Britain’s Most Historic Towns: Manchester – Channel 4

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This was one of the best programmes I’ve seen all year.  There should be programmes like this on every day.  On every channel.  At prime viewing time.  What more could anyone ask for than to watch a TV programme which says that “Manchester is as great a human exploit as [ancient] Athens” (Disraeli), talks about Manchester “pumping the rich blood of economic vitality and revolutionary identity around Britain” and points out that Frederick Douglass was “fascinated” by Manchester because of the number of people here working to change the world for the better?  And it showed a picture of Old Trafford.  (OK, OK, it also showed a picture of the Etihad, but never mind that.)  And it talked about the Cotton Famine.  The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic.  I get very excited when people talk about it.

We got Peterloo.  We got the Anti Corn Law League.  We got the Manchester to Liverpool Railway (the Huskisson incident was not mentioned).  We got Engels and Marx meeting up at Chetham’s (the fact that Engels’ office was in what’s now Kendals, which always amuses me, was sadly not mentioned).  And, of course, we got the suffragettes.  I just need to mention for the ten billionth time that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst and her sisters.  Then, at the end, we were shown a picture of Marcus Rashford.  Marcus, being a very modest young man, is probably rather embarrassed at being mentioned alongside the likes of Richard Cobden, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emmeline Pankhurst and the organisers of the meeting which sadly ended in the Peterloo Massacre, but I thought that that was rather lovely.

This really was brilliant.  Alice Roberts was so enthusiastic and so totally biased in favour of all the radicals and reformers of 18th, 19th, 20th and now 21st century Manchester.  I got all excited, like I did when I was a teenager reading books by Asa Briggs et al about the role of Manchester in the Industrial Revolution.  Yes, I really, genuinely am that sad and that weird.  Always have been, always will be.  Indulge me, OK.  Christmas has just been cancelled.  I needed cheering up.  This cheered me up.  So has United beating Leeds 6-2.   Well, somewhat.

We started off with canals, cotton mills and railways – and a drone flying over the city to take pictures.  This was obviously filmed recently, but they managed very well with social distancing – Alice Roberts met various historians, but only one at a time, and they stood well apart.  Then we heard about the difficult conditions under which the mill workers lived and worked, and then moved on to the mess which was the constituency system pre 1832, and, of course, the electorail system too.

That, obviously, brought us on to Peterloo.  We heard about the radical press here, notably the Manchester Observer, and then about the Massacre itself. If Mike Leigh hadn’t made such a mess of the film, we might hear a lot more about Peterloo: I’m still narked about that.  Anyway.  Even now, we get people saying that it wasn’t really a peaceful protest, or that it wasn’t really that bad.  This, using documents from the time, kept in the wonderful John Rylands Library, made it quite clear that, yes, it was a peaceful protest, and, yes, what happened was that bad.  We heard about the Peterloo Relief Fund set up to help the injured and the families of the dead.  And we heard about the “fake news” put out about it all.  It was all very, very much on the side of the peaceful protesters.  And quite rightly so!

Strangely, there was no mention of the Chartists.  That was a very odd omission.

However, we did hear about Richard Cobden and the Anti Corn Law League.  Possibly a teensy bit of political agenda pushing here, the only bit of the programme I wasn’t keen on.  Or maybe I imagined it.  But let’s ignore that, and focus on the fact that the Anti Corn Law League eventually succeeded in bringing down food prices – at a time when, even during the Potato Famine, landowners were only interested in keeping prices up, and never mind the fact that people were going hungry.   And, oh, how I wish that the Free Trade Hall had never been sold off and turned into a hotel!  It’s such a big piece of our history. We used to have school Speech Day in there.  It was always very boring, very hot, and at the same time as a crucial match at Wimbledon, but the fact that it was in the Free Trade Hall rather than the school hall was rather exciting.

On to Marx and Engels, and the interesting point was made that Elizabeth Gaskell probably did more to draw public attention to “the condition of the working classes” than Engels did.  Lucky Alice Roberts got to visit her house, and also Chetham’s Library: both are sadly closed to the public at the moment 😦 , thanks to bl**dy Tier 3 regulations.  Charles Dickens also got a mention, but I find Hard Times unspeakably annoying.  Mrs Gaskell’s books are much better.  And, yes, they would have reached a far wider audience than the Engels book did.  Both them were rather patronising, quite honestly, but those were different times.

