Peterloo: The English Uprising by Robert Poole

A milestone on the road to democracy…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two hundred years ago, on 16th August, 1819, a huge rally of some 50,000 people gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester, to demand greater representation in Parliament. Although the demonstrators were peaceful and unarmed, they were charged by the cavalry and local Yeomanry, riding through the crowd with sabres drawn. Many hundreds were injured and eighteen were killed, either from crush injuries or from sabre wounds. Known as Peterloo, this incident is embedded in the national consciousness as a tragic milestone on the long, long road to democracy.

Robert Poole is Professor of History at the University of Central Lancashire. He suggests that 1819 should be seen in the context of the end of the long 18th century following the Glorious Revolution, as much as the beginning of the reforming 19th century. The Napoleonic Wars had ended at last, but for the handloom weavers and mill-workers in and around Manchester, peace brought no dividend. The huge national debt had led to high taxation, usually indirect which then as now hit the poor disproportionately. Wealth inequality, already major, was growing. Government policies such as the Corn Laws favoured landowners and voters (a tiny number of the wealthy) rather than workers. Wages, already low, were falling still further. Starvation was an actuality even for people working long hours in appalling conditions.

One of the banners carried by the marchers that so frightened the authorities.

Poole concentrates most of the book on the period between the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815) and 1819, with the focus on what led up to the massacre more than on its aftermath. He gives a detailed account of the conditions of the workers, the prevailing economic circumstances, the political environment, and the effect of recent upheavals in France on the establishment’s fear of bloody revolution. The book is clearly the result of immense research, pulled together into a very readable narrative that is accessible to the non-historian without in any way over-simplifying the content. There are maps of the area, and a generous helping of illustrations throughout, which aid in understanding how events were perceived at the time. Although it’s clear Poole is on the “side” of the reformers (who in today’s Britain would disagree with that position?), he nevertheless casts an objective eye on why the authorities behaved as they did, condemning where appropriate, but showing some understanding of the pressures they felt themselves under too. He also shows that, although there was no violence on that day from the reformers’ side, there had been violent incidents before, and it was known that the marchers had been being drilled by ex-soldiers, leading the authorities to fear an armed uprising. Overall I felt that Poole gave as even-handed an account of the background as possible, while not in any way minimising or excusing the atrocity that occurred.

Along the way, we learn a lot about the leaders of the Reform movement and their aims, not always uniform. Poole also tells us about the many spies embedded in the movement, reporting every word and action back to the Home Office. We are told about the Government’s use of political power to make it almost impossible for people to protest legally, and about the abuses of the legal system, such as the suspension of habeas corpus, to allow those perceived as ringleaders to be kept in jail for long periods often without trial. Poole tells us about the women who joined the reform movement, not at this early stage demanding votes for themselves, but in support of their men. Despite all the attempts to threaten, bully or otherwise silence them, the people marched, and marched again, and the authorities, local and national, unwilling, perhaps unable, to give in to their demands, felt they had to do something to restore order.

As a casual reader, I found the middle section of the book, where Poole describes the many marches and protests prior to the day of Peterloo, harder to plough through, although this is more a criticism of me than the book. For students, historians or people who like an in-depth approach, then the level of detail Poole provides will be appreciated. However, I found the long first section on the political, social and economic background fascinating and written with great clarity, while the description of the event itself at the end is excellent – a clear and balanced account, and by that stage Poole has ensured the reader understands all the various elements that came together to clash so tragically on St Peter’s Field.

Poole concludes by examining the numbers of dead and injured, explaining the sources historians have used for determining these figures. He discusses the trials and imprisonments that followed. He takes a very interesting look at the reporting of the day and how public opinion was changed by a few journalists offering eyewitness accounts. He then sets this event as a link in the chain of the longer reform movement, later leading to the 1832 Reform Act and on towards Chartism and eventual achievement of universal manhood suffrage, where every vote counted equally. He compares (as I did while reading) the period 1817/19 to today’s Britain (and I’d add America and several European nations, not omitting the EU itself), with populism rising as a response to an elite who don’t listen to the concerns of the people, (and again I’d add, or who discount the legitimacy of any democratically-expressed decision with which they disagree). I also found myself comparing these events to the ongoing Hong Kong protests, with a chilling sense of foreboding.

