In August, alongside local councillors, historians and other proud Hydonians, I marched from Hyde Town Hall to St Peter’s Field, now Manchester Central, in commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre. As some of you may know, 199 years ago, on 16th August 1819, cavalry charged a crowd of over 60,000 peaceful protesters from across Greater Manchester. The protesters had marched from their home towns and villages to the centre of Manchester. Their demand was for parliamentary representation. At least 15 of them lost their lives.
Among those who died that dark day were Joseph Whitworth, a teenager from Hyde, who was shot by a solider, and William and Edmund Dawson, both from Saddleworth, who were attacked with sabres. Amongst the dead was also a two year old boy, William Fildes from Manchester, who was knocked from his mother’s arms and trampled to death by a horse. Hundreds – possibly as many as 700 – more were injured. They included Joseph Collins of Dukinfield, beaten by constables so badly he was unable to work for two months, and John Nuttal, who survived extensive sabre wounds.
Why do I join the annual march from Hyde to Peterloo, to remember Joseph Whitworth and the other victims that day? I march so that their loss will never be forgotten, and so the rights we now enjoy –democracy, representation, a voice for the North, and the right to peaceful protest- are never taken for granted. The disproportionate actions of the authorities that day provoked sheer terror and lasting trauma. But the sacrifice that day was not without consequence. Although in the immediate aftermath there was a crackdown by the authorities, the cause of reform could not be extinguished. Eventually, in 1832, the Great Reform Act was passed giving representation in Parliament to the great industrial Northern cities and removing seats from the ‘rotten boroughs’. Peterloo also led directly to the formation of The Manchester Guardian, now simply known as The Guardian.
Could such an atrocity happen again? Throughout history we have unfortunately seen peaceful protests end in violent horror. As a child growing up in County Durham, the miners’ strike produced some appalling episodes of violence that few outside of those communities really appreciate. In 1989, in one of the biggest news events of the decade, Chinese authorities slaughtered thousands of student protesters in Tiananmen Square. As recently as this May, 13 people protesting a polluting cooper plant were killed by police in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. These events do not happen in isolation. They happen in climates where extremist regimes appear unable to tolerate dissent. As Western politics becomes ever polarised and reactionary, we should be ever mindful of the lessons of the past.
That is why, as we approach the landmark 200th anniversary of Peterloo, I am joining in calls to ensure Peterloo is taught in schools as part of the national curriculum. When explaining to my own kids why Daddy was going on a 9 mile urban hike on a rainy Sunday morning, one said “Peterloo? Is that another ABBA song?!”. This raised a good laugh, but it also hit home that the term was completely alien to them. Our children, and our future citizens and leaders, deserve to be educated about this pivotal piece of British history. I hope that many of them may decide to march next year themselves.
One factor that will doubtless give a huge boost to the prominence of that fateful day is the release of a major motion picture, Peterloo, this autumn. Director Mike Leigh will bring the epic tragedy to cinemas. Whilst I’m sure it will be uncomfortable viewing, I will be sure to go and watch, and hope you may too, if you’re able. Tameside should not forget its fallen brothers and sisters. Let’s ensure we remember them for many generations to come.