Dr Martin Spychal, research fellow on the Commons 1832-1868, reviews Robert Poole’s Peterloo: The English Uprising (Oxford, 2019)
What drove 400 volunteer soldiers and special constables to murder 18 and maim nearly 700 of their fellow Lancastrians? This is the key question that Robert Poole’s definitive and illuminating Peterloo sets out to answer. As Poole states in his prologue, ‘two hundred years on, it is still possible to be angry about Peterloo’. Thanks to this revealing, tragic and at times harrowing thick description of one of the pivotal moments in the development of Britain’s democracy, Peterloo will continue to make future generations of students, teachers and general readers angry about the events at St Peter’s Field on 16 August 1819.
Those massacred at Peterloo formed part of an unarmed, peaceful crowd of around 40,000 children, women and men assembled to hear Britain’s foremost radical orator Henry Hunt (1773-1835) urge a radical reform of the United Kingdom’s ancient and, for most of those present, frustratingly unrepresentative representative system. The meeting marked the beginning of the end of a period of post-Napoleonic pro-reform activity that, Poole contends, had seen Manchester and its surrounding townships – ‘the powerhouse of the industrial revolution’ yet ‘one of the most conservative and unreformed towns in the country’ – establish itself as the centre of English radicalism.
One of the most compelling aspects of Peterloo is Poole’s forensic demonstration of how the events of 16 August 1819 were the culmination of long simmering local tensions between Manchester’s loyalists, who controlled the town’s ‘semi-public institutions’, and a reform movement that by the end of the Napoleonic wars was slowly gaining ascendancy in Manchester’s distress-ravaged townships and surrounding parishes.
These were formative moments for Lancashire’s expanding loyalist military forces and magistracy, whose response to the county’s disparate Luddite uprisings of 1812 provide the reader with the first taste of ‘Manchester Law’, an incredibly antagonistic, but also breathtakingly severe, form of ‘exemplary justice’. These were also formative moments for Manchester’s radicals, who looked increasingly to parliamentary reform as a solution to injustice, poverty, hunger and unemployment.
The national petitioning campaigns inspired by the activism of Major John Cartwright from 1812 and the mass reform movement during the gruelling winter of 1816-17 emerge as another focal point in this Lancastrian battle for ‘public space and civil rights’. In a chapter perfect for reading lists on nineteenth-century popular politics, Poole makes a convincing case for viewing the national 1816-17 petitioning movement, and Lancashire’s role in it, as a ‘record-breaking exercise in democratic pressure’ as significant as later Chartist endeavours.
If the 1816-17 petitioning movement initially appears as a success story of early nineteenth-century people power, then the events that followed serve as a reminder of the might of the Hanoverian state. Fuelled in part by specious spy reports that Manchester’s reformers were organising to ‘imprison the King & all his family’, the government moved to restrict seditious meetings and suspend habeas corpus by March 1817.
Almost all of Manchester’s radical leaders found themselves imprisoned or on the run during 1817, either as a result of their involvement or association with the Blanketeers march or the Ardwick conspiracy, ‘a police trap’ which appears to have involved as many spies as it did reformers. Poole unpicks the complex narratives of both events through forensic attention to Home Office papers, making a strong case for their centrality to historians’ previously ‘Pennine centred’ accounts of the June 1817 Pentrich rising.
The second half of Peterloo focuses on the events leading up to and occurring at the August 1819 meeting at St Peter’s Field. The rise of the Manchester Observer as Britain’s leading radical paper and Hunt’s tour of Manchester in January 1819 start Poole’s detailed narrative.
Significantly, Hunt’s January visit was accompanied by his cap of liberty, ‘that bloody ensign of the French rebellion’, which he had displayed on the hustings at Westminster during the 1818 election. The presence of caps of liberty at the spate of reform meetings that took place across the Manchester region in the run up to Peterloo evoked deep patriotic passions, turning radical rallies into childish but dangerously foreboding rounds of capture-the-flag between reformers and loyalist yeomanry forces.
In the months that preceded Peterloo, Poole reveals how Manchester’s magistrates and officials ‘knitted together scattered reports of radical activity into a co-ordinated plan of rebellion’ to convince themselves that a general uprising beckoned. These fears were based on reports of widespread military-style drilling of reformers and pike-making across the region. While reports of weapons were exaggerated, for reformers drilling was ‘part of a wider culture of radical patriotism’ that demonstrated ‘their fitness for citizenship’.
Loyalist fears and outrage were also stoked by the emergence of women as ‘a distinct, separately organized presence’ in Manchester’s reform movement from February 1819. By August 1819 organised societies of women reformers had formed in at least Stockport, Blackburn, Manchester, Macclesfield and Leigh. Their broad aims were to support their husbands, brothers, children and ‘male friends’ in their calls for radical reforms (though not yet women’s suffrage), hoisting and defending caps of liberty, carrying the colours during drilling parades, and acting as a physical defence against the forces of order who reformers thought would not dare break masculine codes of honour by attacking women.
The highlight of Peterloo is Poole’s carefully crafted exploration of the pageantry of the marches from the ‘Pennine-fringed weaving districts’ to St Peter’s Field on 16 August 1819 and his harrowing and spellbinding account of the subsequent political rally-turned- massacre. It really does pack more punch than Mike Leigh’s 2019 cinematic portrayal of events.
No source has been left unturned in bringing to life the sadistic military butchering of fleeing, crushed and trapped protestors, and the hunting of those who had escaped into cellars, alleys, houses and Manchester’s Quaker chapel around St Peter’s Field. The misogynistic violence against women is the most chilling aspect here and, to a degree, provokes parallels with colonial violence against women in indigenous communities. Women were twice as likely to be injured at Peterloo than men, and Poole’s account demonstrates that targeted attacks on women were ‘not exceptional but typical’.
What comes through clearly is that Peterloo’s aggressors had been whipped into a murderous frenzy by the patriotic tensions of the previous decade, and were unwilling to listen to occasional pleas to stop from some of their more experienced officers. Tellingly, as they attacked fleeing protestors, the forces of law and order in Manchester were reportedly heard shouting ‘this is Waterloo for you’, and ‘if we let you go, you will come again some other time’.
For parliamentary and political histories that are so often focused on London, Peterloo demonstrates the necessity of placing locality at the heart of national political narratives. The devil here, as Poole aptly demonstrates, is in the detail. Even without the massacre, this study serves as a reminder of the realities and intricacies of the Hanoverian state and that national politics can only be understood through the lens of local experience and circumstance.
An extended and fully referenced version of this review will appear shortly in Parliamentary History.
J. Cozens, ‘The Making of the Peterloo Martyrs, 1819 to the Present’, in Q. Outram, K. Laybourn (eds.), Secular Martyrdom in Britain and Ireland (2018), 31-58.
K. Navickas, ‘The Multiple Geographies of Peterloo and its impact in Britain’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 13(2019), 1-13.
K. Navickas, Loyalism and Radicalism in Lancashire, 1798-1815 (2009).
K. Navickas, ‘The Defence of Manchester and Liverpool in 1803: Conflicts of Loyalism, Patriotism and the Middle Classes’, 75-88, in M. Philp (ed.), Resisting Napoleon: The British Response to the Threat of Invasion, 1797–1815 (2006).
E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963).