Peterloo: 1819 – 2019

by Esmerelda Weatherwax

2019 is the bi-cenennary of the event in English history called the Peterloo Massacre.  There was a new film of the story and I expect there will be events in Manchester and Lancashire during the year. I was taught about it in school back in the 1960s but I’m not sure it’s on the National Curriculum any more. It should be, 15 Englishmen and women peacefully protesting for better conditions, civil rights and suchlike in the open space of Manchester called St Peter’s Field (hence the name Peterloo)  killed by the actions of the army and civil militia sent to keep order. But, with the increase of what, 40 years later the writer Charles Dickens dubbed Telescopic Philanthropy, I suspect the events of the film will be a surprise to many young people. If they do go and see it; it hasn’t been on a wide release so that I haven’t been able to see it myself yet.   Telescopic  Philanthropy , which Dickens explored in the novel Bleak House is the preference of the English liberal classes to be more concerned with the plight of black and minority ethnic people especially abroad, than with the poverty and suffering of the white working class at home.  There is nothing new under the sun. This Punch cartoon is apposite. 

I bought a copy of The Peterloo Massacre, by Robert Reid (an edition reissued to tie with the film) to study the events in more depth than I would have done at school, 50 years ago. This was published in 1989 to mark the 170th anniversary.  Dr Reid died the following year. Although he worked for the BBC I was more confident in his scholarship from 30 years ago than some of the more recent books.

This isn’t a review of the book merely some observations, cherry picking some quotations which struck a chord with our present situation in England (and the wider United Kingdom) and juxtaposing them with more recent events.

A great war had come to an end (in 1815) and as is so often the case in history that event had triggered new attitudes and new behaviour. …
After that date . . .the letters in (the Home Office files) written by working men surge in number. ..the Sunday schools of the turn of the century had worked marvels. The literate cobbler and the poet-weaver now add to the figures on the canvas to give a far more representative picture from which to scrutinise the lives, beliefs and attitudes of the mass of the people of a nation.

March 1817, thousands of workers from Manchester and the textile towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, intending to march in many small groups to London, equipped only with a sleeping blanket (hence their name – the Blanketeers)  and their copy of a petition for better conditions to be presented to the Prince Regent. The list of towns from which they came is not dis-similar to a list of Crown Court rape gang trials, Blackburn, Rochdale, Oldham… They were dispersed by cavalry, no one was killed this time, but several hundred men were imprisoned.

Not for the first time, worker’s leaders had failed to sustain the movement they had nurtured. ..
The inability of the working class to produce from its own ranks leaders who were effective as well as charismatic was a weakness which would persist well beyond the beginning of the twentieth century.

It is, of course, hard for a working man to be effective when spies and informants contrive for him to be arrested at the earliest opportunity.  The leaders of the Blanketeers ended up in Dorchester and Gloucester gaols, many miles from home.

With the young orators safely removed from their exposed roles as working-class leaders, it took only a few days for peace and quiet to return to the streets of Manchester.

Friday 25th May 2018, Tommy Robinson sentenced to 13 months imprisonment for trying to report on the trial of Muslim men accused for raping and prostituting young English girls. He thought he was within the law; the law thought otherwise.

Throughout that spring and summer (1818) the frequency and size of workers meetings in and around Manchester began to grow. …Magistrates in Oldham, Middleton, Bolton and Rochdale, besides those in Manchester and Stockport became increasingly confused. . .
The young working class reformers efforts were again showing results which were already of considerable concern to the middle class.

3rd September 1818 John Lloyd, Clerk to the Magistrates of Stockport observed a parade of weavers on the streets early that Sunday evening.

The only ominous air to the proceedings was that given by the presence of two pipers playing fifes. Lloyd noticed the interesting psychological effect of the music. It transformed an otherwise peaceful occasion into one with a decidedly worrying militaristic purpose.

Lloyd ensured that leaders John Bagguley,a toolmaker, and his friends Samuel Drummond and John Johnston, a Salford tailor were incarcerated in Chester Prison.  January 1819, a brushmaker named Joseph Johnson, now that the local orators were confined to gaol, wrote to Henry Hunt a well-known middle class radical from the south of England, inviting him to the next meeting on St Peter’s Fields.

The jubilant crowd which followed him out of St Peter’s Field filled the streets for half a mile.. Among the banners, magistrates noted, was a Cap of Liberty’. This symbol – a tall pole with its ancient cap- was a device descended from Roman times, when slaves had been given their freedom. It had been used effectively on many bloody occasions in the French Revolution. It had now appeared, and had acquired a worrying, threatening significance, in England. It was waved provocatively by a young man as the crowd passed the Manchester exchange.

