Peterloo: The Story of the Manchester Massacre by Jacqueline Riding (2018) Peterloo, film directed by Mike Leigh (2018)
Both Jacqueline Riding and Mike Leigh choose Hougoumont, a large farmhouse a few miles from Brussels, as the opening location in their respective accounts of Peterloo. It is June 18, 1815, and the French Grande Armée are locked in combat with their British and Prussian adversaries. In Riding’s book seventeen-year-old John Lees, a cotton factory owner’s son from Oldham, is caught up in the thick of the conflict which, once the dust had settled, would firmly embed itself in European history as the Battle of Waterloo. In Leigh’s film Joseph Ogden, a character based on the real-life John Lees, also finds himself under fire as the camera swoops down on the bewildered young man, stunned by the horrors of warfare all around him. It is, perhaps, no surprise that both book and film should begin with much the same scene, given that Riding worked as the historian on Leigh’s film. Indeed, there are clear similarities in terms of narrative emphasis and character portrayals throughout both projects. As Leigh readily admits in his foreword to Riding’s volume, “the film and the book complement each other.”
The next time we see Joseph Ogden in Leigh’s film, he is making the long journey home by himself from the foreign battlefield, this being, as Riding states, a normal experience for the rank-and-file soldiers, left to shift for themselves once the fighting was over. The home to which the war-traumatised Ogden returns to is a dilapidated back-to-back in the Manchester area, where poverty is endemic, wages are low and the working classes are an unrepresented mass within the British state. In this early nineteenth-century world the whole county of Lancashire was represented by just two members of Parliament —as was the infamous rotten borough Old Sarum, an uninhabited hillside in Wiltshire. Rapidly industrialising Manchester itself, with its factories and cotton mills springing up at a rate of knots, had no MPs. What it did have, thanks to those same factories and cotton mills, was an environment which both amazed and appalled visitors from overseas. On this subject Riding quotes the 1814 description by the Swiss industrialist Hans Casper Escher:
“In Manchester there is no sun and no dust. Here there is always a dense cloud of smoke to cover the sun while the light rain – which seldom lasts all day – turns the dust into a fine paste which makes it unnecessary to polish one’s shoes.”
Taxation without representation and the ever-rising cost of food combined with grim living and employment conditions to breed a febrile reformist discontent in many of those who had to somehow survive in such impoverished circumstances. The Government and those of its supporters with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo were all too aware of the growing unrest that this socio-economic precarity was creating, having long been on heightened alert for any signs of sedition in the disquieting shadow cast by the French Revolution and its economic aftermath.
Following displays of radical dissent such as the Luddite riots, any hint of popular opposition, exposure and discussion of working class privations as the outcome of societal injustice was viewed by the Establishment with deep-seated misgiving. Regular meetings organised by the bitter opponents of such injustices were often attended by undercover government spies. They fed back reports of the inflammatory language used (or allegedly used) at these assemblies to a network of official contacts who ultimately reported to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, an inveterate reactionary who considered that “nothing short of revolution and constitutional devastation” would ultimately come of these meetings. In effect, such gatherings developed the political awareness of many who would later attend St Peter’s Field on 16 August 1819. These meetings feature heavily in the earlier part of Leigh’s film, which serves to show the often overwrought atmosphere in which they took place. Depicting these meetings also provides a narrative device, allowing the speakers to proffer mini-lectures on the circumstances surrounding working-class disenfranchisement to the film’s audience. These impassioned diatribes can, on occasion, go on a bit too long and thus risk losing the viewer’s interest in the key points being made. However, in films of this kind it is probably always tricky to provide important factual context without making it appear contrived: a case in point is a scene in Joseph Ogden’s home in which his parents bemoan their lack of funds to buy bread, and then proceed to explain the Corn Laws to each other in an implausibly stage-managed series of exchanges. Rather than relying on such laboured devices, Riding has the luxury of introducing the important political themes in her book at gradual thematic junctures over the course of nearly four hundred pages – or, as Leigh readily acknowledges, “Jacqueline’s book is a comprehensive, detailed and accurate history, whereas my film is a dramatic distillation.”