Then on to the Cotton Famine.  I’ve just read an utterly ridiculous book which claimed that everyone in the Lancashire textile areas supported the Confederacy.  It also said that the Confederacy only had six states, when it had eleven, so the author was clearly pretty clueless.  And he said that Prince Albert was gay, which seemed a rather odd comment.  But it annoyed me that a supposed history textbook has gone on sale spouting such rubbish.  Yes, there was some support for the Confederacy, but the general feeling in the Lancashire textile areas (I’m saying “textile areas” because it was a whole different ball game in Liverpool) was pro-Union because of the slavery issue.  Whether the war was actually about slavery or about states’ rights is a debate for another time, but there’s that famous letter sent to Abraham Lincoln from “the citizens of Manchester”, and the equally famous reply.  And there’s a statue of Lincoln in the city centre … close to where one of the Christmas markets should currently be being held.  Given the damage done to the regional economy by the Cotton Famine, that was a very big thing.

We were also told that Frederick Douglass was fascinated by Manchester. Well, of course he was.  Anyone would be 🙂 .  But I love the fact that he was.

And then to the suffragettes.  Emmeline Pankhurst, of whom there is, finally, now a statue in town.  Alice spoke to a woman who’d actually changed her surname to Pankhurst!   That’s rather extreme fangirling, but it’s fascinating that someone does find Emmeline Pankhurst so inspirational that she’d do that.  And we saw the Manchester – First in the Fight” banner which now lives in the People’s History Museum.

First in the Fight!   “We are a city of changemakers.”  “Greatest Hits of Radical Movements.”  I actually Googled Alice Roberts to see if she had Manchester connections, but, as far as I can see, she hasn’t.  She was just being gloriously pro-Manchester.  We take all this as a compliment, obviously!   We are very proud of being involved in the Repeal movement and the Suffragette movement and everything else.  And, as I said, I thought it was rather lovely that that picture of Marcus Rashford was shown.  We’re having a tough time at the moment.  But we’ve had tough times before.  We’ve come through those and we’ll come through this.

And this programme was brilliant.  Not that I’m biased or anything …

 

 

The Peterloo Affair by Lucinda Elliot

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This can be quite accurately described as a Regency romance, although it couldn’t be further removed from the images that that term conjures up. That made me think about how wide of the mark general perceptions of the Regency era are. Thanks to Georgette Heyer & co, the word “Regency” suggests dashing young men in breeches dancing with elegant young ladies in long frocks, at glamorous balls in spa towns or stately homes. However, the Regency was a time of war, unrest, riots, repression, lack of representation, assassination, unemployment, food shortages and high prices for what food there was.  Today, we mark the 200th anniversary of the killing of eighteen people, with hundreds more injured, as they attended a peaceful parliamentary reform meeting in our city. The response of one of the most authoritarian governments our country has ever known was to introduce even more measures aimed at repressing attempts to improve the rights of ordinary people.  It was a far cry from the world of the Bath Assembly Rooms.

This book traces the romance between two people, from a fictional village somewhere on the north east side of Manchester, who were both at St Peter’s Field that day. It’s not the greatest book ever – although it did amuse me by using words like “dandyprat” and “rumpskuttle”.  And it would have benefited from more careful editing: the piece de resistance was when the name of a character called Jimmy Thribble was mistyped as “Jimmy Riddle” (I am not making this up).  But it’s not bad, and it’s got the additional merit of having a woman as the main character: a disproportionate number of those injured at Peterloo were female. For 99p on Kindle, it’s worth a read.

We can’t know whether or not women were deliberately targeted, but we do know that the proportion of women injured, relative to the number of women attending, was considerably higher than that for men.  Women who became involved in political protest risked particular hostility from the authorities – don’t get me started on religious and political leaders who seemed to think that women speaking at Abolitionist meetings was more shocking than the institution of slavery itself – and also, as this book shows, from elements within their own communities.

