Monday, 28 October 2019

Comment: The history of Peterloo is still being written

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #68 (Autumn 2019)]

The history of Peterloo is still being written 

The 200th anniversary of Peterloo in August saw a number of publications and commentaries about the event itself and its history. A Times editorial managed to dismiss modern interest in the matter as an invention of E. P. Thompson and Jeremy Corbyn, although later, having discovered the important role the Times reporter Byas played on 16 August 1819 it decided it was in fact still a rather significant event.

I would single out two books in particular. The first is the graphic novel Peterloo, Witnesses to a Massacre. Based on up to date research it tries to visualise in pictures the events surrounding Peterloo. It may be seen as a related project to Red Saunders’ Hidden montages which were displayed on central Manchester walls and the Central Library during the anniversary events. While no doubt many readers of this newsletter are immersed (as I am) in the printed word so much of modern culture is visual that these are important initiatives if the events of Peterloo are to be a continuing feature in popular memory. The best book however is Peterloo: The English Rising (OUP) by Robert Poole. Along with Katrina Navickas (and others) he has done a lot to remind us that, 200 years on, the history of Peterloo is still being written. Poole has looked carefully at the numbers of dead and injured on the day and provided a new and perhaps definitive understanding of who was involved there. The book also starts the process of defining what the impact of that August day 200 years ago was - work in which Poole is still engaged.

The anniversary rightly highlighted the important role that female reformers played at Peterloo and how they were specifically targeted by authority. It begins the importance process of understanding the politics and significance of the event beyond Henry Hunt and the Gentleman Leader. My personal interest is in the distances people walked and the time taken to be at Peterloo on that August Monday long before public transport or the car. While Kennington Common on Monday April 10 1848 saw Chartists march from across London with little or no attendance from outside of the capital, here people walked from what today would be called the Greater Manchester area. The 200th anniversary of Peterloo was a powerful reminder, among many other things, to historians that historical findings and judgements are often only provisional, and new research and new approaches can throw important new light on matters. That can be important historically and important for lessons learned in the present day too.

Keith Flett

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