Riding’s ‘comprehensive history’ sees her tracing the development of Manchester from its earliest times to its ascendancy in the Industrial Revolution, showing in detail what life would have been like for its poorest nineteenth-century inhabitants. She contrasts this with an account of the experiences of those within Lord Sidmouth’s surveillance network who were involved in seeking out and suppressing (or at least containing) popular unrest. Amongst Sidmouth’s more notable local apparatchiks were General Sir John Byng, Commander of the Northern District, Magistrates Hay, Ethelston, Fletcher and Savage (each of whom revelled in the tyrannical authority that he exercised over the Manchester populace), the infamously tenacious agent provocateur known simply as Oliver, and the sadistic ogre Joseph Nadin, Deputy Constable of Manchester, a hulking, violent man whose character and behaviour are described by Riding as reminiscent “of a corrupt and bullying lawman of America’s Wild West.” In the film, these men are shown exhibiting various degrees of rancour towards lower-class radicals, ranging from Byng’s patrician contempt through Magistrate (and Reverend) Charles Ethelston’s tortured loathing to Nadin’s outright pathological hatred. On the reformers’ side, we meet the young, eloquent firebrand John Bagguley, a surprisingly neglected figure of working-class militant history, whose passionate condemnations of both the Government and the Prince Regent would see him languishing in prison on the day of Peterloo. We also meet Bagguley’s fellow incendiaries, Samuel Drummond and John Johnston, along with the more restrained though still avidly reformist figures of John Knight and John Thacker Saxton. However, perhaps the most notable of the locally-born radicals in both book and film is Samuel Bamford, who hailed from Middleton, a township six miles north of Manchester. Bamford is a crucial figure in the Peterloo story, not least because his memoirs contain an important, if somewhat romanticised, account of the events on the day as far this veteran activist, who died in 1874 at the age of eighty-four, remembered them. Attending Methodist-run Sunday Schools as children had given Bamford and many of his fellow reformers a level of education which meant that, as they grew into adulthood, “they could not only judge for themselves the radical literature which was targeted at them but also disseminate their own ideas and interpretation through writing, publishing and public speaking.” However, unlike the tub-thumping Bagguley, in the film Bamford does not utilise his education to whip up crowds to the height of revolutionary fervour; instead he is portrayed as a no-nonsense, indefatigable reformer whose plain-speaking manner is at odds with the altogether more polished radicalism of chief Peterloo speaker Henry Hunt.
Hunt, played in the film by a suitably disdainful Rory Kinnear, has long been seen as a heroic but controversial figure in Peterloo history. He came from a prosperous farming family in Wiltshire, but by his mid-forties had strayed so far from his patrician roots as to be a prominent radical agitator who regularly attracted thousands of people to massive, or as they were known “monster,” meetings, thus earning himself the soubriquet ‘Orator’ Hunt. He was undoubtedly a gifted and passionate speaker –Bamford described Hunt’s manner at full tilt in front of an audience as giving “token of a painful energy, struggling for utterance”– but he was also, when required, a disciplined rhetorician who purposely distanced himself from the extreme elements of the radical cause, so as not to give the authorities an excuse for breaking up his meetings. As Riding points out, Bamford in his memoirs is only one of several subsequent commentators to display only a grudging admiration for Hunt, despite his innately astute declamatory powers. However, Riding herself would question such a lukewarm view, maintaining that the Orator should be celebrated and given credit for “not choosing an easy path in life but rather the hazardous road to parliamentary reform.” Given their different backgrounds there was perhaps always a good chance that Hunt and Bamford would not get on, and that this turned out to be the case is something that Leigh makes much of during the film. These uneasy radical bedfellows first met on the occasion of a gathering held in Westminster in 1817, at which Hunt spoke. Bamford had travelled down to the Great Babylon to take part in a general discussion about what kinds of reform measures the radical movement should be petitioning Parliament for. His first impressions of Hunt were that he had “that kind of self-possession and ease about him, together with a certain bantering jollity, which are so natural to fast-handed and well-housed lords of the soil…In short, he was the perfect representation of what he always wished to be: an English gentleman farmer.” At the end of the meeting, Leigh shows Bamford approaching Hunt and attempting to engage him in conversation, only to be dismayed and annoyed at the latter’s de haut en bas manner towards him. This, suffice to say, does not bode well for their future on-screen relationship.
It was the Manchester Patriotic Union (MPU), a local parliamentary reform group, who asked Hunt to speak at a monster meeting to be held at St Peter’s Field in early August 1819. When he accepted the invitation, Hunt fully expected to travel north to fulfil the engagement and return to his Hampshire home the day after. However, when he reached Manchester on the 8th of August, he was met with the news that the meeting due to take place the following day had been postponed for a week, because its original stated purpose had fallen foul of contemporary legislation. An indignant Hunt, who at first proposed to return home immediately, was persuaded to temporarily lodge at the home of Joseph Johnson, Secretary of the MPU, until a further meeting could be organised for a week later. Hunt would later describe his time at the Johnsons’ cottage, with withering disdain, as “one of the most disagreeable seven days I ever passed in my life,” finding his surroundings meagre and Johnson “a composition of vanity, emptiness and conceit.” In the film, it is in Johnson’s cottage that Hunt renews his acquaintance with Bamford, the latter having come to assure himself that the Orator would have no objections if some of the Middleton deputation came armed as a form of self-defence. When Hunt tells Bamford that he himself will not take part if there is any weaponry in evidence in the crowd, once more these two examples of patrician and grass-roots radicalism exhibit a smouldering mutual antipathy. Even so, Hunt, despite his evident disdain for the likes of Johnson and Bamford, lasted out the week in his humble surroundings until the rescheduled meeting day arrived.