The community in this book is that of an unspecified and presumably fictional village, seven miles out of town and, given the references to Middleton, Harpurhey and Oldham, presumably on the north east side of town. Our heroine is a young woman called Joan. Her social background’s a bit confused/confusing. The family are working-class, and, due to the socio-economic problems of the time, they struggle to afford food and clothing.  However, Joan and her friends seem to have, or at least have had, access to lots of romantic novels.  And we never actually see anyone doing any work: they seem to have a lot of free time.  And their parents seem very worried about what the neighbours will think about everything!

However, the author’s got it right in that they’re not factory workers.  Not that many people at Peterloo actually worked in mills: it was a Monday, and, whilst a lot of what would now be called self-employed people took “Saint Mondays” off, it was a working day for people in factories.  It’s estimated that over a third of those there were handloom weavers, and many of the others were artisans – shoemakers, tailors etc. .

The language is also a bit confused: the author’s tried to write some but not all of the dialogue in dialect, so we sometimes get “thee” and “thou”, and sometimes don’t; and she sometimes gets the dialect completely wrong – “fash” is a Scottish or Geordie term, not a Lancastrian one! Whilst I’m moaning, there are some irritating grammatical errors, such as the use of “her” rather than “she” and “who” rather than “whom; and the “Jimmy Riddle” thing is just ridiculous!  And the Six Acts were a response to Peterloo, not a cause of it!

OK, enough moaning.  It’s really not bad at all!  Joan and her pal Marcie – how many people in Lancashire in 1819 would have been called Marcie?! – are unimpressed with women’s lot in life, and have decided that they’re going to steer clear of men and become some sort of doctors, treating people with herbs. A term like “wise women” might have been better, but, OK, credit for emphasising the lack of choices for women at this time. Their intentions don’t last very long, when Joan gets involved with a handsome Irishman called Sean and Marcie gets involved with Joan’s brother. Sean actually does have traits of a typical Regency romance character, having a terrible reputation for loving girls and leaving them. One of his exes even went mad as a result: even Sense and Sensibility didn’t go that far 🙂 . However, the way it’s written isn’t too Mills and Boon-ish to be taken seriously, and we learn how Sean’s wild behaviour was triggered by what would now be recognised as PTSD after his experiences during the Napoleonic Wars. Joan dumps him at one point, but, after he’s badly injured at Peterloo, realises how much he means to her, and it all ends happily.

OK, OK, it’s not the greatest plot ever; but we do see the people of the community, led by Joan’s father and Sean, becoming involved in calls for reform, we see their struggles at a time when the Corn Laws are making the price of food very high, and, in particular, we see the insistence of Joan and Marcie and the other girls in the area that women should join the local contingent going to hear Orator Hunt speak at St Peter’s Field.  The part of the book is the section covering the day of the Peterloo Massacre itself is excellent: the events of the entire day are extremely well-described, and it’s worth reading for that alone.

It’s Joan’s story, rather than the story of Peterloo, but the reform movement and the social and economic conditions of the time are very much a part of it; and, as I’ve said, the sections covering the events of 16th August 1819 are very well done, even if some of the rest of the book isn’t.  For 99p, it’s worth a read.

Councillor Luthfur Rahman, executive member for skills, culture and leisure, Manchester City Council, said: “The Peterloo Massacre was a significant moment in Manchester’s history and in the campaign for democracy in the UK. It’s important we don’t forget and that we remember the sacrifices of all those who went before us in the name of democracy and peace.”

There are a lot of events taking place today and over the weekend to mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.  I hope they get the nationwide coverage that they deserve.  There’s been considerable controversy over the importance and impact of Peterloo.  When there’s controversy over something, it’s usually a pretty sure sign that it’s something important.

 

More about the historical background – Peterloo.

