Peterloo: the Case Reopened

Peterloo: the Case Reopened

Peterloo: the Case Reopened

Peterloo: the Case Reopened

Excerpt

The purpose of this study is to fill in the background to an event which, as a name, is one of the best known in nineteenth-century history. No textbooks dealing with English history during the post-Napoleonic period are without a paragraph describing the 'Peterloo Massacre' of August 16, 1819. Yet it is surprising how superficial our knowledge of the massacre really is. Virtually no study has been made of the background to Peterloo. All enquiry has been concentrated on the events of August 16th itself, on the crowds and the casualties and the rest. No writer has asked why it was that these crowds came together or how they were brought together. Yet here are two questions of the first importance for an understanding of the massacre. The question of why the crowds came together is fundamentally an economic question: the Lancashire operatives were spurred to attend the great meeting by the pressure of overwhelming economic distress. The question of how the crowds assembled is one of political organization: it centres round the working-class Radical Reformers and their extensive network of agitation. The first part of the present study attempts to deal with the economic background to Peterloo, and the second with its political background; part three describes the actual course of events up to and including the massacre, and part four discusses the aftermath of Peterloo.

'Peterloo' is a name so well-established in English history that it is perhaps easy to forget that it is in fact a soubriquet, angrily fabricated in bitter mockery of the feat of British arms at Waterloo four years before. It first appeared in print in the Manchester Observer newspaper on August 21, 1819. The successful designation of Peterloo as a 'massacre' represents another piece of successful propaganda. Perhaps only in peace-loving England could a death-roll of only eleven persons have been so described.

While this study was in the press Mr. R. J. White's readable volume Waterloo to Peterloo was published. Perhaps I may be allowed here to express a difference of opinion with him as to the significance of Peterloo in subsequent English working-class history. He writes that 'Peterloo marked the final conversion of provincial England to the doctrine of "first things first",' i.e. to . . .

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