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Executive Leader Cllr Brenda Warrington

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Councillor Brenda Warrington, Executive Leader of Tameside Council

Tameside Remembers Peterloo

Thursday, 22 August 2019

On 16th August 1819, 18 men and women were killed and hundreds more wounded on St. Peter’s Field for the crime of peacefully protesting for their democratic rights. Two hundred years later, Tameside and every other part of Greater Manchester have come together to commemorate the “Peterloo Massacre” and its lasting impact on our country.

To understand what brought enough people to fill Old Trafford out on to what is now St. Peter’s Square on that fateful day, we need to talk about how Parliament worked at the time. The right to vote was restricted to men who owned at least 40 shillings, a large sum at the time, of land or property. Members of Parliament were also unpaid, which in practice meant that only the very wealthy could stand for election. The result was governments that were elected by, and represented the views of, a tiny minority of the country as a whole.

The Industrial Revolution and the rise of places like Manchester, which had previously been a small market town, created another injustice.  For centuries, constituencies electing members to Parliament had not changed to reflect population shifts. This meant that towns like Manchester and Salford, which by the 1800s had a population of 150,000, had no MPs in Parliament at all. On the other hand, there were a number of “rotten boroughs”, or constituencies with populations so small that one person could bribe or control the entire electorate. These included Old Sarum, a constituency that returned two MPs despite having a population of zero, and the town of Dunwich, which had collapsed into the sea 150 years before.

The 1800s brought with them economic troubles as well, especially in the North of England. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 had resulted in periods of famine and chronic unemployment, especially as machines began to replace workers in factories and 350,000 veterans returned back to civilian life.  Against this background a public meeting was organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union. People came into Manchester from across the region, including up to 2,000 from Ashton-under-Lyne and Stalybridge, to hear the speech of famous radical Henry “Orator” Hunt. Their peaceful protest turned bloody when Manchester magistrates ordered the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, a private militia paid for by rich locals, to storm the crowd with sabres. 

The massacre paved the way for the Great Reform Act of 1832, the first step in the creation of modern Parliamentary democracy and universal suffrage. Eventually all but one of the demands of the men and women who marched to St. Peters Field was met.

Over the past few weeks a number of events have taken place in Greater Manchester commemorating the Massacre and making sure that its importance is not forgotten.  With a design from Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, a new memorial has been unveiled in Manchester city centre with engravings of the names of the 18 victims and the towns from which they travelled. Here in Tameside I attended a day of music, theatre, exhibitions and art activities at Ryecroft Hall last Friday, the anniversary of the Massacre itself. During this Bank Holiday Monday Portland Basin Museum will be hosting “Peterloo Power”, an event full of drama and art activities themed around remembering the events of 16th August 1819, put on with help from Scallywags Theatre. The Tameside History Forum are also hosting a number of exhibitions showing handmade display boards, banners and pendants telling the story of the people of Tameside and their involvement in Peterloo. You can find dates and locations for these events on the Peterloo 1819 website here.  

The lessons of Peterloo; that ordinary people have the power to change society, and that the struggle for justice will endure in the face of violence and  oppression, are as relevant now as they were two hundred years ago. It’s only fitting that such an important piece of Mancunian and British history is finally getting the recognition it deserves.


Posted by: Executive Leader