Monday 16th August was a bright and sunny day in Manchester. That morning several thousand people from the surrounding areas were preparing for the journey to St Peter’s Field. Several groups who planned to arrive at the location together had previously practiced military-style drilling on the moors and open lands near to where they lived. Spies had been quick to report these seemingly militant preparations, which appeared to confirm official suspicions about the mob’s violent intentions. However, as Bamford would later explain to the contrary:
"It was deemed expedient that the meeting on the 16th of August should be as morally effective as possible, and that it should exhibit a spectacle such as had never before been witnessed in England. We had frequently been taunted in the public press with our ragged, dirty appearance at these assemblages; with the confusion of our proceedings, and the moblike crowds in which our numbers were mustered; and we determined that for once, at least, these reflections should not be deserved, that we would disarm the bitterness of our political opponents by a display of cleanliness, sobriety, and decorum such as we never before had exhibited. . . . We obtained by these drilling parties all we sought or thought of an expertness and order while moving in bodies."
Amongst those who prepared to take part that August day, there was a sizeable female contingent who saw their role as activists in their own right, rather than just mothers and daughters cheering on the menfolk. Riding is particularly informative on the role of women in the Peterloo story and, in particular, the efforts they made to establish their own reform societies. Indeed, she characterises such enterprises as being “the earliest example of organised female activity in British politics.” Not that the idea of female suffrage was ever a significant consideration within the wider radical movement at this time —however, the call for the extension of electoral rights to all adult males was seen by the female reformers as something that would ultimately greatly benefit them and their families. The Manchester Female Reform Society played a particularly prominent role in the events of 16th August, with their president, Mary Fildes, invited to sit beside Hunt as his barouche made its way to the meeting-place. Not all reform-minded women could bask in such radical chic, however. There are reports that the Oldham Female Reform Society were bayed at by members of their own sex as they set out for Manchester and advised to “go home to your families and leave such like matters as these to your husbands who better understand them.”
Meanwhile, whilst the crowds were gathering, the Manchester magistrates had assembled in a nearby building in order to monitor proceedings. They had taken the precaution of ensuring that a professional military presence was on hand, as and when needed, in the form of the 15th Hussars. In addition, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry had also been mustered, this being a citizen regiment which had gained a reputation for comprising “hot-headed young men who had volunteered into that service from their intense hatred of radicalism” and were elsewhere described as “the fawning dependents, or the supple Slaves of the Great, with a few fools, and a larger proportion of coxcombs, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing Regimentals.” More prophetically, it had previously been predicted of this same boorish Yeomanry that “their ridiculous assumption of being able to put down the PEOPLE, will one day be as dangerous as it is now contemptible.”
Shortly after 1:00 p.m., Hunt’s barouche arrived at St Peter’s Field, having ferried the orator through cheering crowds lining the Manchester streets. Leigh’s film emphasises the conviviality displayed by the multitude just before the meeting began and how, as much as it was meant to be a protest gathering, it was also an occasion for celebrating popular solidarity. Waving his trademark white hat at his audience, Hunt mounted the hustings to the sound of a makeshift band playing See the Conquering Hero Comes. In his memoirs, Hunt conveys his astonishment at the sight that confronted him:
“When I entered the field or plain, where the people were assembled, I saw such a sight as I had never before beheld. A space containing, so I am informed, nearly five acres of ground, was literally covered with people, a great portion of whom were crammed together as thick as they could stand.”
Following Hunt onto the hustings were other prominent radicals such as Richard Carlile, James Moorhouse, John Knight and the Orator’s temporary host, Joseph Johnson. Once the noise from the crowds had subsided somewhat, Hunt began to address them. Even as he did so, William Hulton, the chairman of the watching magistrates, issued arrest warrants for Hunt and several of the agitators standing with him, later explaining his actions by recalling that “looking to all the circumstances, my opinion was that the town was in great danger.” Hulton went on to recount how the military back-up was also summoned at this point due to Nadin and his assistants’ fear of the consequences should they wade into the crowd and attempt to carry out the arrests without armed assistance. It is a contentious point as to whether, in the course of these actions, Magistrate Ethelston read the Riot Act to the crowd, thus giving them fair warning to disperse, or whether, even if he did so, anyone standing in that packed space could have heard him.
