From British daily The Morning Star:
The fight for democracy
(Tuesday 08 May 2007)
EXHIBITION: Battle For The Ballot
The People’s History Museum, Manchester
BOB CLOWREY imagines what it was like to be a protester in Manchester in 1819, when people were brutally massacred for demanding the basic right to vote.
IT IS a warm Saturday afternoon in spring. The pavement cafes and bars which line St Peter’s Square in Manchester are filled with people making the most of the afternoon sun with cool glasses of beer and huge plates of food.
The pleasant atmosphere could not be more different to the bloody scenes which took place here on a similarly bright August day in 1819.
Nearly 2,000 cavalrymen, soldiers and yeomanry – many of whom were apparently drunk – charged a crowd of 60,000 unarmed demonstrators at the behest of Manchester’s military commander Lieutenant Colonel George L’Estrange.
By 2pm, they had killed 12 people, including a two-year-old boy, and injured around 400 others. Hundreds of those injured were women and children who were callously cut down with sabres or shot.
Many more still were trampled by horses and the panicking crowd as they tried in vain to escape the melee.
The Peterloo massacre remains one of the bloodiest assaults by a government on its own people – people who were merely demanding what is now surely the most taken for granted of all rights. The right to vote.
There could perhaps be no better setting for an exhibition exploring the long battle for that right to vote in Britain than Manchester’s People’s History Museum.
Located just yards from the site of the massacre in a Victorian building whose sheer grandiosity belies its original purpose as a hydraulic pumping station, the Battle for the Ballot exhibition chronicles the long road to democracy, which has been doggedly trodden ever since it became apparent that we were being sold short by those in power.
The sheer range of exhibits is astounding. The very same sabres which were used by L’Estrange’s troops to cut bloody drunken swathes through the crowds now lie inert in the museum’s glass cabinets next to a thick, brutal-looking truncheon, which was reportedly wrested from the hands of an over-zealous police officer by a protester.
When examining the minutiae of democracy’s battlefield, it is clear to see just how bloody and hard-fought the struggle was.
There are exhibits chronicling other aspects of the battle for democracy – early radicalism, Chartism and the votes for women movement are each documented with accompanying posters, secret ballot boxes, costume and, perhaps most impressively, a fantastic collection of union banners bearing such solemn, epic slogans as “We will fight and we may die but we will never surrender.
This is a holy war and we shall not cease until all destitution, prostitution and exploitation is swept away.”
There are also banners depicting “the brotherhood of nations,” idealistic images of working men of every colour and continent whose hands are joined and whose arms encircle the globe in a show of defiant solidarity.
Such banners originate from around the 1900s and it is reassuring to see such displays of tolerance originating from a time when many may assume that such attitudes did not exist.
Such artefacts from the museum’s permanent labour and union history collection often merge with those from the temporary Battle for the Ballot exhibition to such an extent that they soon become inseparable. …
Exhibition runs until September 30 at the People’s History Museum, Bridge Street, Manchester. Admission is free. Call (0161) 839-6061 for further details.
When Captain Swing threatened our rulers: here.