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Peterloo: 200 years on Remembering Peterloo at the Marx Memorial Library

Archivist MEIRIAN JUMP unearths some unique artefacts of the era, preserved since 1820

OUR Library, in its three-storey building on Clerkenwell Green, is crammed full of published and printed material on working-class struggle. It was no surprise then that with the approach of the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre a simple search in our catalogue uncovered some treasures.

James Klugmann (1912-1977), Communist Party educator, historian and one-time president of the Marx Memorial Library, was an avid collector. A room dedicated to his books, periodicals and pamphlets is a jewel in the library’s crown which contains some of the earliest and rarest items in our collection.

A slim volume, the Report of the Metropolitan Central Committee Appointed for the Relief of the Manchester Sufferers, sits on these shelves.

Published it 1820, it opens with an account of the committee which met just six months after the massacre to support those injured, widowed or orphaned as a result of “the sanguinary massacre, and brutal outrage, which occurred during that fatal and never to be forgotten day.”

The report details funds raised and committee and sub-committee meetings. The most poignant part of this contemporary account can be found in its appendices.

There the reader finds two lists. The first is “a list of persons killed at St Petersfield” which gives names, places of residence and causes of death. Arthur O’Neil of No 3 Pigeon Street, Manchester, was “inwardly crushed.”

An infant with no forename given — simply listed as “Fildes” — from Kennedy Street Manchester was “rode over by cavalry.” Two hundred years on this is still difficult reading. Set out in a table, it resembles a memorial with names etched onto the page.

The second table of the wounded is longer and far more detailed. It lists the age, trade, number of dependants, additional remarks and relief received.

This paints a horrifying picture of brutality, with glimpses of heroism. Samuel Allcard, a plasterer aged 18, of 11 Portugal Street, “was saved by one of the 15th regiment who threatened to cut the yeoman down if he struck him again.” Ann Barlow, mother of seven had her breast bone broken and was “bruised by the constables’ staves.”

The list goes on.

The MML’s collection does not only bear witness to this savage repression by the state and subsequent philanthropic support for those affected, but also the furious reaction of the British people.
Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register — a newspaper at the centre of campaigns for parliamentary reform — opens on August 21 1819 with the following: “It is impossible to find the words to express the horror which every man must feel at the proceedings of the agents of Borough-mongers on Monday last in Manchester.”

It goes on: “All prospect of reconciliation must now be considered as being effectually destroyed, and the People have no resource left but to arm themselves immediately for the recovery of their rights and the defence of their persons, or patiently submit to the most unconditional slavery.”

Of course, this was not to be. But the memory of Peterloo runs through our collections in diverse forms. This is its legacy. The martyrs mown down in their striving for democracy are revered. And the story of Peterloo echoes as a reminder of the violence the state will employ to protect its power and material interests. This episode is one of many such reminders documented in our archives.

Three commemorative ceramics — also from our Klugmann collection — pay tribute to Henry Hunt who famously spoke at the meeting on St Peter’s field, the stage of this massacre.
Thanks to generous donations from supporters from the Indian Workers’ Association and Unite the Union Southampton Branch last year our collection of rare ceramics are now searchable online for the first time.

The online catalogue displays images of the jugs including one vividly portraying a woman holding a flag reading “Liberty or Death” being struck down by a sabre-wielding yeoman on horseback with the inscription “Murdered on the Plains of Peterloo.”

On September 24 the MML is hosting a special event commemorating the Peterloo Massacre. We will be combing through our rich collections to reflect on the memory of Peterloo and what it means today.

I will be joined by Professor Mary Davis, secretary of the MML, and Dr Joe Cozens from University College London. Cozens will explore how Peterloo has been remembered by the labour movement over the past 200 years and specifically how its spectre has been raised in the cause of later campaigns, including those for women’s suffrage. This will also be an opportunity to view a display of contemporary documents and artefacts in a special exhibition.

Event booking: https://www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk/event/240.

Meirian Jump is the archivist and library manager of the Marx Memorial Library

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