Collections Exhibitions Short read

Peterloo: The Forgotten Massacre?

Dr Janette Martin, curator of a forthcoming Peterloo exhibition at the John Rylands Library, writes:

On 16 August 1819 a peaceful Manchester meeting called to discuss parliamentary reform and attended by around 60,000 people was viciously dispersed by the civil and military powers. That afternoon at least 15 people lost their lives. A further 600 were injured by mounted yeomanry brandishing sabres or battered on the ground by special constables; others were trampled underfoot as the crowd panicked and fled. The shocking drama of St Peter’s Field soon became known as ‘Peterloo’ in mocking reference to the heroic battle of Waterloo some 4 years earlier.

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The political repercussions were immense and yet many people living in Manchester today are unaware of this tragic event and its significance for the democratic freedoms we continue to enjoy. Thanks to a newly released film by Mike Leigh, this is beginning to change and people are re-examining the evidence and learning more about this pivotal moment in Manchester’s history.  Although the massacre happened in central Manchester, large numbers of those present were from the surrounding townships and villages – some walked many, many miles from places as far away as Saddleworth and Delph. This geography is reflected in how, as the bicentenary approaches, groups across the Greater Manchester area are involved in remembering Peterloo.  Anyone wishing to find out more should look at the programme of events and activities coordinated by the Manchester Histories festival for 2019.

map of site MO Observer 23 Oct 1819
Map showing the site of St Peter’s Field printed in the Manchester Observer, 23 October 1819, p. 786.  University of Manchester Library

Here at the University of Manchester Library we are busy digitising our Peterloo collections and making them freely available for public use.  As the anniversary gets nearer more material will be added.  Do keep checking back. In addition to books, newspapers and pamphlets we have significant material from family estate papers – these give the perspective of those loyal to the government and the crown.  As we might expect, they are staunchly conservative and fiercely opposed to parliamentary reform. Magistrates, like the notorious Rev William Hay, assiduously collected the handbills and newspapers circulated by reformers as evidence of the seditious intent of the reform movement. These are a wonderful resource. Printed propaganda circulated by the loyalists are also represented in collection.

As the two handbills below demonstrate, both sides offered arguments and counter arguments, each claiming they were the true patriots who knew what was best for the British people. It is hard to avoid drawing parallels with today’s political climate where politics is again riven into two antagonistic camps. Brexit, like Peterloo, is causing a generation to think carefully about the meaning of democracy and political participation.

Spot the difference:

Eng Ms 1197-15
Handbill, ‘To the Inhabitants of Manchester …  A Reformer’, Ref. Eng Ms 1197/14.   University of Manchester Library

Eng Ms 1197-14

Handbill, ‘To the Inhabitants of Manchester …  No Reformer’, Ref. Eng Ms 1197/15.   University of Manchester Library

This is a first of a series of Peterloo blogs.  As research and preparation for the Peterloo exhibition continues I will be sharing more archival finds and stories from our collections.


3 comments on “Peterloo: The Forgotten Massacre?

  1. Penelope Blackburn

    This is wonderful Janette! So interesting; history is so hard to grasp sometimes, I mean tangible stuff you can empathise with, but this story is so relevant as you say, and such a human one of endeavour and people coming together to try and bring change for the better.

    Sadly, sometimes things go badly wrong. Let’s hope through this particularly turbulent period of our own ‘history making’ we keep one eye on the past when making decisions for our future and our children’s, children’s futures!

    If you ever need anymore volunteers to help catalogue I’d love to help out!

    Can’t wait to see Mike Leigh’s film, of course this subject of political agitation and power to the people, is touched upon on in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a wonderful novel.

  2. Janette Martin

    thanks Penny
    Let’s meet up after we’ve both seen the film and I’ll let you know if there is any scope for helping in someway. I think the cataloguing is under control! But Manchester histories festival are always looking for volunteers
    all best wishes

  3. Pingback: Isabella Banks, ‘Orator’ Hunt and the Peterloo Massacre | John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

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