Peterloo: an event that paved the way for modern capitalism

Next year is Peterloo 200. The Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819 wasn’t just one of the defining moments in Manchester history. It is the single most dramatic moment in English political history.

More than a dozen people were killed and more than six hundred were injured when troops violently dispersed a public event taking place on St Peter’s Field, where the Radisson/Free Trade Hall and Theatre Royal now stand. The meeting had been called to demand the vote in disenfranchised late Georgian Manchester. The troops’ appalling actions were ratified by the Tory government of the day.

Thanks to the Peterloo Memorial Campaign, of which I am an active member, founded to persuade Manchester city council to erect a permanent memorial to the event and the fallen, Peterloo is now an integral part of Manchester political life.

How times change. When I tried to get the council, through the Labour Party, to rename the pre-Radisson Free Trade Hall the Peterloo Hall in 1984, I was vilified by many, including local historians and the Manchester Evening News. Even Anthony Burgess, by then living in that well-known Manchester suburb of Monte Carlo, vehemently condemned the idea. Peterloo just wasn’t mentioned in polite society, rather like the Moors Murders.

Pic Eric Corbett Commons

Now there are Facebook pages, websites, regular guided tours, more and more books on the subject, and an exhibition at the Portico Library next year linked to the forthcoming excellent graphic history by Paul Fitzgerald, Eva Schlunke and Robert Poole. Then there’s Mike Leigh’s film, due for release in November.

The recent publicity surrounding Peterloo has led to articles in The Times and Daily Mail, by Tory peer Lord Finkelstein and popular historian Dominic Sandbrook respectively, stamping out this new sedition.

The tenor of the articles is that Peterloo was a minor left-wing skirmish of little importance that doesn’t deserve to be taught in schools – something that Mike Leigh has been advocating – and shouldn’t be treated with the same respect as Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights/Glorious Revolution, the Reform Bill, and the Suffragettes’ campaign.

My first thoughts were that those newspapers’ recent diatribes were clearly northernist. They are the London-based media’s and the political establishment’s riposte to all the lovely publicity that Peterloo and Manchester have received this year and will receive even more emphatically next year.

Can’t let Manchester get too uppity, can we? Remember, the only things of significance that happen in England do so in a narrow geographical arc from Oxford to Hastings via Notting Hill.

The major flaw in their reasoning is that Peterloo was not a left-wing or socialist event. The people who called the meeting on 16 August 1819 weren’t calling for revolution. They wanted the public to have the vote.

Peterloo was crucial in the next government granting the vote to the inhabitants of growing industrial towns like Manchester so that they could at least have the choice of voting Whig or Tory, rather than being governed without accountability by the landed gentry.

Peterloo also enthused the campaigns of Manchester-born Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, a well-known Tory.

But a major point that Finkelstein and Sandbrook have missed in their desperation to belittle the Left is that those most moved politically by the horrors of Peterloo were the middle-class merchants of the next generation, led by Richard Cobden and John Bright.

Cobden, a Radical but in no way a socialist, almost single-handedly created a democratic Manchester council in 1838, so that the people could run the place, rather than the Lord of the Manor.

He was also responsible for building the Free Trade Hall on the Peterloo site to step up the campaign for an end to the Corn Laws (one of the issues that united the workers and the middle-class at Peterloo) and introduce business free of government interference – the very lifeblood of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and those now denounced as neo-liberals.

Interesting how we have a Tory peer and a right-wing columnist in two right-wing papers decrying an event that helped pave the way for modern-style capitalism.

New Manchester Walks’ next Peterloo guided tour is on Sunday, 30 September.



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