The 16th of August 1819 marked a momentous day in British history, although not everyone is taught about the events of that date at school (I was, as were some, but not all, of my contemporaries). At a time when Manchester and the surrounding towns boasted around a million inhabitants, but were represented in Parliament by only the two MPs for Lancashire (some depopulated boroughs elsewhere in the country had their own MP, representing only one or two eligible voters), and only a tiny minority of the (male) population were entitled to vote, a crowd gathered at St Peter’s Field (now St Peter’s Square) to hear a speech by the famous radical Henry Hunt and to enjoy a peaceful picnic afterwards. The town’s magistrates, however, feared that a more violent, revolutionary gathering was planned (the meeting had already been postponed once, after which time Hunt wrote to his Manchester supporters urging them to assemble peacefully on his return visit), and sent in the cavalry to break up the crowd.
Around 18 people were killed, or died later from their injuries, and up to 700 were wounded, many fearing to seek treatment for fear of reprisals. This massive over-reaction on the part of the authorities became known as the Peterloo Massacre and the closest Sunday to its anniversary is marked annually by a hardy bunch of campaigners, who walk to the site from their homes, much as their historical predecessors did.
I’ve been to two Peterloo Picnics since moving back Up North, and in 2017 I persuaded a visiting writerly friend to accompany myself and a Manchester-based friend on the walk from Stockport to the picnic site (my Mancunian friend actually lives in Didsbury, but has found no record of any radicals walking from there in 1819). The main event was held in Albert Square between the Town Hall and the Albert Memorial, but we stopped off at St Peter’s Square to observe that the list of victim’s names tied to the central cross on the 16th August 2017 was still in place, and to chat to some passers-by about the campaign for a new permanent memorial to the event, as a replacement for the one currently in place close-by (the cross itself marks the site of St Peter’s Church, demolished in 1907 after standing there since the 1790s).
We arrived at Albert Square somewhat ahead of the main event, which gave us a little time to collect ourselves and admire the various banners that had been created by and for different groups of marchers. Various local notables have joined the campaign for a lasting memorial that is:
since the first protest and temporary memorial were instigated in 2007.
We were expecting that Christopher Eccleston would attend in 2017, but that Maxine Peake would be absent due to her filming commitments for the film that Mike Leigh is producing about Peterloo. In the end, they both turned up. Having discovered that his near-namesake, the Reverend Charles W Ethelstone was one of the magistrates who ordered the cavalry charge at St Peter’s Fields, Chris was keen to read the Riot Act to us all, which he did from a second floor window of the town hall (video footage here and here).
Following that excitement, the organisers, helped by Chris, Maxine and others, read out the names of those dead and wounded they have so far been able to identify; Maxine also read out a message from Mike Leigh. Attendees were encouraged to pick up a placard displaying the name of someone known to have been present in 1819, and (following the one minute silence) to read out the biography of one of the dead or injured. I was handed the story of Elizabeth Wareing:
… a 32 year old mother of one, had made her way to the gathering at St Peter’s Field from 17 Allum Street in Ancoats. She was carrying a basket of fruit, presumably to sell during or after the meeting to make a little money. Sadly, the day did not turn out as she anticipated. She was knocked down by a blow from a constable’s truncheon, badly bruised by being trampled on and suffered a sabre cut to the top of her head. She was disabled by this head injury for 5 weeks and was awarded the sum of £1 in relief. She lost her basket of fruit!
After the ceremony we settled down to enjoy our picnic of cheese sandwiches (a tradition inspired by the tale of one fellow reputedly saved from injury by a sabre blow because of the cheese sandwich he was carrying in his cap) and to admire the tapestry that had been instigated during the 2016 event. There were some very recent additions to it from Maxine, relating to the filming.
At that point we received another unexpected set of visitors. The delegates from the National Conference of LGBT Choirs arrived to serenade us all with The March of the Women. Maxine had already left, but Chris ended up signing every choir’s name placard and posing for many, many photos. Meanwhile, we were helping the organisers clear up, when Chris called out that he was on his way to the pub, and were we going to join him? Well, it would have been rude to say no.
My London friends now seem to think that the streets of Manchester are teeming with former Dr Who actors, and I’m looking forward to next year’s event already.