried in various ways to keep the memory of the Peterloo massacre alive.

Peterloo – No Big Deal?

Mike Leigh’s new film Peterloo was nationally released on 2 November 2018. Eager film reviewers, Venice Festival tickets clasped in their hands, have already crowded in to debate the dramatic merits and demerits of Leigh’s historical epic, while there has also been a flurry of discussion in the British press. Questions have been raised about whether the 1819 Peterloo Massacre is an event of sufficient historical weight to merit a big-budget movie, while several right-wing journalists have taken umbrage at Leigh’s suggestion that the story of Peterloo should be taught more widely in schools.

Dominic Sandbrook, for example, has argued in the Daily Mail that Peterloo was a regrettable “accident” but one which, in historical and comparative terms, was “no big deal” and “barely a massacre at all”. Similarly, the Tory peer Danny Finkelstein, in a much more nuanced piece for The Times, has argued that while Peterloo may have represented an “outrage” and a “scandal”, the British left are wrong to elevate this ephemeral incident to the level of a ‘turning point’ in the nation’s political development1.

It is worth pointing out that the claim that Peterloo was “no big deal” is as old as the massacre itself. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, conservative commentators have often tried to deny the suffering and downplay the significance of the Peterloo Massacre2. William Hulton, the Tory magistrate who ordered the cavalry charge in 1819, believed, like Sandbrook, that Peterloo was neither a massacre nor a significant event. On his retirement in 1832, Hulton stated categorically (and erroneously) that only two individuals had died on St Peter’s Fields and that, in his judgement, the affair had been blown out of all proportion3. Many history textbooks published in the later nineteenth century followed Hulton’s lead and glossed over the ‘Manchester Massacre’ by claiming it was a parochial affair in which “only two or three” fatalities occurred4.

A Massacre and a Turning Point

We now know from the research of Michael Bush that there were seventeen deaths and over 500 injuries at Peterloo. Furthermore, this new research has found that a disproportionate number of those injured were women, suggesting that female involvement in the campaign for universal suffrage was particularly malodorous to the Manchester authorities and the military forces at their disposal5. Given that the crowd (of men, women, and children) was unarmed – and given the ferocity with which the yeomanry cavalry assaulted that crowd – there can be no question that Peterloo was a massacre and, in the context of nineteenth-century Britain, it was widely recognized as such.

Illustration by George Cruikshank, BM Sats 14209 – Victory of Peterloo (London, 1821)

There is, perhaps, a reasonable intellectual debate to be had about the relative significance of Peterloo compared with other events in British history. To argue, however, that Peterloo was less important than the English Reformation or the Industrial Revolution, as Finkelstein does, is to compare apples and oranges, which does not get us very far. Given the scale of the Peterloo meeting (c.60,000 people), and the notorious overreaction of the authorities which followed, one would be hard-pressed to find a more historically significant political rally in the last two centuries of British history.

In terms of high drama, Peterloo certainly ranks alongside the Birmingham Bull Ring Riots (1839), the Kennington Common Meeting (1848), and the Bloody Sunday protests in Trafalgar Square (1887). In terms of the length of the casualty list, Peterloo was far bloodier than any of these rallies and we must to turn to events in Ireland (e.g. the Bloody Sunday shootings of 1972) or to the wider British Empire (e.g. the Amritsar Massacre of 1919) to find more extreme examples of state violence directed against unarmed protestors. (Indeed, in the colonial context of Amritsar the death toll was considerably higher with over three hundred Indian civilians killed by machine-gun fire)6.

A more complex question is whether Peterloo was a turning point in British history. Finkelstein is keen to point out that the Peterloo meeting did not lead directly to progressive electoral reform and, in fact, the excitement surrounding Peterloo was used by the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, as a pretext to introduce further restrictions on public meetings and the press. The 1832 Reform Act which gave one in five men the vote was certainly some way off and the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave all men and some women the vote, lay a full century in the future.

Nevertheless, Peterloo did represent a watershed moment. Several important radical leaders of the nineteenth century took direct inspiration from Peterloo and viewed it as a key turning point in their own political education. Feargus O’Connor, for example, who led the Chartist movement during the 1830s and 1840s, looked back on Peterloo as the “great scene of the century”. For O’Connor, Peterloo represented an important battle in the ongoing struggle for the working-class vote7. He modelled his appearance and the content of his speeches on those of Henry Hunt, the keynote speaker at Peterloo, and it was the ‘monster meeting’ of the Peterloo era which inspired many later mass political rallies in the Chartist period and beyond.

Even those with more moderate politics than O’Connor recognized that Peterloo was a significant historical turning point. The liberal journalist, Archibald Prentice, wrote in 1851 that Peterloo had been like “the breaking up of a great frost” which opened the eyes of Manchester’s middle classes to the plight of the poor and convinced them of the need for thoroughgoing political reforms8. Likewise, for the Manchester historian, W.E.A. Axon, the evident injustice of Peterloo “united the Reformers of all classes” and “may be regarded as the starting point of the modern Reform agitation”9.

Peterloo was a massacre, it was a significant event in nineteenth-century British history, and it was a turning point in the nation’s political development.

The British Left and the Memory of Peterloo

Given the enormous condescension of conservative commentators, it has been incumbent upon those on the left to keep the memory of Peterloo alive. This task has often been taken up with great enthusiasm. In addition to the Manchester Chartists, activists in the women’s suffrage movement claimed a lineage stretching back to Peterloo. The women present at the reform demo of 1819 were sometimes viewed as proto-suffragettes while Emmeline Pankhurst claimed that her paternal grandfather had “narrowly escaped death upon the field of Peterloo”10. Socialist leaders in the nineteenth century also referred to Peterloo in their speeches and argued that the blood of the ‘Manchester martyrs’ was the seed of the labour movement11. This practice has recently been revived by Jeremy Corbyn through his reading of the Peterloo protest poem The Masque of Anarchy.

