Remembering Peterloo: protest, satire and reform

On 11 July 2019 the History of Parliament Trust, the Parliamentary Archives and the Citizens Project hosted Professor Robert Poole, Professor Ian Haywood and Dr Katrina Navickas at an event in the Palace of Westminster. This panel of three leading scholars offered intriguing new insights into the latest research on the Peterloo Massacre. The event accompanied the launch of the ‘Parliament & Peterloo’ exhibition, which is running in Westminster Hall until 26 September 2019 and is free to access.

Professor Robert Poole (University of Central Lancashire) opened proceedings with a discussion exploring the constitutional and parliamentary context of Peterloo. He placed significance on the nationwide post-Napoleonic petitioning campaign that attracted around 1 million signatures in favour of parliamentary reform. The campaign’s demands were brought most clearly to attention by the Blanketeers’ petition of March 1817, and Major Cartwright’s 1817 proposals for constitutional reform. The former helped define the radical reform movement by its opposition to excessive taxation, the corn laws, the law of libel and the suspension of habeas corpus, and the latter advocated manhood suffrage, annual elections and equal electoral districts as a panacea for these ills.

These demands combined with persistent economic distress to provide the impetus for a series of mass meetings during 1819 that culminated in the tragic events of 16 August 1819 at St Peter’s Field, Manchester. Open-air meetings at Oldham, Birmingham and London, in particular, during June and July, attracted hundreds of thousands of men, women and children united in the hope that their forceful, yet peaceful, declarations in favour of a people’s assembly would prompt lasting constitutional reform. As Professor Poole concluded, those demanding reform at Manchester and across the country during 1819 were largely well-educated workers who had seen better days, and were fuelled by the right to live, and the right to eat. Coming full circle, Professor Poole closed by drawing attention to the 1821 petitioning campaign for a parliamentary inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre, in particular the petition of Mary Fildes, which has been re-enacted for the exhibition at Westminster Hall.

An abridged adaptation of the petition delivered to Parliament in 1821 on behalf of Mary Fildes, President of the Manchester Female Reform Society, Citizens Project (2019)

Our second panellist was Professor Ian Haywood from the University of Roehampton. He focused on Peterloo and satire, arguing the case that Peterloo was a cultural event defined by its depiction in caricature. Importantly, for Professor Haywood, Peterloo marked a turning point in the visual representation of the English crowd or mob, who for the first time were widely identified as victims, rather than as the perpetrators of atrocities.

Visual representations of Peterloo, or the Manchester Massacre as it was also referred to by contemporaries, followed a run of caricatures depicting mass public meetings, dating from the Gordon Riots of 1780, through the public meeting at Copenhagen Fields in 1795, and to the nationwide reform meetings of 1819. For satirists like the politically moderate George Cruikshank (1792-1878), the extent of the suffering of those killed and injured in the crowd at St Peter’s Field in 1819 demanded iconography that referenced Romantic and Baroque depictions of military atrocities and biblical slaughter. Professor Haywood finished by drawing attention to the intended soundscape of Cruikshank’s Britons strike home!!!, which referenced the famous English patriotic song through its title. In doing so, he argued that Cruikshank sought to evoke the widely known tune of this de facto national anthem as audiences viewed the dark, thunderous images of slaughter in his satire.

Our final speaker was Dr Katrina Navickas, Reader in History at the University of Hertfordshire.  She explored the political significance and national legacy of Peterloo, drawing into focus the lasting significance that Peterloo has had on the right to public assembly in Britain.

While overblown, elite fears over the reform movement during 1819 were very real. In the run-up to 16 August 1819, and in its direct aftermath, there remained huge anxiety in the Home Office and amongst much of the political nation over the threat posed by radical reformers. The legislative response came via the Six Acts of 1819, which were widely congratulated via a string of loyal addresses from Britain’s counties. Significantly, the Six Acts widened the civil war era definition of sedition and treason to ensure that attacking Britain’s unwritten constitution became a form of sedition.

Dr Navickas demonstrated how debates inside and outside Parliament over the actions of authorities at Peterloo, and the government’s reactive legislative response, helped to create what we might think of today as the idea of a ‘right of public meeting’. Peterloo was one of three major nineteenth-century flashpoints that underpinned the twentieth-century legislative framework that still governs the right to use of public space for political meetings and debate – the other two being the Hyde Park ‘railings riots’ of 1866, and ‘Bloody Sunday’, 1887, in Trafalgar Square.

As Dr Navickas concluded, these events, and the state’s response to them, had a significant influence on British socialism and its relationship with public space, and set a template for how British authorities suppressed disturbances in the colonies during the first half of the twentieth century.

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The Parliament & Peterloo exhibition, coordinated by the Parliamentary Archives in collaboration with the History of Parliament Trust and the Citizens Project, Royal Holloway UoL, is now open in Westminster Hall. It’s free and open to all until 26 September 2019, please click here for further information.

See our Peterloo blog series here.

Learn about the context of the Peterloo Massacre in our short video
What happened after Peterloo? In this short video learn more about government repression, radicalism and reform in the 19th century

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