In 1819 one of the bloodiest and most defining moments of its age took place in the centre of Manchester. A peaceful mass meeting of some 60,000 working people, no longer prepared to suffer poverty and discrimination, was turned into a massacre by a fearful ruling class.
Fast forward nearly 200 years and has the situation changed? Do many people in Britain still consider themselves as distanced from Government and the new ruling classes as those of early 19th century Britain? What might those orators, poets and community leaders have said about society today?
Rising Up is a creative folk music and theatre project to mark the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre and consider the conditions that led to this incident in the light of 21st century societal challenges.
The folk song tradition has for many centuries been a key tool in documenting national and international events, generating an awareness of social injustices and highlighting the trials, tribulations and struggles of the working classes. Wherever people have felt injustice, hardship and lack of representation, they have turned to culture; and frequently song. This is as true today as it was in 1819.
St Peter’s Field, Manchester 16 August 1819
The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had resulted in periods of famine and chronic unemployment, exacerbated by the introduction of the first of the Corn Laws. By the beginning of 1819, the pressure generated by poor economic conditions, coupled with the relative lack of suffrage in Northern England, had enhanced the appeal of political radicalism.
The populations of the new industrial cities were woefully unrepresented in Parliament as rotten and closed boroughs had a hugely disproportionate influence. Greater Manchester with its population of one million and Old Sarum in Wilshire with one voter both returned two MPs. In response, the Manchester Patriotic Union, a group agitating for parliamentary reform, organised a demonstration to be addressed by the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt.
Shortly after the meeting began local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Hunt and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, and in the ensuing confusion, 15 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. Amongst those dead and injured were a disproportionate number of women, many who had joined the first female reform societies formed in 1819 in the textile areas of North West England, and protested alongside the men at St Peter’s Field.
The Manchester Guardian, later The Guardian, was a direct result of Peterloo, and the term Peterloo coined by the editor of the Manchester Observer, James Wroe, as an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo (1815).
At the same time there was a huge censorship of reports on the event by the Government. Sir Francis Burdett, a reformist MP, was jailed for three months for publishing a “seditious libel” and Percy Bysshe Shelly’s poem, The Masque of Anarchy: Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester was not published until 1832 because of restrictions on the radical press.
Some two hundred years after Peterloo, do we see echoes of a similar economic, social and political situation? Following the world financial crash in 2008, the UK entered a period of austerity. By 2017 the outcome of the EU referendum and 2017 General Election suggested that more people than ever feel disenfranchised by a voting system which renders them voiceless, creating a polarising of political views, and a frustration at the increasing gap between the haves and have nots.
Are there resonances between the Brexit vote and the lack of universal suffrage in 1816; the debates over freedom of speech and freedom of the press; and parallels between the women of the Manchester Female Reform Society and the #metoo movement of today? This project explores the differences and similarities with injustice and the individual over 200 years of British history.
Performance and Politics
This project will explore the stories of two women, set 200 years apart, and explore their personal stories in the context of societal event. Are we any different 200 years on?
The songs and poetry of this time galvanised many tens of thousands of people in the region. It inspired them to march, to fight back against societal injustice and demand to be heard.
Broadsides of the time included Peterloo 1819, Paddy’s Gun at Waterloo and The Meeting of Waterloo:
See! see! where Freedom’s noblest champion stands,
Shout! shout! illustrious patriot band,
Here grateful millions their generous tribute bring,
And shouts for freedom make the welkin ring,
While fell corruption and her hellish crew,
The blood stain’d trophies gain’d at Peterloo
Broadsheet Ballad - Roud Number: V17535
The Meeting at Peterloo
Come lend an ear of pity while I my tale do tell,
It happened at Manchester a place that’s know right well,
For to redress our wants and woes reformers took their way,
A lawful meeting being call’d upon a certain day.
Broadsheet Ballad – Roud Number: V17536
That tradition of reflecting people, places and events through folk song has continued over the centuries by many artists including Ewan MacColl – The Manchester Rambler about the mass trespass of Kinder Scout; Charles Parker’s Radio Ballads for the BBC commissioning songs about working people – railway men, miners and fishermen amongst them; Peter Bellamy’s The Transports; Leon Rossleson’s Palaces of Gold about the Aberfan disaster; and through to the EFDSS’s Sweet Liberties project marking 800 years of democratic movements and the Young Un’s recent recording and stage show, The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff about an ordinary working class man who fights for people’s freedoms.
English Folk Dance & Song Society - https://www.efdss.org/
English Folk Expo – https://www.englishfolkexpo.com
So It Is - http://soitis.org.uk/