Although the desire to remember and reconnect with the ‘martyrs’ of St Peter’s Fields has often been strongly felt by those on the left, this has not always translated into successful commemorations, or to justice for those murdered at Peterloo. Henry Hunt – who was arrested on the hustings at Peterloo and sentenced to prison for his involvement in the reform meeting – dedicated much of his life to an unsuccessful campaign for a public enquiry. Despite being elected as MP for Preston in 1831, Hunt’s calls for an official investigation were repeatedly rebuffed by Parliament and private prosecutions brought against specific members of the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry all ended in acquittal and the apparent vindication of the authorities.

After the 1832 Reform Act, many radicals turned their energies away from the judicial system and towards commemorating the Peterloo Massacre and to using this tragic memory as a talisman for mobilising further campaigns for universal manhood suffrage. The Chartists in and around Manchester, for example, raised a subscription for a monument to be built in honour of Henry Hunt. Although a great obelisk was erected in Ancoats at the burial ground of James Scholefield’s Round House Chapel, the radicals ran out of funds and could not afford to have the structure topped with a statue of Hunt, as they had originally intended. Moreover, in the 1880s the Chapel was closed, and the incomplete Hunt memorial was sold off and unceremoniously removed.

Northern Star, 20 August 1842

Artists have also had difficulty in representing and memorialising the Peterloo massacre. When the great Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown was commissioned to produce several frescoes for the Manchester Town Hall he wanted one of them to feature the scene at Peterloo. However, Manchester’s local councillors deemed the topic too fractious and vetoed the idea. Similarly, when the adjacent Free Trade Hall was rebuilt in the aftermath of the Blitz, a Peterloo mural was commissioned by the City Council but the resulting work by Sherwood Edwards somehow managed to gloss over the state violence seen in 1819 whilst simultaneously being something of an artistic failure.

Panned by the critics – An extract from Sherwood Edwards’ Peterloo mural (1951). (Image credit: Joe Cozens, 2016)

In more recent decades, there have been further abortive attempts to commemorate Peterloo. A campaign to rename ‘St Peter’s Street’ as ‘Peterloo Street’ floundered in the 1970s due to objections from local shopkeepers, while an official Peterloo plaque placed on the outside of the Free Trade Hall in 1972 failed to mention either the cause of the reform meeting or its fatal conclusion12.

Hence, in the twenty-first century, in advance of the bicentenary of 2019, a range of activists and journalists on the left of British politics have been anxious that Peterloo should be prominently and publicly commemorated in a manner befitting its historical significance. The Peterloo Memorial Campaign (PMC), with the assistance of the Guardian’s Martin Wainwright, achieved an early success in 2007 by lobbying Manchester City Council to replace the inadequate blue plaque with a much more clearly-worded red marker. Moreover, just last week the artist Jeremy Deller unveiled his provisional plans for a public memorial to Peterloo. This latest initiative has significant funds behind it (in the form of a Heritage Lottery Funding) and the blessing of Manchester City Council - two ingredients which have been notably absent from many earlier failed attempts at memorialisation. Due to pressure from activists within the PMC, a degree of public consultation has been injected into the process of memorialising Peterloo in 2019.

The new plaque, the new public memorial by Deller, and the new film by Mike Leigh (not to mention a new academic study by historian Professor Robert Poole and an historically-informed graphic novel by the artist ‘Polyp’ should – in combination – be seen as a great victory for the British left. Conservative commentators will inevitably be displeased. They will continue to argue that Peterloo was an insignificant event, and will claim that the focus on Peterloo paints British history in an unfairly dim light. However, there can be little doubt that through these new cultural offerings, consciousness of the Peterloo Massacre among ordinary citizens will be raised. In 2019 – as in 1819 – the people will make up their own mind about whether Peterloo was a ‘big deal’ and whether it is worth remembering.

  1. The Times, 22 August 2018. 

  2. Joseph Cozens, ‘The Making of the Peterloo Martyrs, 1819 to the Present’, in Keith Laybourn and Quentin Outram (eds.), Secular Martyrdom in the Britain and Ireland: From Peterloo to the Present (Basingstoke, 2018), pp. 31-58. 

  3. Spectator, 31 December 1831. 

  4. See for example C. D. Yonge, The Life and Administration of the Second Earl of Liverpool Vol. 2 (London, 1868), p. 407. 

  5. See Michael Bush, The Casualties of Peterloo (Lancaster, 2005) and Robert Poole, Peterloo: The English Uprising (forthcoming Manchester University Press). 

  6. Kim Wagner, ‘‘Calculated to Strike Terror’: The Amritsar Massacre and the Spectacle of Colonial Violence’, Past & Present, 223 (2016), p. 186. 

  7. Manchester Guardian, 20 August 1836. 

  8. Archibald Prentice, Historical Sketches and Personal Recollections of Manchester (Manchester, 1851), pp. 166-170. 

  9. William E. A. Axon, The Annals of Manchester: A Chronological Record, From the Earliest Time to the End of 1885 (Manchester, 1886), pp. viii, p. 156. 

  10. Sylvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette (1911), p. 4. 

  11. Cozens, ‘The Making’, pp. 3-4. 

  12. See Terry Wyke, ‘Remembering the Manchester Massacre’, Manchester Region History Review, vol. 23 (2012), pp. 111-31. 


Joseph Cozens (@Joe_Cozens)

Joe Cozens is a Teaching Fellow in Modern British History at University College London.