At this point in the film an implicit sense of rising tension suddenly spills over into nervous exhilaration for the magistrates and panic for the multitude as the Hussars and Yeomanry suddenly make their appearance. Leigh’s cinematic account of what took place in the next ten minutes –nothing less than unmitigated havoc and butchery— feels, if anything, a little too restrained, in comparison with eye-witness accounts. Hunt, for one, would later recall that the Yeomanry, many of them drunk, “charged amongst the people, sabring right and left, in all directions. Sparing neither age, sex, nor rank.” As Bamford remembered it, the Yeomanry were panicked by the size of the crowd into which they rode, and thus “sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands, and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs, and wound gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.” Amidst this savagery, Nadin and his men made their way to the hustings and carried out their arrests. First Hunt was brutally removed from the hustings and frogmarched away, after which it was the turn of the women protesters present to be targeted, with Mary Fildes, in particular, said to have been “much beat by Constables when Mr Hunt was taken.” Another source recounted how “falling from the hustings, her dress caught on a nail; as she tried repeatedly to free herself, she was cut across her upper body by a member of the Yeoman Cavalry.” Such was the chaotic manner in which the Yeomanry were desperately attempting to disperse the crowds that Magistrate Hulton summoned the Hussars to save them from what he perceived to be the mob’s growing fury. After entering the fray, the more disciplined and professional Hussars managed to allow more of the multitude to flee the scene by riding at the crowds in an unbroken line and using the flats of their swords to drive them back, rather than emulating the Yeomanry’s frantic slashing. Nevertheless, once those ten minutes of carnage had at last subsided, the results of what had just happened were dreadful to behold:
“Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down, and smothered. Some of these still groaning, --others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more. All was silent save those low sounds and the occasional snorting and pawing of steeds. Persons might sometimes be noticed peeping from attics and over the tall riggings of houses, but they quickly withdrew, as if fearful of being observed, or unable to sustain the full gaze, of a scene so hideous and abhorrent.”
According to the red plaque attached to the wall of the Radisson Hotel in Manchester (formerly the Free Trade Hall), which stands in the area where the St Peter’s Field meeting took place, the events of 16th August 1819 left fifteen dead and six hundred injured. Those figures have often been disputed, not least because they do not account for the wounded who either later died from their injuries, or survived but hid their injuries for fear of losing employment. Thanks to several journalists who were present, news of the massacre was soon a matter of national public knowledge. The term ‘Peterloo’ was coined by James Wroe, editor of the Manchester Observer, thus making a bitterly ironic connection between two fields of battle, one nationally celebrated, and the other a source of shame for the authorities. Both Leigh and Riding, in their respective portrayals of the character of Joseph Ogden and his real-life counterpart, John Lees (who would die within months from his Peterloo wounds), highlight the shabby hypocrisy of subjecting the same British subject who had fought for his country to the full wrath of that same country’s institutionalised savagery when confronted with his demands for social justice.
In the aftermath of Peterloo, Hunt was found guilty of unlawful assembly and sentenced to two years in Ilchester gaol. Several of his fellow reformers also received prison sentences, including Samuel Bamford, who was sentenced to a year in Lincoln gaol. Leigh’s film stops short of tracing the history of Hunt, Bamford et al in the weeks and months that followed. Instead, two contrasting scenes play out towards the end of the film. In one of them Lord Sidmouth and Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, attend upon the Prince Regent and his mistress, Lady Conyngham. (Earlier in the film, the Regent was shown leaving the State Opening of Parliament in 1817 only to have one of his carriage windows broken by a member of the crowd with an unidentified missile, which could well have been a potato —an act of such monumental constitutional gravity that it was used as the pretext for the suspension of Habeas Corpus.) After Peterloo, the Regent’s chief ministers are seen reassuring this gluttonous, infantile parasite that he need have no fear of further outbreaks of lower-class rebellion. Meanwhile on a bleak Lancastrian hillside, Joseph Ogden —having died of his injuries— is shown being committed to the earth, surrounded by his bedraggled and devastated family.
In 2019, the two hundredth anniversary of Peterloo is the subject of various events taking place in and around the Manchester area. Several new and re-issued books on the subject are also available, of which Riding’s volume is amongst the best. Leigh’s film, released in 2018, met with mixed reviews but was rightly praised for casting some much-needed light on a truly horrendous occurrence that —if not wholly forgotten— is to this day one of the most egregiously neglected episodes in English history. The events of that day in Manchester serve as an acute reminder of the incredible sacrifices made by our forebears in order to forge the democratic rights that we enjoy today. They also warn us never to allow the forces of oppression in all their manifold guises, and with all their duplicitous stratagems, to take those rights away.--Mark Jones