I like the sound of carrying a ‘Cap of Liberty’; however I suspect such a device would be deemed an offensive weapon due to its size and charges would follow.

Many outside this northern melting pot of the underprivileged, the unrepresented, the por and the desperate, were now suddenly beginning to see in its bubbling interior the source of great political powers . . . several men in both the south and the north were simultaneously looking to harness this force. Major Cartwright, Sir Charles Wolseley, the ‘reverend’ Joseph Harrison were a few. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a few years later, with more understanding of the technological imperatives, would be others.

Dr Reid seems to have realised 30 years ago that whatever you call it, Communism, Socialism, Bolshevism, has not lost sight of its original aim to achieve what George Orwell described as ‘justice for the working man’ because that never was the original aim. The working class of whatever nation were a tool in the overthrow of western society. Women, sexual minorities were later favourites, now recently discarded. Their current favoured clients, the ethnic minorities (in some areas, majorities in others) they will also try to discard when they think their usefulness is over. Except Islam is using them, and they may find they are thrown over, liquidated and enslaved. It is something not always realised even today. People ask, how can feminists worry about the #metoo campaign but not the abused girls of our industrial towns, FGM, forced marriage etc? How can gays not see what happens to their brothers under Islam? The left are not concerned with the well-being of women or gays. Women and gays are merely tools.  The British working class are obsolete tools. Now we are chavs, gammon, scum.

August 16th 1819. Workers, men women and children from all over the Lancashire and beyond began to gather in Manchester, marching into St Peter’s Field, which was the traditional meeting place for workers for miles around.  It was a flat green, an ‘irregular quadrilateral’ bordered by the Quaker’s meeting house and burial ground, Windmill Street and Mount Street. St Peter’s church was just outside.  150,000 could gather without discomfort, 200,000 if densely packed but they were effectively sealed in by the walls of the surrounding houses. 

Women played a great part in the meeting.

….sitting on the drivers box,(was) Mrs Mary Fildes, President of the Manchester Female Reform Union , standing in the road behind her, ready to walk in line, was her committee of women, each member dressed in white.

…many hundreds of women – white frocked, their hair decked with laurel and waving banners. There were even some, including Mrs Fildes…on the hustings.

The Stockport female Union …launched an all-women delegation of marchers…so too did the Oldham and Royton Unions. The Royton women carried a flag – it was of striking appearance … it read “Let us die like men, and not be sold like slaves”

I could imagine the Yazidi women of the Peshmerga women’s divisions with such a flag as they fought the ISIS jihadists who enslaved their sisters and daughters. Certainly I believe that the workers of the time realised that their situation was no better in real terms than that of plantation slaves. They had no real freedom, and the employers had absolutely no incentive to see that they earned enough to feed and clothe themselves. They were not valuable livestock, an asset; they were vermin.


A copy of the print, (etching and aquatint) published by Richard Carlisle who was also on the husting that day. He may have made the etching himself – he was certainly a witness to events. Mrs Fildes is in white with a sprig in her bonnet. All the banners seem to be topped with a Cap of Liberty. There are many copies still in existence, one in the National Portrait gallery, another in Manchester Town Hall. 

Along the Windmill Street edge of the field, the Hustings, a platform for speakers and banners had been erected. Some members of the press were also present to get the best view so as to report to their readers. At that time the local newspapers were not unsympathetic – no National Union of Journalist directive on how to report a demonstration of the indigenous population in those days.

John Smith of the Liverpool Mercury …was also on the hustings.
Two notable figures from the middle class were absent. Major Cartwright after giving Union Societies advice to elect ‘legislatorial attorneys’ had been indicted in Birmingham, placed on bail and had been forced to return to London. Sir Charles Wolsey, who had also promised to attend, had fared worse. He had been arrested days earlier and was now in gaol.

All those appearing on the hustings – even Johnson the brushmaker, Swift the shoemaker and all the newspaper reporters – were of the middle or lower middle class. So successful had been John Lloyd’s policy of arrest that not a single working-class leader of standing had been left free to take his place on the platform which now faced the greatest gathering of industrial workers ever seen.

