Mike Leigh’s brilliant new film, Peterloo, rescues one of the most iconic incidents in British working-class history from the obscurity into which it has sunk. Leigh’s greatest tribute to the labouring women and men of 1819 is to tell their stories with verve and compassion and as much historical accuracy as records allow. The result is a cinematic celebration of political activism.
The film opens on the battlefield of Waterloo, June 1815. A young soldier, Joseph, witnesses the horrors of warfare. This character is based on a historical figure, John Lees. Lees survived the 3-day battle of Waterloo to return penniless to his native Oldham. Leigh brilliantly dramatizes the contrast between the feted Duke of Wellington and the cruel neglect of ordinary soldiers.
Lees worked as a cotton spinner in one of the 60 new factories that had sprung up in the Manchester area. In the new factories men, women and children worked 14 hours a day in searing heat. They were enslaved by the machines that they operated. Employment was precarious and access to affordable food limited by the hated Corn Laws which prevented imports of cheap foreign corn.
The city of Manchester was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, a template for the world both in its rapid technological change and the brutal effects of that transformation. Those who produced the wealth were driven into poverty. In August 1819 a Times correspondent described life in the spinners’ district: ‘its present situation is truly hear-rending and over-powering. The streets are confined and dirty; the houses neglected. Out of the windows the miserable rags of the family are hung out to dry’. In 1816, the average age of death for labourers in Manchester was just 17.
Leigh’s film tells the stories of the reformers, like teenage mill worker John Bagguley and flamboyant Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, who represented a movement turning from traditional riots towards political reform. They believed that the vote and democratically-controlled parliaments would act to alleviate their suffering.
The film contrasts their lives with those of the magistrates and politicians who responded to demands for democracy with their accustomed violence. They suspended habeas corpus, relished cruel legal restrictions, activated networks of spies and swelled the ranks of the cavalry. The story of the spy known as Oliver is only hinted at in the film, but the discovery of the spy’s association with Sir John Byng, the General Officer Commanding the Northern District, sparked a political crisis for the authorities.
The Court, the landowners, the magistrates and the factory owners are portrayed as nearly as bigoted, repulsive and venal as they really were. Some scenes in Peterloo make you yearn for a guillotine.
Committed activists are central to Mike Leigh’s narrative, but so are the ordinary people politicised by both hunger and the lack of democracy. In Peterloo, their dilemmas and debates are transformed into moments of gripping drama. In March 1817, John Bagguley planned to lead a march to London to petition the Prince Regent. The men were to carry only blankets, relying on support along the way, yet thousands answered the call. At one mass meeting, he asked the crowd if they would turn back. When they shouted ‘No! No!’, Bagguley continued: ‘I am a Reformer, a Republican and a Leveller and I will never give up the course till we have established a Republican Government’.
The Blanketeers March gathered at St Peter’s Field where The Times estimated attendance at around 60,000. Sir John Byng sent the cavalry to subdue the crowd while the hated Constable Nadin arrested Bagguley and his comrades, Samuel Drummond and John Johnson.
This dress rehearsal for Peterloo was just of the many of the provocations which radicalised Lancashire’s labourers and are hinted at in Leigh’s film. In the summer of 1818 a wave of strikes against wage cuts broke out across the region. By September Bagguley, Drummond and Johnston led their supporters to join some 30,000 striking spinners milling in Manchester town centre. It was common for reform meetings to attract tens of thousands. Activists like the diarist Samuel Bamford were central to organising Radical clubs while women formed their own branches and were visible throughout the movement. Some of the strongest scenes in Peterloo explore female activism and militancy.
While the organisers of the planned procession at St Peter’s Fields were insisting that the meeting should be both lawful and peaceful, Sir John Byng was amassing reinforcements and an arsenal of weapons (although his personal priority was watching horse racing on the day of the march). The first person to arrive at St Peter’s Field was sent there to pick up rocks and stones which were potential weapons.
He was soon joined by thousands upon thousands of demonstrators from Manchester and the surrounding towns. Bamford brought 3,000 from Middleton, practically the whole town, complete with banners and bands and dressed in their Sunday best. Pits and factories emptied as the labouring poor tramped miles through the heat to reach St Peter’s Field.