I was taught about Peterloo by an inspirational history teacher at school and it helped form my long-held opinion that if democracy is to survive, then democracy itself must be accepted by all as more important than any one political issue or partisan affiliation. Democracy is a fragile thing, and this book is an excellent reminder of how hard-fought the battle was to win it. I highly recommend it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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41 thoughts on “Peterloo: The English Uprising by Robert Poole

  1. I really enjoyed your thoughtful review and wider comments on its place in history. I do agree that the process of democracy must stand above and encompass all partisan concerns. As I mentioned earlier, I only became aware of Peterloo for the first time this year through some BBC programmes. This book seems to do justice to providing a balanced record of a shameful event.

    • Thank you! Yes, I’m increasingly concerned here and abroad about how too many people who don’t like a particular democratic decision think it’s OK to just ignore it or thwart it, on the grounds that they’re more “intelligent” or “better informed” than the people who take the opposite view – the new elitism, which I don’t find any more attractive than the old “richer” one. I thought this book was excellent and required no prior knowledge – sometimes history books assume the reader knows a lot already, but I didn’t feel this one did. The BBC does do history well, I think – I must see if any of the programmes are still on the iPlayer.

  2. This really sounds like an excellent book, FictionFan. For me, who knows little about the uprising, it sounds very informative, and as though it would help fill in that gap. But more than that, it also sounds accessible, which I really appreciate, especially when it’s something where I don’t have much of a background. Even from your excellent review, I get the feeling, too, that it shows just how much things change (and don’t!) through history…

    • I did think this one didn’t require any prior knowledge, as history books sometimes do – it seemed to me he gave all the necessary background before going on to tell the story of what happened on the day itself. Yes, I’m afraid the parallels here were running through my head all the time I was reading – we treat democracy as if it’s robust and can withstand anything, but I’m not at all sure it can…

  3. I enjoyed your assessment of this book and this period in history. This is the kind of grownup book I should be reading. But I can’t put down Captain Underpants just yet. . . .

  4. Enjoyed your assessment of the book. It is very easy for all of us to take one side with the benefit of hindsight and modern worldviews, but it sounds like this author tried to get himself into the shoes of contemporary establishment thinking.

    • Thank you! Absolutely – while obviously we all feel the reformers were on the right side of the debate with the benefit of hindsight, he gave me a really good insight into why so many people, and not just the authorities, felt that something had to be done to stop the protests. It’s easy to forget that they had all just watched the horrors of the French Revolution a few years before…

  5. Historians are supposed to weigh the evidence from documentation and other sources, but still need to come to conclusions – difficult in this case to find much justification for the state-sponsored violence meted out. As you say, lessons for our own time are apparent: a government (or present PM) that considers itself above the law, for example…

    • Yes, I don’t mind when a historian shows ‘bias’ so long as s/he doesn’t distort or weight the facts to support it, and I felt Poole was very good at showing why the authorities behaved as they did, even although he wasn’t excusing their actions. Ha! Yes, and opposition parties who seem hell bent on playing silly games rather than trying to offer a coherent alternative…

  6. This is a period of history I would like to know more about, and it sounds as if this book is fairly accessible for the most part. Given our current pollitical climate in the UK, and the seemingly never ending Brexit mess, I sometimes wonder though how much we have really progressed in terms of democracy.

    • This is probably the period I was most interested in back when I was studying history, and this was a great refresher, but would also be excellent for someone without much prior knowledge. I’m so angry at our politicians for getting us into this mess and then playing silly games instead of working together to make it work. And it worries me that there seems to be a new elite among the electorate who think that they’re more “intelligent” than people who disagree with them, and that their votes are therefore somehow more valid. People used to accept that in democracies sometimes you lose… gah! I shall get off my soapbox now!