January 12th 2019. James Goddard arrested, pre-emptive attack by police #ukyellowvests

Photograph with thanks to Steve of Speakers Corner

A tweet by Raheem Kassam, the British political activist. :-  LATEST NEWS ON UK YELLOW VEST LEADER JAMES GODDARD After being arrested earlier on Saturday January 12th 2019, James Goddard was due to be released this afternoon. His solicitors also believed that to be the case… However, after a personal intervention from the leftist Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick (a political appointee), Goddard is now likely to be held by the police until Monday, wherein he will face court ostensibly on the charge of harassment, for protesting in Westminster.
Cressida Dick is said to have told police that she personally felt “alarmed and distressed” that Goddard might be let out of jail for the rest of the weekend.
That’s right. A 58-year-old, decorated police woman is said to be so scared of a peaceful 29 year old protester that she is forcing her colleagues to keep him as a political prisoners over the course of the weekend.

I don’t know where it got the information about Cressida Dick from. James Goddard incurred the wrath of totalitarian politician and would-be thwarter of Brexit,  Anna Soubry MP, when he likened her totalitarian stance on the Brexit vote to that of the Nazis. Hence his arrest. He is now released on bail, with conditions that prevent him from travelling to London to attend any more pro-Brexit or yellow vest demonstrations.

Note that in 1819 one of the things the protesting workers wanted was reform of the franchise that prevented all but certain landowners or big tenants from voting an MP into Parliament. In 2019 we, having the vote for all men and women over the age of 18, in the biggest vote ever cast in the UK, voted for Brexit, ie to leave the European Union. Most of those who voted to leave were of the working class from industrial or post-industrial areas.  The ruling ‘elite,’ be they of the Conservative party or the Labour party are determined to stop Brexit; they say we don’t know what we voted for, we were wrong, too ignorant. They call us names. They don’t like being called names.

Stationed in streets surrounding St Peter’s Field were various companies of cavalry, yeomanry, regular soldiers and local militia formed due to concern after the Luddite revolt of 1812. The facts are that the armed forces of the ruling authority were ordered to clear the meeting. They did so using in many cases severe violence. Over 600 people were badly injured.  15 men and women died (and one child, but that could be considered an accident as the cavalryman responsible was on his way to St Peter’s Field before the rally began and was trying to catch the rest of his company up).  If you want chapter and verse of which troop of horse moved in which direction, at what time, under whose and what orders, you will have to read the book.    

Dr Reid examines the aftermath.

There is no easy answer why, in 1789, the French peasantry sustained a bloody and epoch-making revolution while, only 30 years later, after the also bloody experience of Peterloo, the working classes of England most immediately affected by it, returned docilely to their factories.

The Yellow Vest, or Gillet Jaune demonstrations of early 2019 are similar. In France they take place in many cities, every weekend. In Britain once in a handful of cities. Once or twice more in London. Thousands and thousands of people in France. So far only a couple of hundred in England.  And  the press is against them. As well as the implementation of Brexit another concern of the London Yellow vests is the Justice for our Boys campaign. I have mentioned this before. Three teenage boys killed by a hit and run driver. The driver, Jaynesh Chudasama, who bears a name of Indian origin got a lenient sentence, reduced still further on appeal. His passenger, known locally as a Muslim of jihadist opinions was never charged, despite them both  failing to stop and assist at the scene of an ‘accident’ or assisting the police with their inquiries. The parents of the boys believe that there was at the very least a failure to prosecute/punish appropriately due to the ethnic origins of the driver and his passenger, or at worse a complete cover up of a terror attack.  At the first London yellow vest demonstration on 5th January police arrested the 13 year old younger sister of one of the murdered boys. Her mother had to stand her ground to be allowed to remain with the little girl as the police took her off.    

The footsteps of the poor leave few traces. The path trodden by the young Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston is quickly covered by the dust of history. The snuffing of the workers leadership was effective and enduring. The names of the three firebrands, like those hundreds who ran bleeding from Peterloo can be found only among those records which enumerate the punished or the injured.  

Mrs Fildes fared a little better to history in the years after. Some reports are that she was uninjured, another that she was slashed but obviously recovered. She continued to work for reform and in later years her work to make contraception available for women resulted in her arrest for ‘distribution of pornography’. She and her husband eventually had eight children. In the current film the actress who plays her is her Great-great-great-great granddaughter.  

Like the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, Peterloo is treated by the left as the ‘acceptable’ face of the working class. Safely consigned to history in a narrative they think they control.    

In years to come who will play Tommy Robinson?    

Source, The Peterloo Massacre by Robert Reid, published by Windmill Books – ISBN 978-1-786-09040-9