Non-Fiction - Peterloo: The English Uprising
Peterloo - fighting for democracy and a better life
Kevin Parslow, Waltham Forest Socialist Party
When I met Robert Poole, the author of 'Peterloo: The English Uprising', at the recent bicentenary commemorations, he asked me if he had taken too long in getting to the actual events of 16 August 1819.
Certainly, eleven of the 15 chapters of this book deal with the prelude to the massacre.
However, these chapters are crammed with detail of the economic, social and political circumstances in Manchester and the surrounding districts in the late Regency period, and particularly after the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.
The book thoroughly describes the position of the different class forces at the time. The ruling class - in Manchester mainly the biggest manufacturers, but nationally also the landed aristocracy and financiers - was clear that movements for reform had to be crushed.
It would have no truck with concessions to the leaders of the Radical movement and did everything to prevent them gaining a mass base in society.
In the chapter entitled 'Conspirators', the author describes the state of the radical movement. In some towns, its 'unions' and 'societies' reached sizeable numbers.
But, "in Manchester, spies and informers had penetrated the radical network from top to bottom." Infiltration was organised not just directly by the Westminster government but also by local magistrates who ran networks to gather information about the radicals' intentions.
This was aided by the methods of the leaders of the radical organisations. On the one hand they talked about general political demands to widen the franchise and change representation in parliament.
At the same time, however, they discussed semi-conspiratorial ideas for uprisings, without a real understanding of what forces would be necessary to carry them out.
Nevertheless, the following chapter, 'Strikers', shows the actual fear of the authorities in the face of the strike movement of 1818.
Poole, through available letters, outlines the methods of the mass movement and how it shook Manchester.
When the spinners took strike action, they organized against 'knobsticks' (scabs): "Four or five hundred or perhaps one or two thousand assembling from different factories and at the hour of work, viz. 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning go to a factory at the other end of town where they are not known, and so carry off by force or intimidation, though without any violent breach of the peace, the hands who might be disposed to go to work."
The strike wave was commonly believed to be a failure. But Poole has uncovered evidence that the master spinners gave secret concessions to reduce the working day and widen the higher rates of pay for smaller pieces of work, a settlement announced factory by factory.
Even the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, considered this agreement "judicious, but the disclosure of it at this moment would have an appearance calculated to produce very injurious effects" - to the bosses, not the workers!
The authorities were worried that industrial unrest would merge with the Radicals resulting in serious consequences for their position.
Manchester stipendiary magistrate James Norris wrote: "I cannot think that the trades are at all organized for a general turnout [strike]... but the idea necessarily acquires strength amongst the lower classes... and some are no doubt ripe for it at this moment."
Similarly, Bolton magistrate Colonel Fletcher was worried: "The danger of a committee dictating what wages must be paid, is manifest, and if [it] should be submitted to, a worse than universal suffrage would succeed. It would introduce a mob oligarchy, bearing down on all the better orders of society, and would quickly be succeeded by universal anarchy"!
When the strikes were over, with unsatisfactory endings for some, workers did turn to the political field in 1819 to continue the struggle.
Protest meetings were held and the pressure on the radical organisations was such that they called a delegate meeting in Oldham for 7 June.
Poole writes: "At first only certified delegates were admitted, but early in the proceedings 'the doors were thrown open for general admittance and the room was instantly filled by the working class of people who manifested a very strong feeling for a general movement.'"
This was the mood in the Manchester region just five weeks before the demonstration on St Peter's Field. (See 'The Peterloo Massacre 1819' at socialistparty.org.uk).
It is clear that the government and local authorities feared the 'English uprising' in the book's subtitle. The author deals with the day itself in two chapters.
In the first he describes the semi-festive atmosphere of those who marched into Manchester to hear Henry Hunt. In the second he writes about the massacre itself.
Poole shows the cold brutality of the forces of the state, not just in carrying out the massacre, but in denying that there had been one! This was contradicted by the reports of journalists present, even those considered generally pro-Tory or anti-reform, who were disgusted and sickened by the brutality meted out.
Soon, the true nature of the day's events came out, causing mass revulsion and anger. But then, and subsequently, the government and its apologists attempted to cover up and lie about the extent of the violence.
HNV Temperley, a historian, could write in the Cambridge Modern History of 1902 that "one man was killed and some 40 wounded", figures that were often repeated, including in schools to history students. The real figure was 18 killed and almost 700 wounded.
It used to be said that history was written by the victors, as emphasised by Temperley's quote. But Robert Poole is on the side of those who fought for democracy and a better life.
After two centuries, history is being written more favourably to the victims and the working class as a whole.
If you can afford the £25 for the book, read it and understand the lessons of the early working class in England for the struggles today.
- Peterloo: The English Uprising, by Robert Poole, Oxford University Press, 2019, £25
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