Peterloo: The English Uprising by Robert Poole

A milestone on the road to democracy…

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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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TBR Thursday 209…

Episode 209

The TBR seesaw seed last week so it’s hardly going to come as a surprise that it sawed again this week! Up 2 to 225, but that’s because a lovely box arrived from the lovely people at lovely Oxford World’s Classics containing lots of lovely goodies I’m planning to read over the autumn and winter months. Lovely!

Here are a few more I’ll be butting heads with soonish

History

Peterloo by Robert Poole

Courtesy of Oxford University Press. As a child at school the story of the Peterloo massacre caught my imagination and inspired my forming political beliefs. Two hundred years on and with democracy feeling more fragile than ever in my lifetime, it’s time we all remembered the sacrifices earlier generations made to give us the rights we take so much for granted that many of us don’t even bother to vote…

The Blurb says: On 16 August, 1819, at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, armed cavalry attacked a peaceful rally of some 50,000 pro-democracy reformers. Under the eyes of the national press, 18 people were killed and some 700 injured, many of them by sabres, many of them women, some of them children.

The ‘Peterloo massacre’, the subject of a recent feature film and a major commemoration in 2019, is famous as the central episode in Edward Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. It also marked the rise of a new English radical populism as the British state, recently victorious at Waterloo, was challenged by a pro-democracy movement centred on the industrial north.

Why did the cavalry attack? Who ordered them in? What was the radical strategy? Why were there women on the platform, and why were they so ferociously attacked? Using an immense range of sources, and many new maps and illustrations, Robert Poole tells for the first time the full extraordinary story of Peterloo: the English Uprising.

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Classic Fiction

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Oh, how I loved DH Lawrence when I was a teenager! This was one of the first real adult heavyweight lit-fic books I read and it gave me a lifelong love for books with a strong political and social setting and characters full of emotional truth. I haven’t read DH Lawrence in decades because I have a fear that I won’t find him as impressive as my hormonally-manic teenage self did. So it’s with as much apprehension as anticipation that I’ll be setting out to re-read this one from my Classics Club list…

The Blurb says: Lawrence’s first major novel was also the first in the English language to explore ordinary working-class life from the inside. No writer before or since has written so well about the intimacies enforced by a tightly-knit mining community and by a family where feelings are never hidden for long. Paul Morel is caught between his need for family and community and his efforts to define himself sexually and emotionally. Lawrence’s powerful description of Paul’s relationships makes this a novel as much for the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was for the beginning of the twentieth.

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Thriller

The Turn of the Key edited by Ruth Ware

Courtesy of Harvill Secker via NetGalley. I loved Ruth Ware’s last book, The Death of Mrs Westaway, so have high hopes of this one!

The Blurb says: When she stumbles across the advert, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss: a live-in nanny position, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten by the luxurious ‘smart’ home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare – one that will end with a child dead and her in a cell awaiting trial for murder.

She knows she’s made mistakes. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty – at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace, The Turn of the Key is a gripping modern-day haunted house thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

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Fiction on Audio

Queen Lucia by EF Benson narrated by Nadia May

When I recently reviewed Benson’s excellent mystery novel, The Blotting Book, fellow blogger Calmgrove reminded me that he was also the writer of the Mapp and Lucia books. I did read one or two of these back in the day but can’t remember which, so it seems logical to go for the first in the series…

The Blurb says: The fascinating story of the village of Riseholme’s reigning queen of high society: the indomitable Lucia!

England between the wars was a paradise of utter calm and leisure for the very, very rich. But into this enclave is born Mrs. Emmeline Lucas – La Lucia, as she is known – a woman determined to lead a life quite different from the pomp and subdued nature of her class. With her cohort, Georgie Pillson, and her husband, Peppino, she upends the greats of high society, including the imperious Lady Ambermere and her equally imperious dog, Pug; the odious Piggy and Goosie Antrobus; the Christian Scientist Daisy Quantrock, with her penchant for the foreign; and everyone else in the small English town that the wealthy Britons call their country home. Beset on all sides by pretenders to her social throne, Lucia brings culture, the fine arts, and a great deal of excitement and intrigue into this cloistered realm.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?