The Peterloo Massacre, 1819
It was ‘Manchester’s Tian’anmen’ – a mass rally by pro-democracy campaigners crushed with brutal violence. But how much do you you know about the Peterloo Massacre? And should there be a 'more truthful' memorial in the city?
Most people remember the Tian’anmen Square protests in 1989 when the Chinese military cracked down on public protests by groups of students and intellectuals demanding democratic freedoms.
Proposed design for a Peterloo statue
But 170 years beforehand, a similar mass demonstration here in Manchester was stamped out with similar cruelty. It’s known as the Peterloo Massacre and is described by historians as a 'world changing event.'
Back in the early part of the 19th Century, just 2% of the British population had the vote. So, on 16 August 1819, 60,000 peaceful protesters gathered on St Peter's Fields in Manchester to demand the right to elect their own MPs. The demonstration ended when local militia on horseback charged the protesters and cut them down with sabres, leaving 11 dead and many injured.
Historians acknowledge that Peterloo was hugely influential in giving ordinary people the vote, led to the rise of the Chartist Movement from which grew the Trade Unions, and also resulted in the establishment of the Manchester Guardian.
Yet the only memorial in Manchester is a blue plaque on the Free Trade Hall (now the Radisson Hotel) on Peter Street - the site of St Peter's Fields. It makes no reference to a 'massacre' but only to ‘the dispersal' of the crowd, omitting that 11 people were killed – including a woman and a child.
The Peterloo plaque
On the 188th anniversary, the Peterloo Memorial Campaign has been set up to lobby for a ‘prominent, accurate and respectful monument to this profound event.’
Campaign organisers describe the blue memorial plaque as ‘insulting’ and are demanding that a permanent statue be erected in a prominent position within St Peter's Fields such as the proposed design from 1819 of a yeoman on horseback trampling peaceful protestors. (see illustration right)
Nick Mansfield, director of the People’s History Museum has no doubt about the significance of Peterloo - but insists there is no 'conspiracy of silence' in the city.
“This was a world changing event that happened right here in Manchester. It was world-changing because this appalling event made those people that had power in the 19th Century realise that there had to be changes in the political system. It was a long process that lasted more than 100 years but it eventually gave people one person, one vote.”
But he says that while he broadly supports efforts for a better memorial to Peterloo, he says it’s not quite as clear cut as the campaigners are claiming.
“The City Council commemorates the event in its support for the People’s History Museum. Peterloo is why the museum is in Manchester. It’s our main exhibition and that itself is an important memorial to the event.”
A display on the Peterloo Massacre can be seen at the People's History Museum on Bridge Street until 7 October.
last updated: 19/03/2008 at 15:34