The crowd, now some 60,000-strong, roared their approval when Hunt, wearing his distinctive white hat, began to speak. In a moment described by historians and recreated in the film, Hunt began his address by shouting, ‘Gentlemen!’ but quickly realised this was inadequate given the large number of women present; he bellowed ‘Fellow country-men’ instead. Mary Fildes, a reformer and advocate of birth control, was on the platform next to Henry Hunt. Nancy Prestwick, a 65-year old wool worker, led her own delegation of 300 women. The Stockport Female Union and those of Oldham and Royston organised all-women delegations. The Royston women’s banner read, ‘Let us die like men and not be sold like slaves’.
It was at that moment at the Manchester Yeoman cavalry, led by Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, was given the order to charge. Amidst panic, women and men were crushed by horses or struck down by the flat of swords. John Leigh was slashed as he fled, cut down by Hugh Birley. The cavalry was ordered to arrest the speakers and then capture their flags. As they came under attack from stones and bricks, some soldiers seemed to go beserk. Alice Kearsley, a 71-year old, was struck twice, her ear nearly severed from her head. Mary Fildes was slashed across the chest as she tried to flee from the platform.
Four years after his return from Waterloo, John Lees was run through with a sabre on St Peters’ Field. Lees survived for three weeks, suffering agonies from his wounds. At Waterloo, he told his friends, it was man to man, but on St Peters’ Fields, ‘it was downright murder’. Lees’ father described how his grievously wounded son went to work in a blood-soaked shirt, too terrified of arrest to seek medical help. The rich were determined to take revenge on those who had dared to protest. William Marsh, 57, had been slashed on the head, his leg splintered and he had been trampled by a horse. His three children worked in Hugh Birley’s factory. When Birley discovered that William had been at St Peter’s Field, he sacked the three immediately.
Samuel Bamford was arrested a few days later after Peterloo, he found Henry Hunt and nine others, including two women, already imprisoned. The government passed the repressive Six Acts and by 1820 every leading reformer was behind bars. The bitter name Peterloo was used to describe the massacre as reformers began their struggle for justice. Subscriptions were raised for survivors and bereaved families Reporter John Edward Taylor published powerful eye witness accounts of Peterloo which helped him to launch a new paper, The Guardian. The inquest into the death of ex-soldier John Lees was turned into an opportunity for witnesses to describe the murderous actions of the cavalry - until the authorities closed the inquest on a technicality.
Of the 654 casualties recorded at Peterloo, 168 were women. At least 18 people died on St Peter’s Field or later of their injuries and four were women: Margaret Downs – sabred; Mary Heys – trampled; Sarah Jones – truncheoned; Martha Partington – crushed in a cellar. But the women were not cowed. The Manchester Female Reformers flag was captured by soldiers and displayed as a spoil of war in a shop on Oldham Road. An angry crowd of women and children gathered and threw stones. The Riot Act was read and soldiers opened fire. Many women were arrested including one who ‘talked loudly against the Prince Regent’ and said things, ‘it would not be proper to repeat’.
Hugh Birley confronted the workers of Lancashire on one more occasion. In the summer of 1842 strikes against wage cuts were again reigniting the struggle for the vote, this time in the shape of the Charter. At Birley’s mill, foremen barricaded doors to stop workers joining the turnouts. Birley organised fixed bayonet charges to intimidate strikers back to work. But the workers were furious about wage cuts and hatred that had simmered for 23 years. Following his charge at Peterloo, Birley was promoted to major. He became the first president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. After five days of striking and physical battles, on 15th August 1842, Birley Mill was forced to close. When they tried to reopen the mill on 3rd September, only eight workers turned up to operate the 680 looms. The factory stayed shut and Birley knew what it felt like to be humbled by the sons and daughters of those he cut down on St Peter’s Field.
Much has changed in the 200 years since Peterloo, not least the right to vote. The location of class power and the institutions which sustain it, however, remain remarkable similar. The courts still punish the poor while the rich escape sanction. The bosses use all means at their disposal, including open violence, when their rule is threatened. The possibility of working class resistance is also ever-present.
When the exiled radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley heard of the Peterloo Massacre, he was moved to write one of the most powerful political poems of the 19th century. In The Masque of Anarchy Shelley lambasted the most powerful politicians of the day, and ended with a great call for defiance:
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you;
Ye are many-they are few!