Distributed by Transmission Films, the tale of a terrible massacre of the people as a defining moment in British democracy, which took place in 1819 at Manchester in the north of England, is told passionately and thoughtfully by acclaimed English writer and director of film and theatre Mike Leigh in his new movie; Peterloo.
The setting for Peterloo, yes, a very true event, which happened during the so-called age of revolutionaries and romantics in England and Europe, was defined by a powerful sense of social trauma, economic crisis and growing political anger. The estimates of the day, record that some 60 – 80,000 people took part in the peaceful march that was to lead to tragedy.
Marching happily and peacefully along carrying banners demanding tax relief, the repeal of the trade-inhibiting Corn Laws and expanded suffrage, while urging those with influence to put in place a wide set of social and political reforms, the local people were in a happy mood. In response, they were indiscriminately slaughtered; trampled on by horses, or run through with swords.
Whole families lost many of their loved ones.
Actors Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake, Neil Bell, Philip Jackson and Pearce Quigley provide us with wondrous portraits of the characters they play, enabling us to be drawn into this traumatic and tragic moment of history, alongside the people who took part. There is a scary underlying connection to the here and now, one that is entirely believable
The organizers of the meeting to take place at St Peters Field in Manchester, unwittingly brought about so much pain and distress for so many people, they would not know the foundations for the coming horror would begin long before that sunny, and very very sad day.
Don’t Read Any More if You Don’t Want Spoilers
It started before this, but the crisis ahead gained momentum, when people demanding better work conditions and better wages in 1811, in the north of England, the so-called Luddite weavers of Nottingham, quite literally broke up the newly mechanized looms they were highly skilled at using, terrorizing the populace.
They were led by a phantom, Ned Ludd, who move around inspiring the protesters… a long story.
Their actions brought about a region-wide rebellion across the board from 1811 to 1816, with mill and factory owners shooting protesters.
Finally the movement was suppressed by legal means and military force. Trying to put a lid on the trouble didn’t work.
Prominent also in the pre-history of Peterloo, is the event of May 1812 in England, when the Right Honourable Spencer Perceval Prime Minister of England, known to be religiously intolerant, was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons.
At the time a million wartime veterans with an appalling loss of limbs, were jobless and frequently homeless. Those in work were enduring economic upheaval and widespread unemployment, which had been brought about by the endless war against France under Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821).
Mike Leigh begins his take on the Peterloo story on the battlefield at Waterloo, in June of 1815, where a young bugle player named Joseph (David Moorst), who has been at the heart of the action, is joining the soldiers who have survived to make the long journey home on foot, or by scrounging a ride on the back of a dray where they can.
Like everyone else, by 1817, Joseph, now back in the bosom of his family knows the pain caused by high post-war taxes, bad weather harvests, bank collapses and business bankruptcies, all of which were causing great alarm, producing anxiety and fear among the population.
Peterloo came about because the people were wanting activist Henry Hunt to bring them hope, that the unhappy conditions they were working in on a daily basis, would improve. Through the use of language, Mike Leigh perfectly captures the mood and the appealing turn of phrase used by the people of the north at this time, contrasting with the clearly trained well modulated voice of the celebrity speaker Hunt.
The day dawned with a carnival atmosphere. Workers in the town had taken the day off, to march together, carrying their small children and flowers gathered from the fields along the way. They were happy about leaving the dreaded machines driving the industrial revolution forward idle, while their bosses were left complaining how much money they would lose by their actions.
The people in power certainly didn’t trust the masses and they certainly did not respect their growing right to have a voice. But the world was now also at the point of going ‘global’, with different styles of politics and governments known about by the masses; the American Bill of Rights and French Revolution were having an impact on a much larger scale.
For so long Americans, and in their turn Australians, remained isolated and entirely naive it seems from believing events happening in other places could, or would have an impact on their own evolving culture, but they did.
The ill-informed local Manchester magistrates of the time thought such a gathering signified insurrection. They wanted it stopped by any means. After all, their positions of privilege were under fire, so they reacted by having the local yeomanry arrest Henry Hunt, and by calling on the 15th Hussars to ride into the crowd on their horses to disperse the people.
As tempers frayed, violence erupted and many died with over four hundred injured.
Despite a nationwide outcry, all the event at Peterloo achieved in the first instance, was to bring about further government suppression. The righteous called upon their indignation to take down those who did not agree with their point of view.
Thankfully the days of ‘sweeping’ terrible stories‘ in our history under the proverbial carpet’, are just about well and truly over, but we must seek to learn from our ancestors mistakes and engage in conversation about issues that matter.
Historically Peterloo became one of the main events, which ultimately led to the passing of the Great Reform Bill in 1832 in Britain and founding of The Guardian newspaper, so there are people about who know the story well and have decided it’s time to share it once again. Lest we forget.
On screen and in clear colour, the massacre which happens towards the end of the movie, is a horrifying spectacle and some of the journalists attending the preview with me remained in their seats, virtually speechless until the lights came up.
I could tell by their mumblings they were unaware such an event in Britain helped define the democracy they enjoy.
Most people I have asked about the story over the past month, including my own three sons, had never heard of Peterloo (combination of St Peter’s Field and Waterloo) and so I have urged them all to see it.
While the movie is sobering, it is a story told with a sensitive hand, presenting as a combination of empathy and honesty.
Truth will always prevail and it is time we should be reminded about the sacrifice of those who stood up to be counted on our behalf, not just those of the twentieth century. We need to honour all those people in history whose ultimate sacrifice have brought us to a privileged point today.
Thomas Sheridan, godson of Anglo Irish poet, satirist and clergyman Jonathan Swift pioneering work, called British Education published in 1756 was stuffed with quotations in which he called for the standardizing of English spelling, pronunciation, diction and idiom.
He advocated the study of English rhetoric, encouragement of public speaking and of the art of reading, believing due attention to these matters would effect the political, religious, moral and aesthetic redemption of society.
On reading this, it may seem as if history is going full circle.
What is it they say, if we do not have regard for, or seek to understand our history, we are doomed to repeat it. A phrase that always rings of truth.
Appalling as it was, to remember Peterloo today is to honour the fallen.
The depth of feeling against the royal family and the political establishment of their day, produced some of the most biting social satire Britain has ever known. Radical writers and editors, libeled George, Prince of Wales, while the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, safely tucked away in Italy, wrote a number of works, including his Mask of Anarchy, plus this furious sonnet, defining England 1819.
An old, mad, blind, despised and dying king,
Princes, the dregs of their dull race who flow
Through public scorn – mud from a muddy spring
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow, –
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field, –
An army, which liberticide and prey
Makes as a two-edged sword to all who wield, –
Golden and sanguine laws which tempt and slay;
Religion, Christless, Godless – a book sealed, –
A Senate, – Time’s worst statute unrepealed, –
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.*
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2019