Peterloo – A Radical Reading

Melanie Diggle reflects on a moving event to share the story of Peterloo…

WCML - Peterloo event - 14.4.19 - 4

On Sunday 14 April 2019, several of the Radicals Research Team attended a fundraising event for the Working Class Movement Library at Salford University.  The team have been regular visitors to WCML since the project started for talks and seminars, but also to research their archives, it has been an invaluable resource for us and we were glad to have the opportunity to support it.  (Personally, I’ll also never need much persuading to go to anything that Maxine Peake is involved in!)

The event was called Those Who Were There – The People at Peterloo Have Their Say, an apt title as the afternoon consisted of first hand eye witness accounts of those terrible 15 minutes on 16 August 1819 during which 15 people died, including a child, and up to 700 peopleWCML - Peterloo event - 14.4.19 - 3 were injured, as hundreds of Hussars, cavalry, Yeomanry, infantrymen and special constables charged a crowd of over 60,000 peaceful pro-democracy and anti-poverty protesters. The accounts were drawn from all sides, with voice given to the soldiers and those who saw the gathering as seditious, as well as to those protesting and bystanders.  Contemporaneous songs performed by Jennifer Reid and the Oldham Tinkers, plus poetry of the time alongside new works by Oliver James Lomax rounded out the story and helped to bring home the horror and injustice of what happened 100 years ago at St Peter’s Field, Manchester.

Twitter stillThe format of the event worked extremely well, and inspired us to think about how we might present stories from our own Pendle Radicals. The setting was simple, eight stools across the stage with screens above featuring a slide show of related artefacts. The readers sat for the whole event and each series of readings was given context in its introduction.  The pace was snappy without feeling rushed and the range of voices helped to underline the variety of people whose words were being spoken.  The readings let the events unfold as a linear timeline of before, during and after, with the accounts intermingled as we returned to the same writers, and readers, again and again. This was so effective at bringing events to life and all praise to the researchers and script writers. Juxtaposing the cavalry officer’s account, for example, with a woman trying to escape the crush full of fears for her own life and that of her husband who she has lost sight of, brought sharply into view both the misplaced aggression of the military involved and the soft nature of their targets – four of those killed and many of the injured were women, ‘dressed in their Sunday best’.

The readers included David Crellin, Carla Henry, Mike Joyce, Gerard Kearns, Maxine Peake and James Quinn. We might not be able to produce such a star studded line up, but we do have lots of very good readers in the Radical Research team who I’m sure would be up to the task. (Although, I’d be all for asking Maxine Peake if she’s free – no one else delivers the Masque of Anarchy quite as well as her!)

Manchester-Heroes-print-by-George-Cruikshank-September-1819-Peoples-History-Museum-002-960x535
Manchester Heroes print by George Cruikshank September 1819 – Peoples-History-Museum

You can find out more about Peterloo on the People’s History Museum website, or by visiting their exhibition Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest which is on until February 2020. You can also join us and Pendle Social Cinema when we host a showing of Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo on April 25th. Find out more and book your tickets here.

 Rise like Lions after slumber In unvanquishable number, Shake your chains to earth like dew Which in sleep had fallen on you – Ye are many – they are few.’

Do visit the WCML website, it’s full of fascinating information, and if you get the chance, head to Salford for a visit.

Welcome to one of the most unusual libraries in the world. Discover the stories of working people’s struggles to be heard. Explore the past, change the future…

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One thought on “Peterloo – A Radical Reading

  1. Pingback: Peterloo – A Radical Reading (via the Radical Echo) | Mid Pennine Arts

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