Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest

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This year is the 200th anniversary of the massacre of peaceful protestors at Saint Peter’s Field in Manchester. The People’s History Museum is marking the anniversary with their exhibition “Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest”. The aim of the exhibition is to tell the story of the massacre and examine its relevance today.

In 1819 a peaceful demonstration was attacked by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. 18 people died, 700 were injured. Workers were demanding democratic rights after years of war whilst they experienced brutal working conditions and extreme poverty. A journalist remarked that after the attack, the area looked like the battlefield at Waterloo. The name Peterloo has stuck.

The exhibition falls into three parts. The first tells the story of what happened through artefacts and a demonstrator’s own words. After Peterloo, there was a crackdown on protest, and it had to be remembered in secret. The Skelmanthorpe commemorative flag is a highlight of the exhibition for me. There’s also a description of a woman resisting the Yeoman attack. Women were disproportionately targeted in the assault.

The second part is a film with interviews and extracts from Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo. The story of the events surrounding Peterloo is told by local activists, historians and actors from the film. Angela Raynor MP argues that protest is part of democracy. There’s even a contribution from a local police officer!

The third part of the exhibition is a “Protest Lab”. We are asked to bring objects and submit photographs that signify protest today. A few weeks into the exhibition, this area looks a little empty. It will be interesting to see it in a few months.

If you want to find out about what happened at Peterloo and why it matters, this is a good place to start. Be sure to check out the museum’s small permanent collection of Peterloo artefacts on the first floor — and the chance of a guided tour round these and the exhibition.

We’re invited to link to websites that give more information, which is welcome, but I would have liked to see more of this content in the exhibition itself. The demonstration of some 60 thousand was massive given the population at the time. The working class were beginning to organise collectively and the ruling class were terrified. It’s a shame the exhibition doesn’t take the opportunity to give an indication of the debates on strategy that took place in the days before the demonstration.

The right to protest and vote was eventually won in Britain. I visited the museum in the week following uprisings in Sudan and Algeria. The Extinction Rebellion protests in London were facing arrests and repression. These events beg the question: what is the real victory — the right to protest against injustice, or bringing an end to injustice altogether?