The Peterloo Massacre was a seminal moment in our history, and it’s long been a cause of local grievance that it isn’t well enough known and that there isn’t even a proper memorial to the victims. Whilst this film could have been a lot better, with some of it seeming more like Blackadder than a serious historical drama, it did get across the message that this was a peaceful protest, by people demanding their natural, inalienable rights – and those are concepts about which we don’t hear enough these days – which was turned into a bloodbath by a social and political Establishment which was totally disconnected from the vast majority of the population. It was part of a period of repression that also involved banning trade unions and trying to tax the working-class press out of existence. Be angry. Be very angry.
This was about a time in particular history, but that feeling of being disconnected from Westminster, or Washington, or wherever it is in whichever country you’re in, that feeling that the political class doesn’t represent you and doesn’t care about you, is hardly unique to 1819. I’m not criticising any particular politicians or any particular political party, but I think that a lot of people in a lot of places feel like that at the moment. There was plenty of discussion in the film about people who are all talk and people who actually try to get things done. I’m always saying this, about many things, but these days there’s a lot of talking and not a lot of doing.
Think about Peterloo, think about the Chartists, think about the suffragettes. If you’re from Manchester, be incredibly proud of the part our city played in it all. But remember just how bloody awful the events of 1819 were. People came in peace. Fifteen of them were killed, and hundreds more injured. This wasn’t in Tiananmen Square or Soweto or Cairo: this was here.
Some of the characters in the film were real people. Some of them, notably a family with Maxine Peake as its matriarch (why is someone who is only seven months older than me being cast as a matriarch?!) were fictional. A lot of the dialogue was taken from speeches made at the time, and, speakers in Regency times being rather fond of overblown oratory, it did get a bit … well, overblown. But it was genuine. And some of the characters did point out that it sounded a bit overblown!
I have to say that I could have done with some of the characters being a little less exaggerated, though. I wasn’t overly impressed with the OTT portrayal of the Prince Regent, and some of the other Establishment figures came across almost as pantomime villains whom you felt that you should be booing and hissing. It was very much Them and Us, and They are the enemy, and They are oppressing Us, but that effect could have been achieved without going quite so far down the road of caricature.
It wasn’t just the rich and powerful who got a bit caricatured. Some of the working-class characters came across a bit like Comedy Northerners. And I felt that the portrayal of Samuel Bamford, who’s a local hero – which Mike Leigh, from Higher Broughton, will know jolly well – bordered on the disrespectful. At times, he was shown more as a bit of a prat than the highly-respected local leader of the reform movement. They even had him only turning up at St Peter’s Fields at the last moment, presumably because his group had stopped off in a pub in Harpurhey along the way! He was a great man. He deserves better than the way he was shown in this film.
Henry “Orator” Hunt wasn’t portrayed particularly favourably either, but I think the portrayal of him was a lot more accurate – a man from a well-to-do background who liked to portray himself as a man of the people, who won huge popularity (although I’m not sure that everyone would have been fanboying/fangirling over him quite as much as they did in this), and who genuinely believed in a cause but was pretty self-serving at the same time. I was going to say “Remind you of anyone?”, but I think that’d be unfair. Hunt didn’t want to be Prime Minister: he did genuinely devote his life to the cause of the reform. Maybe he deserved a little bit better than the way he came across in this, as well.
The film began four years before the massacre, with Waterloo, and a young working-class soldier from Manchester returning home. As with the early scenes of an episode of Casualty, when you find yourself trying to spot who’s going to end up having a serious accident, you knew that he would be caught up in the events of August 16th, 1819; and his family, led by Maxine Peake, were the conduit via which many of the events were shown.
In the years immediately following the end of the long period of war, the economy went into decline and there was an upsurge in radical activity. I thought that the reform movement could actually have been explained a little more clearly. The Blanketeers’ March wasn’t really shown, and the term “Blanketeers” wasn’t even used. I don’t think the term “Hampden Clubs” was used either, and I’m not sure that even the Manchester Patriotic Union, which organised the meeting which became Peterloo, got name-checked. Having said which, the Corn Laws were explained, and there was also a lot of discussion about factory strikes, and I suppose they didn’t want the film to seem like too much of a lesson.
We saw reform meetings – involving both men and women – and we heard a lot about the activity of the press. Those scenes were excellent. However, we were also shown court scenes, and they were like something out of a Carry On film. People being transported to penal colonies for minor offences which were largely due to desperation and poverty was not funny. OK, Carry On films and Blackadder and so on can get away with making things like that funny, but this was meant to be a serious film. Also, if you must use a “funny”-sounding Northern surname, then, if the scene is set in Lancashire, you should use Sidebottom. You should not, as this film did, use Micklethwaite. That’s a Yorkshire name. Got it?! OK!
I’ve got a horrible feeling that some people are going to find some of the accents and dialect funny as well. They weren’t funny: people spoke in dialect at the time. I did think that some of the accents were a bit wide of the mark, but accents have changed in 200 years so it’s hard to tell. Anyway, as I said, people spoke in dialect at that time. Read Samuel Bamford’s poems. Or Edwin Waugh’s poems. They’re part of our history.
