Peterloo, Mike Leigh’s masterful new film, is a dramatic account of the massacre in August 1819 of unarmed families meeting in Manchester to call for working class men to have the right to vote. It was a formative moment in modern British history and yet it is barely know about today. Leigh’s film ought to do something to redress the balance.
Four years after the British army defeated Napoleon for the final time at Waterloo, the north of England was in the midst of a dramatic industrial revolution that would ultimately transform an island off the coast of Europe into the most powerful nation on Earth. But the millions of newly urbanised factory workers whose toil was responsible for a never-before-seen surge in economic growth, and whose blood was spilt to hold off European competitors and conquer a new empire abroad, were starving.
Leigh’s film starts with a young Waterloo veteran trekking back home to Manchester, suffering from post-traumatic stress, his army uniform in tatters, but arriving to find his family in almost as bad a state as he.
While the British economy, measured by the size of the national product, strode forward, the lives of most ordinary people were going backwards. Urban squalor and dreadful pollution caused life expectancy to decline, and harsh working conditions, including for children, ensured that quality of existence also deteriorated.
It was hardly surprising, therefore, if rebellion was in the air and yet, as Peterloo documents, the 60,000 – 100,000 people who gathered in Peter’s Field that summer day, were not plotting revolution – just asking for the right for men (not women) to vote.
Moreover, it is clear from the voluminous contemporary accounts, that the crowds at Peterloo were entirely peaceful. Indeed, it had been organised as a family day out, with men, women and children walking for miles together wearing their Sunday best clothes. The chief speaker, Henry “The Orator” Hunt, a gentleman farmer who supported working men’s suffrage, had, as the film recounts, successfully ensured that while the protestors had been drilled to walk in orderly file, they were entirely unarmed.
“Cleanliness”, “Sobriety”, “Order”, “Peace” were the instructions from the organising committee. Saddleworth Union folk arrived holding a banner with the large words ‘LOVE’ painted on it, above two hands joined over a heart. Not only was this a family affair, but the banners of the ‘Female Unions’ were prominent.
The quiet order of the demonstration did nothing to calm the nerves of the Manchester mill and land-owning elites who commanded the local judiciary and militia. Indeed, it struck fear deep into their hearts to see that instead of confronting a worthless rabble, they faced a newly organised class. As General Byng, the man sent to quell workers’ uprisings in Manchester observed, “The peaceable demeanour of so many thousand unemployed Men is not natural”.
Both the local gentry and the newly dominant bourgeoisie were in no doubt that this new order had to be crushed before it got out of hand. As a ‘Yorkshire Freeholder’ put it, “I consider such meetings, as that held at Manchester, to be nothing more or less than the risings of the people; and I believe that these risings of the people, if suffered to continue, would end in open rebellion..”
Historians are divided on whether or not the government actively planned a massacre at Peter’s Field, or whether local officials over-reacted. Leigh’s film suggests the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, and the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, certainly intended to use force to quell any sign of rebellion, even if they did not explicitly order sabre-wielding drunken Yeomanry to charge unarmed protestors.
As historian E.P. Thompson put it in his ‘History of the English Working Class’, “If the Government was unprepared for the news of Peterloo, no authorities have ever acted so vigorously to make themselves accomplices after the fact.” In the film, we see the Prime Minister and Home Secretary shaking heads with the Prince Regent not at the deaths of innocent people, but at the idea of an inferior class having the temerity to protest. The Prince went on to offer fulsome praise for the magistrates that ordered in the Yeomanry.
What made Peterloo special, in addition to the size of the demonstration and the brutality of the way it was crushed, was that it was one the first social uprisings to be properly reported. Many of the chief protagonists of the film are journalists, writing for the new ‘radical’ newspapers that were springing up in English towns and cities. To quote E.P. Thompson again, “Within two days of Peterloo, all England knew of the event. Within a week every detail of the massacre was being canvassed in ale-houses, chapels, workshops, private houses.”
Unlike in other European countries, neither the uprising nor the manner of the repression led to revolution. The British elite grasped the expediency of gradual and modest changes to suffrage, along with using a small fraction of the nation’s growing wealth to buy off the working class, and so managed to preserve the deal of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ to share power between the aristocracy and industrial bourgeoisie. In so doing, the memory of this seminal event gradually faded from popular consciousness. Mike Leigh is one of Britain’s most celebrated filmmakers and Peterloo is one of his best movies. It will be interesting to how much of a difference it makes.