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What was missing from the film Peterloo?

MICHAEL HERBERT writes an essential addition to this unmissable film account of an almost sacred event in the genesis of our movement

As a socialist historian who has researched and written about Peterloo and included it in my history courses on Radical Manchester, I was very much looking forward to Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo.

Clearly a great deal of research has been done and a great deal of time and money expended on the production with many fine performances from all of the cast. I particularly liked Neil Bell’s portrayal of Sam Bamford, whose memoir Passages in the Life of a Radical, published in 1844, is a key source on the events of 1819.
And yet, while accepting that a story of such magnitude cannot be told in full — even in a film that lasts 154 minutes — I was left frustrated by some of the omissions in the story.

In my view the time spent in the first half, showing the many meetings held in the months before Peterloo, could have been curtailed and instead the film could have shown events such as the March of the Blanketeers which took place in Manchester in March 1817.

Several hundred marchers assembled at St Peter’s Fields, where Peterloo took place two years later, intending to march to London to present petitions to the Prince Regent. They carried blankets to sleep in on the way. Before they set off, they were addressed by Samuel Drummond and John Baguley, who attacked the excessive spending of the government, high rents, the Corn Laws, the libel laws, the suspension of habeas corpus and the Prince Regent’s ministers. Drummond said, “We will let them see it is not riot and disturbance we want, it is bread we want and we will apply to our noble Prince as a child would to its Father for bread.”

One local magistrate noted the presence of female radicals, writing: “The women of the lower class seem to take a strong part against the preservation of good order and in the course of the morning of the 10th, it was very general and undisguised cry amongst them that the gentry had had the upper hand long enough and that their turn has now come.”

The marchers never got to London. Instead, shortly after setting off, they were pursued by mounted troops and arrested. Just one man from Stalybridge, Abel Coudwell, allegedly succeeded in getting to London and presenting his petition to Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth. The authorities in Manchester followed up their operation by claiming that “a most daring and traitorous conspiracy” had been discovered and arrested a number of reform leaders, including Samuel Bamford and John Knight, on March 28.

Another episode not shown in the film took place in the autumn of 1818 when thousands of male and female weavers struck work in Stockport, Manchester and Ashton-under-Lyne and marched between the towns with bands and banners. Their mass meetings were addressed by Baguley, Drummond and other reformers, who were thus able to preach to thousands their message that political reform was the remedy for economic distress.

The Female Reformers of Manchester are shown in the film with part of their eloquent address “Dear Sisters of the Earth” being used, but there were also similar societies in other towns. Women in Blackburn led the way, appearing at a public meeting in the town on July 5. A radical newspaper reported that “they were very neatly dressed for the occasion and each wore a green favour in her bonnet and cap.”

Their address was read to the assembled crowd by John Knight, in which the women said they determined to instil into the minds of their children “a deep-rooted abhorrence of tyranny, come in what shape it may, whether under the mask of civil and religious government and particularly of the present borough-mongering and Jesuitical system which has brought the best artisans, manufacturers and labourers of this vast community to a state of wretchedness and misery and driven them to the very verge of beggary and ruin.”

The film gives the viewer the impression that Peterloo was the first time that Henry Hunt had spoken in Manchester, but this is not in fact the case. He had spoken in St Peter’s Fields in January 1819, invited by the Manchester radical leaders. Hunt addressed a crowd of at least 8,000 people, a colourful gathering with flags and banners and bands.

The meeting approved a lengthy declaration which set out the Radical programme in detail.

This was unequivocal in its view of where political power originated from, stating: “The only source of all legitimate power, is in the people, the whole people and nothing but the people. That all governments, not immediately derived from and strictly accountable to the people are usurpations and ought to be resisted and destroyed.”

It went on to declare that “every individual, of mature age and not incapacitated by crime or insanity has a right to a vote for the election of a representative in Parliament and to refuse or withhold from any individuals the exercise of this just and lawful right is to deprive him of all security for his life, liberty and property and reduce him to the abject condition of a slave, for a man cannot be said to be really free or to enjoy either life, liberty or property, when these may, at any time, be taken from him, at the arbitrary will of another and by laws that are made without his own consent.”

The declaration also called for annual parliaments and universal suffrage and defended the right of the people to possess arms to defend their liberties.

Hunt stayed on in Manchester for a few days. One evening when visiting the theatre, he was assaulted by a number of military officers who claimed he had hissed when God Save The King was called for.

Hunt contacted Samuel Bamford, who came into Manchester with a party of 10 hearty young men, carrying cudgels, to accompany him to the theatre on York Street and protect him if necessary. They were joined at the pit-door by a group of Irish labourers with the same intention. In the end, the manager Mr Ward cancelled the performance, whilst Hunt addressed the crowd from his carriage.

I was quite taken aback that the film ended with no account of the numbers killed and injured. In his excellent book The Casualties of Peterloo Mike Bush estimated that at least 18 people were killed on the field or died of their injuries some time later, while 654 were reported injured, many seriously. Bush compiled these numbers from the various lists drawn up by committees who raised money to relieve the injured.

Neither does the film say what happened next. In the immediate aftermath there were protest meetings in different parts of the country, while the government targeted Henry Hunt and other reformers who were jailed for two years.

Richard Carlile, who wrote the first account of the events in Sherwin’s Political Register, published just two days later on his return to London, was jailed in October 1819 for five years for publishing the works of Thomas Paine.

What happened on August 16 1819 was not forgotten. When a new mass movement, Chartism, arose, there was a huge meeting on Kersal Moor, Salford, in September 1838 at which a number of banners referred to Peterloo.

One showed the scene on St Peter’s Fields with the inscription “Murder Demands Justice,” while another bluntly proclaimed “Slaughter of Our Unarmed and Peaceable Brethren On the Plains of Peterloo, AD 1819.”

Michael Herbert is a socialist historian. His published works include “Up then Brave women” Manchester Radical Women: 1819 to 1918, Never Counted Out: the story of Len Johnson; boxer and Communist and Doctor Who and the Communist, the television career of Malcolm Hulke. He writes about history on his blog Red Flag Walks

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