Peterloo, a film by Mike Leigh has been released. Starring Maxine Peake, Rory Kinnear, Neil Bell and Peter Quigley, and some 150 other actors along with thousands of extras, director Mike Leigh brings the events of that infamous day in Manchester to life.
On a sunny Monday afternoon, 16th August 1819, a large four-wheeled carriage adorned with flags and banners made its way slowly through the loud cheers of massed crowds towards the stage at St. Peters Field in Manchester. Seated at the front alongside the coachman was a small yet striking figure in a white dress waving a rectangular white banner, depicting a woman holding the scales of justice, while crushing a serpent, the banner of the Manchester Female Reform Society (MFRS).
Cork born Mary Pritchard (1789), now Mary Fildes, president of the newly formed MFRS cut an impressive figure as she proudly displayed her Society’s new banner to the vast crowd. She intended to present the banner and an address to one of the occupants of the carriage, Henry Hunt, the main speaker at the forthcoming monster Reform meeting about to commence. Reaching the small platform, the speakers along with Mary Fildes stood awaiting silence from the vast throng of working class men, women and children who had walked and marched in from the nearby towns across Lancashire seeking reform of the corrupt and elite electoral system. .
As the expectant gathering pressed closer to the platform and Henry ”Orator” Hunt began his speech, a band of Yeomanry advanced through the nearby streets, led by an Irishman Edward Meagher.
Mike Leigh’s film builds slowly up to a reconstruction of the 1819 Peterloo massacre. This peaceful pro-democracy rally attended by some 60,000 people who had gathered to hear the radical charismatic speaker and gentleman farmer Henry Hunt, was then attacked by British Yeomanry and Hussar Cavalry.
Using sabres wildly and viciously against unarmed people, they killed fifteen people (including a two year old child by the name of William Fildes) and injured upwards of 600 in this brutal and bloody massacre which became known as Peterloo (after the recent battle of Waterloo!). Later many suffered and died from infections brought on from the savage cuts received at the meeting.
Jacqueline Riding in her comprehensive publication Peterloo (with a foreword by Mike Leigh) states that women were very prominent in the attendance at St Peters Field. Four were among the dead or died later, upwards of a quarter of those injured were women and many including Mary Fildes were especially targeted by the Yeomanry. Mary herself was attacked initially on the platform by the special constabulary and later sabred by a yeoman. She managed however to escape from the field.
Upon her recovery, Mary continued to work for the rights of women. She was arrested while campaigned for birth control in the 1830s and later became a leading Chartist and influenced the original suffragettes. Ever the rebel she had named one of her children Henry Hunt Fildes. A grandson, Luke Fildes painted numerous social realism images of poverty, homelessness and injustice. She ran a pub in Chester and died around 1875/76 in her mid-80s.
The massacre caused outrage at the time, and led to a seismic shift in public opinion against the ruling clique and elites. It contributed to the founding of the Manchester Guardian in 1821 and later encouraged other Chartist newspapers as the clamour for democracy and reform grew. Over in Livorno in Tuscany, the poet Percy Shelley raged on being informed of Peterloo and wrote The Mask of Anarchy………. “Rise like Lions after slumber in unvanquished number – Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you, – Ye are many – they are few.”
The events of 16th August 1819 influenced the later development of the grass roots Chartism in the 1830s and lead to the People’s Charter. Henry Hunt, who died in February 1835 was regarded as a hero by many in Chartism. This in turn stimulated the later growth of the trade unions and the political mobilization of the working class into the Labour Party.
Indeed the events at Peterloo may well have aroused West Cork born Feargus O’Connor to stand for the post reform election in 1832, when he was surprisingly elected MP for Cork. Alongside reformer William Cobbett in the House of Commons, they supported what eventually became the Chartist demands. Both Fergus O’Connor and Daniel O’Connell organised the “monster meetings” based on the Peterloo example.
According to author James Epstein in his book “The Lion Of Freedom….Feargus O’Connor and the Chartist Movement, 1832-1842, Chartist leader O’Connor regarded Henry Hunt as his hero and declared himself to be a “Huntite”.
“Year after year he travelled to Lancashire to celebrate the anniversary of Hunt’s birth with local radicals, and often took the platform at the annual meeting at St Peters Field held to commemorate the ‘never to be forgotten’ 16th August.”
As with so much of history, the massacre has been largely forgotten and the story of Peterloo disappeared from classrooms, schools and universities. Many have never heard of the events which took place at St Peter’s Field. Few visiting Manchester and St Peter’s Square even notice the red plaque on the nearby Hotel. Most pass by and not realise that they tread on the very birthplace of British democracy and the roots of Chartism and the British Labour movement.
At that time, only a tiny minority of people, possibly 3% had the vote. Dorothy Thompson, author of The Chartists estimated that even later in the 1830s just 653,000 men from an English and Welsh population of 13,000,000 could vote and just 80,000 men in Ireland from a population of 7.8 million and that was after the Reform Act of 1832. All had to vote by open polling in public whereby each vote was recorded.
As we approach the two hundredth anniversary of Peterloo, Mike Leigh’s dramatic film should encourage people to examine the source struggles for reform and democracy and to perhaps ask again how a small increasingly wealthy and powerful elite can control political and technological structures across the planet and can dictate the working and living conditions for countless millions of ordinary people barely surviving under austerity and poverty.
The film arrives to a bitterly divided Britain….. Yet Leigh’s stark history and political lesson for those who hark backwards to a glorious past British epoch might remember the bloody sacrifices made by the innocent people on that field at Peterloo.
Note: If anyone has further information about the Cork roots of Mary Pritchard born in 1789, who married William Fildes, a reed maker in Cheshire in 1808, please let the Cork Mother Jones Committee know. It is not clear if the child William Fildes was related to Mary’s husband. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org