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Peterloo: The story of the Manchester massacre, by Jacqueline Riding

17 May 2019

David Walker reads a study, 200 years on, of the Peterloo massacre

WHEN I was growing up in Manchester, the Peterloo Massacre was a core element of the school history curriculum. Its place in the struggle for parliamentary representation put it at the heart of the story of the Industrial Revolution — a story that made Manchester the world’s first true manufacturing city. How could I resist a book about it, published just ahead of the year in which we commemorate its bicentenary? I wasn’t disappointed.

Jacqueline Riding’s highly readable account takes us into the heart of north-west England in the second decade of the 19th century. The Napoleonic Wars draw to an end, having almost bankrupted the country. As poverty bites ever more deeply, the working people of the rapidly growing industrial towns and cities have serious grievances, but no representation in the House of Commons through which to make their voice heard. Meanwhile, in Westminster, at the Regency Court, and beyond, powerful vested interests in society will do anything to suppress a French-style uprising.

Riding begins with a comprehensive study of the various political factions and their leaders that emerge in response to this crisis, linking them to the social movements, such as the growth in adult literacy through Sunday schools, which form their soil. The remainder of her book offers a detailed account of the day itself, 16 August 1819.

superstockHenry “Orator” Hunt depicted beginning his address to the Patriotic Union Society’s rally at Manchester on 16 August 1819

By late that Monday morning, 60,000 adults and children have gathered peacefully in St Peter’s Field, at the heart of Manchester, to hear a speech by the popular Henry “Orator” Hunt. The magistrates, including two clergymen, panic. A drunken militia are given leave to charge with drawn swords through the crowd. By the end of the day, 15 lie dead, and more than 600 injured.

Riding brings her characters to life through short anecdotes. This forms a crucial component to both her book and to Mike Leigh’s simultaneously released film of the same name, powerfully illustrating how collaboration between historian and film director benefits both. My one regret is that the account ends too soon. Peterloo is not the spark for bloody revolution; and yet, beneath the immediate repression of working-class political movements in the aftermath of the massacre, greater forces are at work around Manchester and beyond.

Over the succeeding decades, they will give birth to trade unions, the campaign for women’s suffrage, and the Co-operative Movement. It is a story to which Riding’s skills might effectively yet be turned.

Dr David Walker is the Bishop of Manchester.


Peterloo: The story of the Manchester massacre
Jacqueline Riding
Head of Zeus £8.99
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