The Peterloo Massacre: 200 years on and still as relevant today

Next month marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre which played a crucial part in changing Britain’s political structure and its journey to democracy.

On 16 August 1819, more than 60,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field to attend a meeting calling for parliamentary reform.

All areas of Greater Manchester were well-represented with men, women and children coming from Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Stockport and Oldham.

At the time, the country had only recently departed from a prolonged period of war and was run by an unpopular government that didn’t include a Manchester MP – the people wanted representation.  

What is more, dissatisfaction among British people was further fuelled by low wages and poor working conditions combined with slum housing and poverty.

What should have been a peaceful rally on that Monday in 1819, ended in a blood-soaked atrocity as local government cavalry charged the assembly on horseback.

The attack by the ill-trained troops, with sabres in hand, led to the deaths of almost 20 people and the wounding of hundreds more.  

To mark the bicentenary of Britain’s bloodiest political event, the John Rylands Library has a Peterloo exhibition on display until September.

The curator of the exhibition is the library’s Archivist and Reader Engagement Manager, Dr Janette Martin.

Dr Martin feels it is vitally important that Peterloo is remembered and commemorated in an appropriate, respectful and educational manner.

“The idea is that this is a really key, pivotal event that happened in Manchester’s history and the history of politics more widely, so the exhibition is highlighting 200 years ago this happened and have us thinking about where we are now.”

“We can return the story of Peterloo back to the inhabitants of Manchester because a lot of people just have no idea what Peterloo was,” added Dr Martin.

The exhibition contains an impressive array of collections including original handwritten records detailing the names of the people who were killed and injured.

Moreover, there are other historical documents and newspapers portraying how magistrates attempted to deny and manipulate the atrocities and how journalists strove to report the truth and seek justice.

Speaking about how the exhibition came together, Dr Martin said:

“It is very much based on our collections and, given its geographical location, the Rylands is very near the site of Peterloo and it was heavily involved in the centenary in 1919.”

“The library played quite a key role in commemorating what happened so it makes sense that we’re involved again on the 200th anniversary.”

“It has been drawn very much from our collection – we’ve probably got the most primary sources in Manchester about Peterloo – our collections tend to be the state’s side.”

“So, it is very much magistrates’ views and the views of the local authorities and the landed gentry, so it’s very loyalist and very anti-reform whereas if you go to the People’s History Museum they have more of the radical side of the story.”

Dr Martin believes the events of Peterloo have a lasting significance and sees parallels with today’s political climate.

“It is massively relevant today. If you look at what was happening in 1819, you had two factions: you had the loyalists who were in support of the king and the status quo and they didn’t want change at all.”

“On the other side, you had the radicals who were desperate for change. It is like today: there is very, very binary politics and there is a lot of hostility on both sides.”

Dr Martin is hoping that the events across the city, including this exhibition, will increase people’s awareness of Peterloo and that ultimately, one day, the Peterloo Massacre will be taught in schools as part of the national curriculum.

This is something that has been mentioned in the past: in 2018 British film writer and director Mike Leigh echoed such sentiments ahead of the release of Peterloo, a motion picture film based on the events.

Perhaps, though, this may become a reality sooner rather than later as Manchester Histories has won a Heritage Lottery grant to co-ordinate an educational programme regarding Peterloo for schools in Greater Manchester.

The Peterloo exhibition is on display at The John Rylands Library until 29 September.

Click here for the programme of events and activities across Manchester to commemorate the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.

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