  7. A very good review and I enjoyed the Dewey and Churchill quotes. Reading history helps us to understand the present and I sometimes think we all should read more of it than we do. (fighting the urge to climb up on a soapbox!!)

    • I thought he did an excellent job of explaining all the background so that the event becomes understandable, even if no less atrocious. I was actually thinking I should read some Gaskell while this is still fresh in my mind, and wasn’t Dickens’ Hard Times set in that area too? Oh dear, this could turn into a marathon… 😀

  8. I enjoyed your post and the comments too. I have borrowed the book from the library, but realised immediately there was no way I could read it in three weeks – the loan period – and wondered whether it was worth buying my own copy. I’ve decided it is, especially as I see that it is not just an historical account but also gives a comparison to today’s Britain etc.

    • Thank you! It certainly took me a while to plough through it but I definitely thought it was worth it. I found it really made me think about how dangerously we seem to be playing with democracy at the moment, on all sides of all the debates, and fearing that we might be seeing the end of the democratic experiment in the West. Haha – then I had some chocolate and felt much better again… 😉

  9. You were lucky to have had a history teacher who left you with a love of the subject and an interest in specific times and ideas. Peterloo is new to me. I enjoyed your review and the comments it has generated. We like to think we build on what has come before us, but I don’t know that we actually do. There seem to be some things that we think don’t apply to us, that we’re different or special (some animals are more equal, and so on).

    • I know – it was one of the subjects that was well taught at my school, unlike science! Yes, exactly – and I’m afraid there are an awful lot of walking pigs in Britain at the moment! And the odd thing is, they would all claim to be pro-democracy even while ignoring democratic decisions that don’t suit them…

  10. Having recently got Brontë’s Shirley out of my system I feel a bit more au fait about the period, about Luddites, about Corn Laws, orders in council and so on. But you’re right, that event and its causes have resonances right now, two hundred years later; and far from it being purely an ‘English’ issue the same authoritarian oppression is a worldwide evil.

    • Yes, indeed – as an observer, it intrigues me to see the same people defending the right of people in other countries to march for democracy, while themselves marching to thwart democratic decisions in their own countries. There’s an odd myopia about what the new “elites” in western democracies are doing to destroy a thing we claim to value.

  11. I love those two quotes that you included-both so true! Whenever I read about historical events like these, I’m reminded of how far we’ve come, but how easily we can slip back into human rights atrocities, and how difficult other countries have it, even to this day. Canada just voted yesterday (!), and although I’m not that happy with the outcome, I’m just proud to vote, and live in a country where everyone is given a vote 🙂

    • I think so many people take democracy for granted now, and are willing to play dangerous games that put it at risk. Intellectually they would claim that everyone’s vote should count equally – but only when they get their own way! Ha – we were delighted to see Justin win. Despite his strange little black-face habit, he still seems so much better than any of our own politicians… 😉

  12. This sounds excellent – it’s such a talent to take all that in depth research and write a clear and compelling book from it. I’d like to know more about Peterloo so I’ll add it to the (ever-increasing…) list!

    • Yes, it makes such a difference when a historian can make a book readable without over-simplifying. I do think it’s good for us all to remind ourselves of how hard the “common people” had to fight to get the vote, and how we once believed that every vote should count equally.

  13. […] Peterloo: The English Uprising by Robert Poole – The 1819 ‘Peterloo massacre’ is under the microscope in Poole’s new history of Manchester’s pro-reform rally turned bloodbath. Discover why “these events” mirror “the ongoing Hong Kong protests, with a chilling sense of foreboding”, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews. […]

  14. FF, this the hefty historical/political tome I expect from you, and it sounds really interesting and pertinent to what is going on at the moment with Brexit. I know a little about the Peterloo massacre from TV documentaries but I would like to read more about it.

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