'The Peterloo Massacre' by Joyce Marlow (1969)

The Peterloo Massacre - Joyce Marlow

Joyce Marlow, The Peterloo Massacre (London: Readers Union, 1970), 238pp


Joyce Marlow provides a highly competent historical account of the Peterloo Massacre, an incident in Manchester on 16th August 1819 where a large crowd of peaceful protesters in favour of parliamentary and economic reform were attacked by cavalry policing the event, killing fifteen and injuring hundreds more, many seriously. Despite being a student of history who was born and lives in Manchester, I knew little beyond the basics about Peterloo and I found Marlow's book to be a useful introduction.

Marlow splits the book into three clear segments: the causes and build-up to the massacre; an account of the incident itself; and the aftermath and repercussions. I found the first part rather hard to grasp, as Marlow has to provide a lot of detail in order to place Peterloo in its proper context. Broadly speaking, the motivations for the demonstration in St. Peter's Field were firstly, human rights in the form of parliamentary reform (Manchester had no representation in the House of Commons at this time) and secondly, economic grievances in this fledgling cotton town, partly due to a national downturn caused by the end of the Napoleonic Wars but not helped by obstructive new legislation such as the Corn Laws. Once I got to grips with the book and the period it describes, I began to appreciate it more. It is particularly good at describing the growing pains of Manchester as it became a cotton metropolis during the Industrial Revolution, and how the paternalist Tory government in London failed to keep up with the times. One gains an appreciation of the hardships endured by the people of Manchester - exposed to poor working conditions and lacking any legal form of redress, as England did not even have universal suffrage at this time. Any political murmurs or even modest suggestions of reform were met with hysterical crackdown from the Establishment, still fearful of the memories of the French Revolution and its seditious demands for 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité'. Marlow asks "What did it mean to go on strike in the days before unions were legal and when all tangible power lay with the other side?" (pg. 67), and she provides a useful framework in which to ponder this question.

The second part of the book deals with the massacre itself and provides a clear account of how the events of the day transpired. What was most shocking to me - beyond the woeful decisions made by the magistrates - was the bloodlust evident not just in the yeomanry, but also the regular cavalry. The gathering on St. Peter's Field was seen not as it was - a peaceful protest attended by men, women and children - but as the first shot fired in a working-class insurrection, an English incarnation of the French Revolution which the loyalists and the Establishment feared. The cavalry's after-action reports refer to the cutting-down of unarmed men, women and children as part of a "battle" in which they "routed" the "Enemy". In the days after 16th August, this led to the massacre being given by the people of Manchester the ironic label of 'Peterloo', after the Battle of Waterloo which had been fought four years earlier. (One of the protesters, John Lees, had been a soldier at Waterloo, but was cut down in Manchester by a cavalryman's sabre and trampled underfoot. Despite serious injuries, he went to work the next day (!) but died after a prolonged period of agony some weeks later.) It shows how divided the country was at the time, caught between the paternalism of old England and the new post-Industrial Revolution Britain.

The final section of the book deals with the aftermath; the cowardly attempt at a cover-up by the magistrates who had ordered the cavalry in, and the backing given to them by the government. Unfortunately, this does not have a happy ending; the magistrates and others responsible were rewarded and promoted (one was appointed to the wealthy rectorship of Rochdale), whereas the prominent protesting reformers were jailed and heavily fined. As Marlow puts it, "If you ordered the murder of innocent people the reward was the rectorship of Rochdale, while if you fought for the rights of your fellow human beings the sentence was two years in Ilchester gaol." (pg. 195). More importantly, there was no real reform of Parliament; in fact, the government successfully cracked down on the freedom of speech and assembly by passing legislation known as the 'Six Acts', and the Radical reformist movement died out within a year or two. But Marlow is correct to label Peterloo a 'watershed'. The political landscape changed slowly but surely as a result of the fallout from St. Peter's Field; the massacre was "a spur that set the horse if not exactly galloping at least trotting." (pg. 199).

Overall, Peterloo was, perhaps more than any other single event, Britain's political awakening of the working classes - that moment every modernising society has to go through when "the rising standards of education... made the people no longer prepared to accept oppression and suffering without hope or explanation; their turning now, as never before, towards a Parliament in which they would have a voice." (pg. 189). Not only the working classes, but also the middle and upper classes had a negative reaction to how Peterloo had been handled by the authorities and the government. The Whig Opposition in Parliament, whilst not supportive of the Radical aims, recognised the need for honest inquiry into the events. The press, not just the local newspapers (the Manchester Guardian, later to become the modern-day Guardian, was formed as a direct result of Peterloo) but also the London-based press such as The Times, reported the true facts of the case and called for transparency and for a sober redress of grievances. Referring to the political backlash against government suppression of the facts in favour of their own whitewashed version, Marlow asks "Since when had England been a country only of the authorized version?" (pg. 183). This natural reaction in the interests of fairness and decency showed that, whilst Britain may have been a country in need of reforming, it was also a country worth reforming.