Two hundred years ago, on 16 August 1819, the event we’ve come to know as the Peterloo massacre took place, as a public meeting on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester was violently broken up by troops acting on the orders of the local magistrates. The meeting had been called as part of a wider movement to demand parliamentary representation for the rapidly growing industrial city of Manchester, which had no MP at the time.
The economic depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars, made worse by a series of poor harvests, had led to widespread unemployment, wage cuts and desperate poverty in the area, and people had no means of making their wishes known to parliament except by extra-parliamentary means.
The meeting was convened legally, and an estimated 60,000 people, many of them in their Sunday best, and including many women, some of them advocates of female suffrage, turned up to hear an open-air speech by the radical reformer Henry “Orator” Hunt. The crowd was peaceful and orderly, but the magistrates, all of them strong opponents of parliamentary reform, issued a warrant for the arrest of Hunt and his entourage, and sent in the local yeomanry (described as “younger members of the Tory party in arms”), who went into the crowd, “cutting most indiscriminately to the right and to the left to get at them”, as the Times reported.
Hunt and some others around him (including the Times reporter John Tyas) were duly arrested, but thinking the yeomanry were being assaulted by the crowd, the magistrates now sent in regular cavalry, who charged from one end of the field while mounted yeomanry charged from the other. Escape routes were blocked by troops, and one officer was heard to shout: “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!” Altogether an estimated 18 people were killed, and around 650 injured, some of them seriously.
The massacre of peaceful protesters sent shock waves across the country. It was soon dubbed the Peterloo massacre, an ironic reference to the allied victory at the Battle of Waterloo some four years previously. Commemorative mugs, handkerchieves and other souvenirs were made by supporters of the radical cause, while the event was followed by the foundation of this newspaper in 1821 (as the Manchester Guardian) and immortalised in Shelley’s bitter poem The Mask of Anarchy.
The bicentenary of Peterloo is being marked in many ways, including a major film by Mike Leigh, radio and television programmes, books, exhibitions, songs, and more besides. However, not everyone has considered the event worth commemorating in such style. Paradoxically, given its own reporter’s work (a 10,000-word dispatch) was followed by a thunderous denunciation of the behaviour of the troops in a leading article, the Times has chosen to cast doubt on Peterloo’s significance. In a recent editorial it attacked the BBC’s decision to broadcast “no fewer than 10 radio programmes on the massacre”, and disputed the framing of a Radio 4 documentary (presented by Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of the Guardian), which was entitled Peterloo: The Massacre That Changed Britain.
The editorial declared that “contrary to the BBC’s demonology”, Peterloo had “no wider historical significance, and did not ‘change Britain’ beyond feeding a tendentious account by leftwing historians of Britain’s traditions of radical protest”. It blamed this “Marxist version of Britain’s past” on EP Thompson, who in his 1963 book The Making of the English Working Class, threw together “wholly disconnected movements” – including the one that led to Peterloo – to form a misleading narrative that took an “isolated outrage” out of context. A “modern myth” was created that had no basis in fact.
What the Times seems to object to is what it takes as a sympathetic account of revolutionary activity. Surely, it suggests, such protests were unnecessary, given the fact that parliamentary reform acts eventually brought universal suffrage “without recourse to the revolution that governments had feared since 1789”. Daniel Finkelstein, a Tory peer and former executive editor of the Times, has echoed these sentiments, declaring in a column that “a romantic desire to suggest that Britain’s path was decided by street protest and a contemporary hint that it might work again can’t be allowed to make Peterloo bear more weight than it can carry”.
The Times’ leader concludes with the claim that using the past “as a prism through which to interpret current politics is bad history”. Ironic, then, that these articles themselves use Peterloo to condemn the exercise of “street protest” in the present day.
It’s not hard to see why Conservatives in this country are worried about the effect the bicentenary of Peterloo might have on contemporary politics. We’re only a few weeks away from what’s looking increasingly like a no-deal Brexit, with warnings multiplying about social unrest, street violence and public disorder, and troops apparently being put on alert to deal with food riots and political marches. The establishment’s anxiety is palpable.
There are echoes here of the fears of “the mob” felt by the magistrates in 1819 and their masters in the Tory government. It was repeated a century later in a similar massacre whose anniversary we are also marking this year, at Jallianwala Bagh in the Indian city of Amritsar – where a peaceful meeting was being held to protest against the detention and deportation of two Indian nationalist politicians. More than 400 unarmed protesters were shot down by British troops commanded by an army officer who later said his purpose was “to punish the Indians” for their effrontery.
Just as the Amritsar massacre proved a turning point in the struggle for Indian independence, so Peterloo proved a turning point in the fight for the right to demonstrate. This had nothing to do with violent revolution and everything to do with peaceful reform. Thompson was not creating any “Marxist” political narrative when he concluded that “since the moral consensus of the nation outlawed the riding down and sabreing of an unarmed crowd, the corollary followed – that the right of public meeting had been gained”. Beyond this, national horror at the massacre provided a real impulse for the campaign to extend the right to vote, gained after a further series of mass demonstrations and public meetings just over a decade later, in 1832.
The crowds at Peterloo were ultimately placing their faith in the power of parliament to represent the people once its archaic constitution had been amended. That power needs defending more than ever now, at a time when it is threatened by an unelected prime minister who shows every sign of wanting to push through an unpopular and immensely damaging policy without its consent.
• Richard J Evans is provost of Gresham College, London, and author of The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914, published by Penguin