A Teaching Assistant in LABR 2P93, the global working-class history course I am teaching for the Department of Labour Studies at Brock University, just told me about a project to produce a graphic novel about the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. It is in development, and will be called “Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre.” The Kickstarter page shows some of the art, and provides information about the project – there’s a video too.
Peterloo is a point of focus in LABR 2P93. Students read material about the event and write about it as part of one of the assignments. I make it a focus partly because its timing works in the course for discussion of emerging industrial society and the significance of democracy in places where there were no republican revolutions. I also focus on it because there is so much good material on the event and its place in history. Students will be able to find good scholarly sources on Peterloo for their assignment. There is also good public history about Peterloo, including this British Library piece by Ruth Maher that includes embedded primary sources.
I display some of the images available at this page, and ask students to assess the images as historical accounts of the event. The one I have pasted below was published in 1819 by Richard Carlisle, a reformer who escaped arrest at Peterloo. It is among the images in Maher’s article, but I have copied the one available from the Wikipedia page, which is in colour.
It contains a lot of information that rings true from the eye-witness accounts of the event I am familiar with, and from the insights of historians of Peterloo. Some of what it shows can be inferred from the image itself, such as the fact that the crowd-members are unarmed victims of sabre-wielding cavalry-men. Other points require additional information, at least, for us in the present. For example, it is not obvious to most of us now that the woman in white on the stage is a feminist activist, fighting for her right to vote. Her vision of Parliamentary reform was more radical than the others on the stage.
Won’t it be interesting to compare historical depictions of Peterloo with the graphic novel! There is a film about Peterloo in the works too, directed by Mike Leigh. Both of these projects are examples of efforts being made to maintain the memory of this event, or perhaps to re-invigorate that memory. Undoubtedly, the graphic novel and the film will remember Peterloo as a peaceful pro-democracy rally viciously attacked by professional and voluntary soldiers under the orders of local elites. And they will likely tell a story about Peterloo whose lesson, at least in part, is about injustice and repression, and a warning to defend hard-won democratic freedoms.
This progressive memory of the massacre of at least 11 people (perhaps 20) in Manchester in 1819 has been fostered since the event itself, and this is one of the larger points students can take away from learning about Peterloo. Newspapers were crucial recorders of the event, and they helped spread the disturbing news. The poet Percey Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) received such news in the post while at an Italian villa, some weeks after the event. Reports of the brutal break-up of the rally and arrest of the main speakers inspired him to write “The Masque of Anarchy” and submit it to a London publisher within the year.
The crack-down on the press may have caused the poem to be held back. It was published a decade after Shelley died, and became well-known, in part because of the fame of its author. The poem is a major reason why Peterloo stuck in the memory of Britain’s labour movement, and the country’s political progressives. It became part of a labour’s literary tradition.
In another example of the resonance of Peterloo in present-day Britain, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn quoted its most famous lines in his final speech of that country’s election campaign last year. (And then did it again weeks later at the Glastonbury Festival.) This New Statesman article by Anoosh Chakelian discussed the use of Shelley’s lines by several figures, and includes a Twitter video of Corbyn delivering the lines, and hearing his audience pick them up and say them with him. The video was posted by @jacobinmag here, and the lines are:
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few
For the student of history, this is a reminder of the power of cultural sources for historical memory. The vivid imagery of Shelley’s poem is remembered more than the newspaper accounts, letters, or debate about the event in its aftermath, and far better stuff for inspiring action. Perhaps the film will serve a similar purpose in the 21st century, or maybe it will be the graphic novel, “Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre.”
Nathan Smith, “Picturing Peterloo,” HIS241.com, 12 February 2018