Shining a light on our hidden history
Monday 19 November 2012
Our history – the real history of the working class – is under attack.
The wonderful Women’s Library in London, the only one in the country specialising in women’s neglected contribution to society past and present, is threatened with closure.
The irreplaceable student records of Ruskin College, which has dedicated itself to educating so many important labour activists, have been shredded on the orders of its principal.
The Chainmakers’ Festival which celebrates the Cradley Heath women’s victorious 1910 strike has been kicked out of its regular venue at the Black Country Living Museum by a right-wing museum director who finds it “political.”
Too political, eh. David Starkey has been given another series – surprisingly not about the Tudors again but the Churchills – in spite of his misogynistic and racist outbursts.
This year’s Reith Lectures, presented by pro-empire historian and tireless self-publicist Niall Ferguson, resembled a political broadcast for the Conservative Party.
None of this leads to outrage in the mainstream media or questions in the House.
Although we are the majority anything which seems to favour the working class is blue-pencilled as “too political” while the right can do and say as it pleases.
It’s political incorrectness gone mad.
It’s refreshing, then, to read a new working-class history which focuses on the inspiring and often surprising story of women’s true part in Britain’s past.
In Michael Herbert’s Up Then Brave Women Manchester is the focus, providing a nice counterbalance to London-centricity and reminding us how many important events took place in the north.
The massacre of men and women whose only crime was to want the vote at Manchester’s St Peter’s Fields in 1819 is a famous example which still chills the blood.
I thought I knew the story fairly well before I read here the vivid testimony of those caught up in the horrific, senseless violence.
Peaceful protests had been taking place for months when on August 16 1819 people of the towns and villages from miles around Manchester walked into the city accompanied by marching bands and carrying beautiful hand-stitched silk banners proclaiming Unity and Strength and Equal Representation or Death.
This was a great family day out, clearly intended to be peaceful, as was evident from the sheer number of children present.
Processions were headed by young women dressed all in white, including Mary Fildes of the Manchester Female Reform Society, who was carrying the society’s banner.
By lunchtime, tens of thousands had crowded into the fields.
Radical gentleman farmer Henry Hunt was addressing the crowd when the local magistrates suddenly gave the order for the volunteer cavalry to arrest the speakers.
As they stormed the fields a young boy with his mother was knocked down and killed.
In the melee that followed police and soldiers began attacking the crowd with sabres and truncheons.
Mary Fildes was bludgeoned because she would not surrender her banner.
Jemima Bamford, present with her husband, could not stand the screams of those forced to witness the carnage.
“There were dreadful cries. The soldiers kept riding among the people and striking with their swords. I became faint …”
Bamford took shelter in a passage, but even from there “the exclamations were so distressing that I put my fingers to my ears to prevent my hearing more … soon after a number of men entered, carrying the body of a decent, middle-aged woman who had been killed.”
Her husband Samuel saw both courage and retaliation from a woman in the midst of the massacre:
“A heroine, a young married woman of our party, with her face all bloody, her hair streaming about her, her bonnet hanging by the string and her apron weighted with stones, kept her assailant at bay until she fell backwards and was near taken, but she got away covered with severe bruises.”
Elizabeth Fareen of Manchester received a head injury as she tried to shield her child.
“I was frightened for its safety and to protect it held it close to my side with head downwards. I desired them to spare my child and I was directly cut on my forehead.”
Ann Jones saw the cavalry cutting and slashing at protesters and heard the special constables “in great triumph calling ‘This is Waterloo for you! This is Waterloo‘!”
At what became known as the Peterloo massacre at least 18 people were killed, four of them women, including Mary Heys, who was pregnant. Another 654 people were severely injured.
Herbert covers an impressive amount of ground without overwhelming the reader – women and trade unions and in the Labour Party, the Women’s Labour League, suffrage.
He provides comprehensive summaries as well as switching seamlessly from the big picture to the personal.
Best of all, we are introduced to a roll-call of lesser-known heroines among the usual Pankhursts and Taylor Mills.
Among the visual treasures are beautiful reproductions of posters and banners, as well as snapshots from informal moments during great events.
Two smiling suffragettes display Votes for Women and the date of the next demonstration block-printed on their aprons. Forget Twitter, that’s publicity.
The Fabian Society’s Ellen Wilkinson sits on the ground surrounded by cheerful looking, smartly dressed working men, mug of tea in hand, getting to grips with a tough looking piece of bread. A relaxed moment on the Jarrow Crusade.
I’m often asked for recommendations of books that give a good, readable summary of women’s still under-written part in radical history, and am glad to add Herbert’s book to my list.
Louise Raw is the author of “Striking a Light: the Bryant & May Matchwomen” (Continuum Press), and director of the forthcoming Matchwomen’s Festival, Saturday July 6 2013. See www.matchwomensfestival.com/ or take a look on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Matchwomen.
Up Then Brave Women is available from Naomi Symes Books, Housmans’ Bookshop, London, the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, the People’s History Museum, 3 Minute Theatre and the Portico Library in Manchester and the Rochdale Pioneers Museum in Rochdale. It can also be ordered directly for £9.95 (including p&p) from Pat Bowker, 1 Bedford Road, Salford, M30 9LA. Cheques payable to North West Labour History Group.