No Strangers to Massacre

Unlawful assembly
In the 19th century the British parliament comprised of the rich and landed gentry encouraged the brutal treatment of the working class (somethings never change). In 1819, people in Manchester held a mass meeting at St Peter’s Field to listen to speeches demanding parliamentary reform to give workers and women the right to vote.

The main speaker was to be a man called Orator Hunt. The organisers wanted a non-violent event. Halfway through the gathering, the local magistrates declared that the meeting was illegal and sent cavalry in to break it up.

Those nearest the mounted soldiers stopped them from doing this. General confusion broke out and the cavalry charged the crowd. Eleven people were killed and 400 were wounded. The magistrates were congratulated by Parliament. People called what happened “Peterloo” in mocking tones of the British victory at Waterloo especially since some of those that were killed had fought in France alongside the soldiers who slew them.
Humphrey McQueen reviews Mike Leigh’s new film Peterloo now showing at Palace Cinemas.

Ian Curr
27 Oct 2018

Mike Leigh’s new film, Peterloo,[*] recounts the massacre in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, on 16 August 1819.

Peterloo soon became a play on Waterloo. The latter had been a victory over one of the greatest armies of all time. Peterloo saw yeomen kill eleven and wound more than 400 unarmed and peaceful protestors. The yeoman were carrying out the orders of the local magistrates[†] to arrest the speaker, Henry Hunt.

After the Leader of the Commons, Lord Castlereagh, showered praise on the magistrates, Shelley flung back:

I met murder on the way.
He had a mask like Castlereagh.

The regime imposed more limits on fair trials, the press, assembly and speech under the ‘Six Acts’.

Valuable as it is for wage-slaves around the world to be reminded – even told – about the Peterloo massacre, it is far more important to absorb that ruling-class violence is no exception – least of all for the Motherland of bourgeois democracy – the United Kingdom. Even more important is for our class to learn from how workers then fought back.

First, how did the Kingdom get to be united? Scots fought for their independence against the Romans and seemingly forever against the English. The invasion and conquest of Britain by the Dutch Protestant William III in 1688 deposes the Stuart James II. On 13 February 1692, the Campbells slaughter the MacDonalds at the Massacre of Glencoe, carrying out the order of William’s  Joint Secretary of State for Scotland: ‘You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels … and to put all to the sword under seventy.’ The 1688-9  ‘The Bill of Rights’ did not apply to Scotland or to workers anywhere. The ‘45 Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 ended with the slaughter at Culloden. Prisoners – men, women and children – were sold as indentured labour into the Americas. Then came the Clearances.

No less determined than the Clans to throw off the foreign yoke, the Irish rebelled again in 1798. The repression slaughtered 30,000, far more on a population basis than had the French ‘Terror’, so much employed to decry all and any revolution. In 1989, Mitterrand had to remind Thatcher that the French had followed the example of the English in regicide.

Class violence had raged under Feudalism before 1400 followed by the Vagrancy Laws under the Tudors. Capitalism came into the world,  as Marx says, dripping dirt and blood from every pore.

That shining light of English ‘Liberty’, John Locke, advised the Board of Trade in 1697 that the recalcitrantly idle be whipped while their children taken away at the age of three and placed in schools to inculcate work discipline.

The state put more troops into the North of England around 1812 against the Luddites than they had in the Peninsula against Napoleon.

The number of hanging offences increased, though sentences were reduced to transportation to more than balance the number of hangings. One spike came between 1797 and 1821 when the state battled to protect a paper currency against forgers.

In general, the great criminals remained to rule the Empire while victims of their exploitation were condemned to exile with hard labour.

Having lost their independence by the mid-1550s, the Welsh proved the most consistently forceful in their resistance to the conditions of work imposed with the spread of mining, metallurgy and textile-factories from the 1770s. A massacre of coal miners from around Merthyr at 1831 killed at least sixteen, almost twice that at Peterloo. Between 1820 and the 1840s, Monmouthshire miners held their ground; they styled themselves ‘Scotch Cattle’, perhaps a reference to the Scotch Greys, the regiment sent against them.

English workers pushed back during the 1820s with the Captain Swing rick-burnings by rural labourers from 1830.

Despite the repeal of the Anti-Combination Acts in 1825 the state applied an Act against the taking of extra-legal oaths to transport the six Tolpuddle Martyrs to Australia in 1834 for protesting against yet another cut in their wages. The injustice within the law was overturned – not by learned judges – but after a campaign powered by the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union.

London freethinker and republican, Richard Carlile led the fight for a free press though his successes came when 150 workers served a total of 200 years in prison for defying the Six Acts, but also thanks to the jurors who refused to convict in the face of instructions from the Chief Justice to do so.

Around the same time, editors in Hobart and Sydney went on producing their newspapers from cells to which they had been condemned for criticising the colonial governors. As the organiser with the Builders’ Labourers told a Hobart rally in 1916:

Our liberties were not won by mining magnates or stock-exchange jobbers, but by genuine men of the working-class movement who had died on the gallows and rotted in dungeons and were buried in nameless graves.