It was good to see that most of the cast were local. Plenty of familiar faces in there! It’s a great shame that it couldn’t be filmed locally, but town just doesn’t look anything like it did in 1815-1819 any more! Nor does the surrounding area. I did think that some of it looked rather too rural even for 1819, but then it wasn’t clear exactly where all the out of town scenes were set, so it’s difficult to say. I do have to say that I was quite put out to see a review in one of the papers which mentioned drilling on Saddleworth Moor. No, no, no! It was filmed on Saddleworth Moor, but – and the film did state this quite clearly – it took place on Kersal Moor. As the local Chartist meetings would do later on. Kersal Moor is about a mile from chez moi. I spent my first term of primary school very close to it (er, until the building half-collapsed, luckily not during school hours, and they had to move us to Bury Old Road). It used to be known as the Mons Sacer of Manchester. It is an incredibly important historic location. I will not have anyone mixing it up with Saddleworth Moor or anywhere else! Kersal Moor, OK! Kersal Moor!
Meanwhile, the authorities were paranoid about any sort of lower-class activism, because of the French Revolution. We’ve all heard the “Orf with their heads” jokes, but it’s hard to overstate just how deep this fear ran, not just in Britain but across Europe. There was a huge shift to the right because of it. Again, this came across in the film as being slightly comedic, but it wasn’t – it was genuine fear. None of which excuses the appalling repression of the times. The Combination Acts banned the forming of any sort of trade unions. The Seditious Meetings Act of 1817, a response to the Blanketeers’ March and also to uprisings elsewhere in the country, banned meetings of more than fifty people. And, as the film showed, habeas corpus – i.e. the system via which unlawful detention can be reported to a court and it be demanded that the prisoner be brought to court for a hearing to determine whether or not the detention is lawful – was suspended following a minor attack on the Prince Regent’s coach.
After Peterloo, things got even worse, with the passing of the Six Acts. Drilling with arms organised by anyone other than the authorities was banned – and that act was only repealed in 2008! And stamp duties were increased, and imposed on publications which had previously been exempt because they weren’t actually newspapers but were publishing opinions. We’re hearing a lot at the moment about repressive regimes in the Middle East. This was here. And it wasn’t that long ago. Someone aged, say, fourteen would have been well able to remember the events of Peterloo. If they’d lived into their 80s, they’d still have been alive at the turn of the 20th century, and they would have known as children people who, had they also lived into their 80s, would have known people born in the 1970s. It’s that close.
Having said which, it was closer to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution than it was to today. Now, all that stuff written by Hobbes and Locke and Montesquieu in the 17th and 18th centuries is rather boring. I was thinking about it recently in relation to the issue of the separation of powers in the United States, but that’s beside the point. Also, being a royalist, I tie myself in knots over the events of 1688 – all that social contract and de jure and de facto stuff goes round and round in my head! But all of it, the ideas of the crucial developments in this country during the 17th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the American Revolution, the French Revolution – it is crucial. We’re talking about the Rights of Man. And, indeed, the Rights of Woman – thank you, Mary Wollstonecraft!
Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, spoke about the natural, inalienable rights of the people, and the duty of governments to protect those rights – and, crucially, said that it was OK to overthrow a government which didn’t protect those rights. Parallels were drawn between the French Revolution and the Glorious Revolution, and the speakers in the film referred to the Bill of Rights. That’s the Bill of Rights of 1689. It requires free elections, regular Parliaments and freedom of speech in Parliament, it bans the levying of taxes without Parliamentary consent, and it also bans cruel punishments. (We’ll draw a veil over its connection with gun laws – that’s America’s issue, not ours!)
No-one talks about it any more. The only time that the settlements after the Glorious Revolution have really been discussed in recent years was when the succession laws were altered so that royal boys no longer took precedence over their sisters in the order of succession. No-one talks about natural, inalienable rights any more. I don’t think most school exam syllabuses (syllabi?) even include the Glorious Revolution any more.
Why not? I know Whig history’s considered old hat now, and maybe the liberal elite don’t want us learning anything that makes English/British history sound positive, but this is important! Or is it that Victorian sentimentalism over the Jacobites mean that people don’t want to hear about the Glorious Revolution? I did say that I tied myself in knots over it! Or is it something to do with William of Orange’s name becoming associated with the Troubles in Northern Ireland? I don’t honestly know. Suggestions welcomed!
Or is it that we just don’t talk about rights any more? In the Q&A session afterwards, Mike Leigh, writer and director of the film – brought up a couple of miles down the road from chez moi!- got quite angry when talking about people not exercising their right to vote. At the time of Peterloo, people genuinely believed that what they needed was the right to vote, that that would change things. Manchester didn’t even have any MPs in 1819. Hardly anyone round here had the vote. It’s different now. We’ve got representation. And yet the turnout at the last general election, across the country, was only 68%, and even that was the highest since 1997. Did we get the vote, feel that it didn’t change things after all, and lose interest? Can people just not be bothered? Whatever, in 1819, it was different. A crowd of up to 80,000 people – certainly at least 60,000, and this was at a time when the population was far smaller than it was now, and when most people had to make their way there on foot – turned up to hear Henry Hunt speak in Manchester on August 16th, 1819.
On a Monday – someone made the point in the Q&A session that this would have been more difficult once most people were employed by others, rather than being independent handloom weavers. Mike Leigh also made a point in the Q&A session about self-education. I do feel constrained to point out that Samuel Bamford attended Manchester Grammar School until his dad fell out with the Latin department, and that he then attended Middleton Grammar School, but, yes, it was an excellent point about the 19th century idea of self-improvement, so crucial then and even more so in the Victorian era which lay ahead. You didn’t hear anyone sneering at the organisers of the Hampden Clubs and the Manchester Patriotic Union for being swots and geeks because they liked to read up on politics and history.
I’m waffling now. If anyone is bothering to read this, which they probably aren’t, thank you for bearing with me – 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.