A Weaver’s Web by Chris Pearce

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Oh dear. The author of this book thinks that Middleton Road is full of creeks, and that the population of Regency-era Manchester existed solely on potatoes and lived in fear of a Vulgaria-esque child catcher.  He also thinks that Methodist ministers are addressed as “Father”, Methodist chapels have stained glass windows and ornate altars, millowners are classed as aristocrats, and “well-bred” Georgian girls worked as housemaids.  And, yes, it is supposed to be a serious historical novel: he claims that he spent ages researching it!   The basic plot isn’t bad, and the section on Peterloo’s actually quite good, but I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many inaccuracies in a single book before.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

I don’t like being negative about things – I’m sure the author put a lot of work into this – but it was just cringeworthy. The language was all wrong, for a kick off.  I didn’t expect someone writing in the 21st century to sound like Georgette Heyer, but having characters in the early 19th century referring to their mate James Johnson as “Johnno”, or saying “You’re still in the 18th century.  It’s not a problem these days”, or talking about “citizens” (unless they’re in France!) was just plain silly.   Not to mention “wow” and “holler” and various other expressions that just did not belong in a book set in the 1810s.  Even the names were wrong: the name Albert wasn’t used in the UK before Queen Victoria’s marriage.  And no-one ever refers to Manchester as “the city”.  If you live locally, it’s “town”.  If you live a bit further out, it’s just “Manchester”.  OK?!

It’s a shame, because the general idea wasn’t bad at all. It started with a handloom weaver in Middleton, determined that he was going to remain working independently and not be forced into working in a factory.  Very interesting premise for a book, especially one incorporating the Peterloo Massacre.  Middleton was obviously chosen because of the connection with Samuel Bamford.  I’m still rather put out about the way Bamford was portrayed in the Peterloo film: he came across much better in this book.   However, the comments about eating nothing but potatoes, battling against the frequent gales (?) and hoping that the factory agents coming from “the city” would fall into a creek – on Middleton Road?! – were just bizarre.

Bringing in the growth of Methodism was a good idea, but surely anyone, however little interest they may have in religion, knows that Methodists do not have fancy church buildings and address their ministers as “Father”?!   Bringing in Hampden Clubs was also a good idea, but rather spoilt by the fact that our hero, one Henry, went off to spend all his money on prostitutes after the meeting, and convinced his family that he’d dropped the said money in a puddle … whereupon they all solemnly went off to search every puddle in Middleton for a pile of coins.  What??

One of Henry’s kids then ran away to “the city” to get a job in a factory, and, eventually, the rest of the family moved there too. There then followed various strange scenes involving some kind of child catcher – I can only think that the author had got the Industrial Revolution mixed up with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – who went around town trying to catch kids to work in factories, and chaining them up.  Meanwhile, our pal Henry, by dint of stealing and gambling, managed to set up his own factory, and thus became an aristocrat (the word “aristocracy” was frequently used to describe millowners).  The rags to riches storyline, again, was a good idea, but it was executed very poorly.  It also involved a gentlemen (i.e. millowners!) versus players cricket match.  That would have worked fine in a village setting, but not in the centre of a big industrial city!

However, things did not work out for Henry. Apparently this was supposed to remind the reader of The Grapes of Wrath.  One of his kids was transported to Australia.  He managed to arrange for him to be brought back, but was set upon by highwaymen on his way to Liverpool to meet him at the docks, and then it turned out that the kid wanted to stay in Australia.  This was a bit far-fetched, but it made more sense than the child-catcher and the creeks.  Then his wife, who couldn’t cope with having to socialise with all the “aristocrats”, was put in an asylum.  Again, good points about the harshness of the criminal justice system and the treatment of mental health problems; but it all got rather ridiculous.  The wife was eventually rescued from the asylum by one of the sons, who pretended that he wanted to hire one of the inmates as a prostitute and then hid his mum under his coat.  As you do.  And then a group of Luddites burned down the factory.

I can see how it could have worked really well.  A lot of the important issues of the time were brought into the story.  There was the idea of someone thinking they’d made it and then everything crumbling to bits.  And the section about Peterloo, which was the reason I read the book in the first place, really did work fairly well.  But so much of it was just utter twaddle.  It was self-published because a load of publishers turned it down.  The author claims that he can’t understand why it was turned down.  Oh, to be that confident!

I don’t like being overly critical of someone else’s work, but I paid good money for this, and, to put it mildly, it really wasn’t worth it.   Oh well.  I suppose it gave me a few laughs!  But give this one a miss.

Peterloo

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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.