Bourgeois liberals who now claim to be the champions of democracy are the political descendants of those who opposed every step that working people took towards removing the worst features of class dictatorship.

Twenty years after the 1819 massacre at St Peter’s Field, Chartists carried banners calling on the people to ‘Remember the Bloody Deeds of Peterloo’. Shelley’s refrain is alive today among the Corbynites:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Ye are many – they are few.

That remains true arithmetically. The obstacle is that ‘they’ still hold the monopoly over the means of violence. They never have, indeed never can, refrain from using the force of their state apparatuses to hold onto their ill-gotten gains. The bayonetting of wounded diggers at Eureka is but one more example of the civilising mission on display in Mike Leigh’s feature film.

Our future depends on the relative strength of the contending classes.

Humphrey McQueen
25 October 2018

[*] Peterloo screens from Saturday 27th in the British Film Festival at Palace Cinemas in all the mainland capitals, with several sessions for each venue. It is bound to get a commercial release in the New Year.

[†] Adam Smith would not have been surprised: ‘The masters upon these occasions are just as clamorous upon the other wide, and never cease to all aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrates, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combinations of servants, labourers and journeymen.’ The Wealth of Nations.

Nor would Max Weber: ‘The industrialist takes into account the fact that people exist who are hungry, and that those other people in the spiked helmets will prevent them using physical force simply to take the means where they find them which could serve to allay their hunger …’


Peterloo in in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester. Painting by Richard Carlile (see text). One of the banners read “Female Reformers of Roynton — ‘Let us die like men and not be sold like slaves'”
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2 thoughts on “No Strangers to Massacre

  1. setinthepast says:

    It’s on general release next week. I saw it on the premiere night – it’s not perfect, but I really hope it does well at the box office. This needs to be better known, especially ahead of the 200th anniversary next year.

    1. Thanks for your comments.

      I liked this part of what your review:

      “I am actually now going to get to the Peterloo Massacre. Whatever gripes I might have had with other parts of the film, the scenes showing Peterloo itself were superb. People came in peace. From all over the area. Wearing their Sunday best. Flags flying. Bands playing. I’d hesitate to say that it was a day out, because it was a serious political meeting, at a time when reform was urgently needed; but it was an occasion. Nobody went there looking for trouble. There were no rogue elements. Even had the Sun been around at the time, it couldn’t have tried to blame the working-class people of Lancashire for what happened.

      Hunt began to speak. People cheered. A bunch of magistrates watching from a nearby house issued an arrest warrant for Hunt and three of the organisers of the meeting. And sent for the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry – who galloped towards St Peter’s Fields, killing a two-year-old child as they went. They charged into the crowd. There was chaos. They began hacking at people with their sabres. There was panic. People couldn’t get away: the area was too crowded and the troops were blocking the way. We can’t be sure of the total number of dead and injured, but at least fifteen lives were lost, and probably more. It came across so well in the film. No dramatic air shots, no big panoramic shots. You, the viewer, were right in there.

      Afterwards, a number of … commemorative items, for lack of a better word, were produced. It sounds tasteless, but, although we can’t be sure, it would be nice to think that they were sold in order to raise money for the injured, as well as to show support for the dead, the injured, and the cause of reform in general. They included a medal bearing the Biblical text “The wicked have drawn out the sword, they have cast down the poor and needy and such as be of upright conversation”. That sums it up rather well.

      The film showed several scenes featuring journalists, from Manchester, London, Leeds and elsewhere. What happened was widely reported in the press. Shelley wrote a poem about it. I’ve also heard a theory that Keats included veiled references to Peterloo in To Autumn. There was widespread anger in Manchester, in the rest of Lancashire and across the country about what had happened. But the response of the authorities was to pass the Six Acts, which I’ve already mentioned. The Manchester Observer newspaper’s offices were repeatedly raided: the newspaper closed in 1820, although the Manchester Guardian was founded in 1821.

      Reform did come, eventually, but it was to be over a century before there was universal suffrage.

      We’ve got a red plaque there now. It replaced an earlier blue plaque which didn’t make what happened very clear. The new plaque’s an improvement on the old one, but there still isn’t a proper memorial, even though a campaign to build one’s been going since 2007. Events are planned to mark the bicentennial of the massacre, next year. I hope they get the publicity they deserve.

      The film didn’t tell you what happened afterwards, to either the real or the fictional characters, or to the cause of reform in general. Mike Leigh said that he wanted it to end, there, in 1819 – with the raw grief of the family we’d been following throughout the film as they laid one of their own, one of the victims of Peterloo, to rest. He went to a peaceful reform meeting and never came home.

      This wasn’t in the Middle East, or China, or one of the dictatorships of Africa or South America, or Stalin’s Soviet Union. This was here, in our city, under a repressive regime which existed in our country. Some of this film leaves a lot to be desired, but please don’t let that detract from the importance of the events that it’s covering. This story needs to be told, and it needs to be known.”

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