Ye are many, they are few
Saturday 16th August 2014
PETER LAZENBY reports on the increasingly popular Peterloo massacre commemoration which takes place in Manchester tomorrow
THOUSANDS are expected on Manchester’s streets to mark the 195th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, the cavalry attack in 1819 on a mass meeting of 60,000 in the city which left at least 15 people dead and up to 700 seriously injured. It is not known how many of the injured died later from wounds inflicted by sabre-wielding cavalry.
The mass meeting was being addressed by radical speakers calling for parliamentary reform. Men, women and children had marched from communities in what is now Greater Manchester to the gathering. It took place as demands for democracy and freedom continued in the aftermath of the French revolution and amid growing poverty and unemployment.
Local magistrates in Manchester panicked and ordered in the military to arrest the speakers. The cavalry — hussars — charged and attacked the meeting, riding their horses into the crowds and slashing and stabbing with their sabres.
The attack, the deaths and the injuries provoked two reactions.
The government cracked down on all public gatherings and passed what are now known as the Six Acts — suppression of public expression of opinion, debate, gatherings and dissent.
The second was an outburst of public anger and protests and a growing tide of demand for reform, leading in 1832 to the Great Reform Act, the introduction of increased, though limited, suffrage. It was the precursor to today’s still limited parliamentary democracy.
Other outcomes of the massacre were the founding of the Manchester Guardian and Shelley’s mighty poem about the event The Masque of Anarchy, described by Paul Foot as “the greatest political poem ever written in English” and including the words, still relevant today “ye are many, they are few.” Last year the poem was performed movingly and brilliantly by actor and Morning Star supporter Maxine Peake at a theatre near the site of the massacre.
Today the massacre is commemorated annually. The event is beginning to replicate Peterloo’s history, with marches of working people from the communities around Manchester, some more than 12 miles distant, and support is growing every year.
In 1819 10,000 people had marched from a single town, Oldham, and, as in that year, the feeder marches will finally merge for a rally where the 1819 meeting and massacre took place, St Peter’s Field. The name Peterloo was given to the massacre in an ironic allusion to the Battle of Waterloo which had occurred four years earlier.
Alongside growing public support for the annual commemoration is a campaign for a permanent memorial monument to the massacre. One was created in 1842 but it deteriorated and was demolished in the 1890s.
A contemporary artist of the time, George Cruikshank, (1792-1878) created a design for a new monument, which the campaigners are using.
Though the Peterloo Memorial Campaign has the support of Manchester Council, the only memorial at the moment is a plaque on the wall of the Radisson Hotel, formerly the Free Trade Hall, near the site.
Paul Fitzgerald, chairman of the Peterloo Memorial Campaign, says the lack of an appropriate memorial in Manchester is a “neglected landmark in the history of democracy.”
“We hope these marches will be the first step in our aim to recreate the entire web of thousands of people who marched into the city centre on that fateful day,” he says.
“Interest in remembering the massacre has been growing at an amazing rate in the last five years and by the 200th anniversary in 2019, we’re hoping that every town that originally sent protesters will have a presence at the “Peterloo picnic” we’re in the process of planning. We invite everyone interested to join us on the day.”
When the marches converge tomorrow at 1pm at the site of the original protest, the plaza in front of the Manchester Central Convention Centre, the names of the dead will be read out.
After the ceremony at 3pm, musicians from a delegation from Middleton — one of the communities whose people marched to St Peter’s Field in 1819 — will stage their performance of the play Soldiers On The Rampage at the People’s History Museum in Manchester.
The annual commemorations are a foundation for a huge event planned for 2019, the 200th anniversary of the massacre. It is hoped that by then the memorial, in the form of a monument based on Cruikshank’s design, will have been completed and that it will be unveiled at the commemoration then.
The Peterloo gathering, the demands for democracy and the Establishment’s response are still relevant today. An example is the cavalry charge, albeit without the sabres, which was repeated at Orgreave on June 18 1984 during the miners’ strike against pit closures. Today the few still seek to control the many. Advances made by the many, such as the National Health Service and the welfare state, are under attack.
And another line from Shelley’s poem springs to mind: “Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number.”