Why Peterloo was so important and why you’re going to hear so much more about it

On 16 August 1819 in St Peter’s Field in central Manchester, around 60,000 pro-democracy reformers gathered in a peaceful protest that turned savage when it was attacked by armed cavalry, resulting in 18 deaths and over 600 injured.  Until recently, the only public commemoration of this historic event was a plaque on the  wall of what used to be the Free Trade Hall and is now the city’s Radisson Hotel.

Most people have never heard of this event which was quickly called Peterloo. However, I have always been aware of it because I grew up in Manchester until I was 23; I spoke as School Captain at my school’s Speech Day in the Free Trade Hall; and I studied in the Central Library in what is now St Peter’s Square.

This week, a new film, called simply “Peterloo” and directed by Mike Leigh, will be released which – together with bicentenary events next summer – will highlight this neglected piece of working class history.

In the “Guardian” newspaper today, John Harris has an interesting piece on Peterloo, the event and the film, and comments:

“The kind of history that now seems to dominate our culture is too often centred on kings, queens and powerful men, something lately seen in the revival of the cult of Winston Churchill.

Peterloo and everything that followed it were the products of things that were much more profound: disjunctions between systems of power and the new industrial economy, and the fact that among the first people to live out those contradictions and demand their resolution were the thousands who gathered in St Peter’s Field.

Put another way, this country’s journey into democracy was a product of the wisdom of crowds. There, not in ministries and mansions, is where social progress always originates, and in times as uncertain as ours, we would do well to remember it.”


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