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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