Monday, 27 May 2019

Comment: 200 Years On - The Politics of Peterloo

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 67 (Summer 2019)]

Image result for peterloo mike leigh

As Mike Leigh’s film of the Peterloo Massacre is screens in the US it’s worthwhile keeping in mind that while even critics agree Leigh has the historical detail accurate, they still cannot agree on the significance of the events of that day.

It is an important point because it underlines that what Peterloo represented is not a settled question in either British history or politics. Leigh himself deliberately leaves the film open ended rather than providing an historical link to Chartism, which campaigned for the vote for men from the 1830s.

The link here is to a piece the cultural historian Dominic Sandbrook wrote in the Daily Mail on 24 August 2018. It is quite measured when it comes to the history of Peterloo, much less so in assessing what it meant. According to Sandbrook it was ‘barely a massacre’ at all which won’t be much consolation to those who were killed and injured on the day.

It’s worth remembering that the magistrate who sent the yeomanry in at Peterloo, Hulton, was a lifelong Tory and he never managed a public apology.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the attempts, mainly by those in authority, to downplay the numbers on popular protests, the numbers who attended
Peterloo on that August Monday in 1819 have also come into question.

The generally accepted figure has been 60,000 or upwards. More recently a claim has been made, using modern methods of calculating how many people can fit into a particular space, that it can’t have been anywhere near that number.

However it seems unlikely that those attending Peterloo were aware of the work of crowd theorists who calculate how many people can in theory fit into a particular space.

A much more useful way of looking at the space of Peterloo in 1819 has been demonstrated by Katrina Navickas, who was one of the advisors on Leigh’s Peterloo - see here

Keith Flett 

Peterloo in Manchester 2019

There are several notable exhibitions in Manchester this year which focus on Peterloo on the 200th anniversary.

The Peoples History Museum: details are here

The John Rylands Library: details are here

A reasonably comprehensive summary of Peterloo events in Manchester is here:

In addition Red Saunders is producing one of his Hidden montages featuring Peterloo and is crowdfunding for the costs.

There has also been criticism focusing on the point that the exhibitions don’t make the connection between Peterloo and modern-day protests sufficiently well or sometimes at all.

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