Peterloo: The English Uprising

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The 16 August 2019 marked the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, where at least 18 people were killed by the military and 700 injured when some 80,000 people marched considerable distances to St Peter’s Field, Manchester to protest for parliamentary reform.

Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo has recently brought this to public attention. Leigh was outraged that a massacre of peaceful protesters had been effectively written out of English history. Leigh acknowledges the contribution that Robert Poole made to inform his work.

Poole gives a clear account of the living and working conditions of the working class, particularly in Manchester and surrounding towns. Wages had dropped significantly and prices of basic foods increased. As a result of changes in taxation many working people were paying 25 percent of their wages in tax. People lived in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions with precarious employment. Trade unions were banned and wages disputes determined by magistrates.

At the time only 5 per cent of men and no women, had the vote. Many parts of the country had no parliamentary representation. There were two MPs for the whole of Lancashire while three rotten boroughs were overrepresented. Old Sarum in Wiltshire where no-one lived had two MPs who were voted for by one landowner. Between Midhurst in Sussex and Newton in Hampshire, 11 people voted for 12 MPs. Radical reformers at the time argued that taxation without representation is slavery.

The reformers demanded: one man one vote; voting by ballot; annual parliamentary elections; equal electoral districts; the abolition of the property qualification for MPs and MPs to be paid a salary.

Mass meetings of working class people were held across the country. Poole reports 20,000 meeting in Manchester, 40,000 in Blackburn, 60,000 in Birmingham and up to 80,000 in Smithfield, London.

As well as working class people in general being written out of history, this is a common experience for women. Poole’s research and book includes the role of women in the reform movement. Some reform societies allowed women to attend meetings, speak and vote. Where they didn’t women set up their own reform groups.

Women were involved in building for the 16 August march and meeting, collecting door to door to raise money for banners and for making caps of liberty and marching on the day.

The events in St Peter’s Fields show the brutal behaviour of the government, local magistrates and military. The magistrates ordered the military to arrest the platform speakers before turning their swords, sabres and guns on the crowd. Women were disproportionately subjected to violent attack. The magistrates looked on the violence from the first floor window of a house overlooking the Fields.

Poole draws on hundreds of eyewitness reports, secret government archives and other new evidence to show how three years of mass movements worked to reform parliament and how government conspired to stop them.