This graphic history of Peterloo is a poignant piece of people’s history told through stunning artwork and the voices of those who were there, finds Adam Tomes

Polyp, Robert Poole and Eva Schlunke, Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre (New Internationalist 2019), 112pp.

This is a completely unique and brilliant book. It is a graphic novel that serves as a powerful, popular history of Peterloo to introduce people to the massacre as well as providing a valuable educational resource due to the depth of the historical research (now backed by a shorter version aimed directly at schools). The book is designed with a series of individual panels (some of which can be seen here), drawn beautifully by the political cartoonist Polyp, which give a real sense of immediacy to the story. The graphics also allow the artist to link the events of Peterloo with other struggles, allowing the reader to make their own interpretations. I picked up images that echoed Hillsborough, Orgreave, Tiananmen Square and the death of Alan Kurdi; there may well be other links that others will read into it.

The story is developed using direct testimony from the time, using the hundreds of eyewitness accounts, memoirs, and press reports that are available alongside the records of the Home Office, local magistrates and further legal materials. This makes the story all the more powerful as it is told in the words of those who were the participants and the witnesses.

The battle to give Peterloo its rightful place in British history is hugely important. On the 3rd August 2019, the Times editorial described Peterloo as a tragic event of minor historical significance that has been overtaken by left-wing mythology. Meanwhile, Dominic Sandbrook, a historian so right-wing he sleeps under his own Margaret-Thatcher duvet, writing in the Daily Mail, called Peterloo ‘not even a sideshow’ and ‘barely a massacre at all’. Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre is a very powerful antidote to this attempt to rob the event of its true meaning by allowing the real witnesses to the day the right to tell all that they saw. It is a right that they deserve.


The proper context for understanding Peterloo is as much about understanding what came before the 16th August 1819 as what happened afterwards. The first section of the book brilliantly illustrates the key themes of this period that show how the rise of working-class agitation for constitutional reform took place within ‘a potentially revolutionary context’ (E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1963, Penguin Classics 2013 edition,p.736).

Manchester was at the cutting edge of economic progress, a fast-expanding cotton warehouse and factory,‘Cottonopolis’.  Manchester’s exports of cotton had multiplied by seventy times, whilst the population increased to five times its previous size in the twenty years before 1819 to around 150,000. Manchester was a ‘hell hole’ of ‘dark and airless streets, steeped in damp air and blackened with smoke’ (p.7). The handloom weavers, part of the precariat in the nineteenth century working in a version of the gig economy, were hit by sudden trade slumps and undercut by the cheaper labour of the modern factories and saw their wages decline steeply from an average daily rate of 12d in 1805 to 4d in 1808, making them work longer and longer hours. The precarious nature of work and the high levels of poverty in work had led the weavers to campaign for a minimum wage, which was roundly rejected by Parliament in 1808, followed by a weavers’ strike where nearly 15,000 took to St George’s Field in Manchester.

Rotten boroughs

Despite a population of 150,000 people, Manchester had no representation in parliament, whilst there were many ‘rotten boroughs’ such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire (p.100), which elected two MPs despite only one family living there. The Cabinet, the House of Commons and the House of Lords were essentially comprised of a tiny cabal of a few thousand wealthy families, mainly landowners, alongside bankers, financiers and wealthy merchants, with some professional men from the Church, the armed forces or the legal world. That so little has changed in terms of the makeup of those in power in two hundred years is a powerful testament to the persistence of social inequality in the UK.

Britain in 1819 was in essence a one-party state, which believed in the Church and Crown, with the oligarchy believing that they had the God-given right to rule. It is hard not to feel the parallels with modern Britain, where a similar rentier class has a vast and growing slice of wealth and income, using that to dominate politics and society. At the same time, the UK has a Prime Minister elected by his own ‘rotten borough’ of 160,000 Conservative party members, who are deeply unrepresentative of the wider public, both in terms of their social makeup and attitudes.

Manchester was still a medieval town in political terms, governed by a disordered collection of local-government institutions that were not fit for purpose. This essentially allowed Manchester to be run secretively like a personal fiefdom by a Tory oligarchy of officers, magistrates and clergy whose mantra was ‘fear God; Honour the King’ (p.9). They opposed incorporating Manchester to give it a formal local government and representation, as it was felt that this would be bad for businesses as it would lead to too much regulation. The attitude of the local oligarchy to the working classes is summed up by the views of one local employer of the time; ‘damn their eyes, what need you care about them? How could I sell you goods so cheap if I cared anything about them?’ (p.7).

Ned Ludd did it

In this context, the national and local oligarchies were haunted by the French Revolution, fearing the spread of Jacobinism and the radical-democratic ideas expressed in Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791). On top of this, the actions of the Luddites, attacking the employers and machinery which they blamed for their starvation and poverty, intensified this fear. The government had added to the mix through the passing of the Corn Laws of 1815, which used import taxes on foreign grain to protect the interests of the landed classes, but raised the price of bread to the distress of the poor. This law clearly illustrated that it was the free market and its consequences for the cotton workers, but state protection for the interests of landowners.

The long war with France had added to the hardship, alongside the climate catastrophe of the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, leading to 1816 begin known as the ‘Year without a summer’ (p.10), damaging harvests. As the war ended in 1815, over 350,000 men flooded back into the labour market, undercutting wages creating terrible levels of inequality and this led to food riots across the country. In 1817 the Prince Regent’s carriage was attacked on its way back from the opening of Parliament further heightening the anxieties of the ruling class. This London handbill of the time sums up the situation:

‘Four million in distress!!! Half a million live in splendid luxury!!! Death would now be a relief to millions!!! Arrogance, folly and crimes have brought affairs to a crisis!!!!’ (p.11).

The Pentridge Uprising

This potentially revolutionary context meant that that the national and local oligarchies feared that ‘the spirit of turbulence has assumed a new character since Jacobinism and infused into the lowers orders, and is now become perfectly infernal’ (p.9). They had a network of paid spies to report back on any stories of potential insurrections and agents to provoke societies into action so they could be arrested and imprisoned. This happened with the Pentridge Rising of 1917, where the government agent ‘Oliver’ played a key role in stoking up the insurrection and the subsequent arrest of the key players, with three of the ringleaders sentenced to death. The role of such spies and agents of the state is no eighteenth-century phenomenon, but remains a key issue in post-war Britain with the current Undercover Policing Inquiry looking into undercover policing operations since 1968 following allegations of serious misconduct.

Manchester itself was policed with a heavy hand by Deputy Constable Joseph Nadin on a basic salary of £350 pounds per year, which could be doubled by rewards with successful arrests and convictions. In addition to this heavy-handed presence, the local propertied citizens established the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry in 1817 to protect local towns against the threat of working-class insurrection. This Yeomanry was to play a crucial role on the 16th August and was described by the journalist Thomas Wooler as ‘a few fools and a greater proportion of coxcombs, who imagine they acquire considerable importance by wearing regimentals’ (p.12).

Old Corruption

On the other hand, local workers learnt their lessons from Pentridge and met in open societies and meetings, aiming to promote a constitutional approach to getting reform and to get around the issues of spies and agent provocateurs. The meetings were organised locally by the working class across the whole of Manchester, Lancashire and the wider UK.

They identified the whole system of government as the problem, naming it ‘Old Corruption’ and describing it as a system built to steal from the workers and give to the parasitical oligarchy. Their aims were simple; overthrow this system by winning the secret ballot, universal suffrage and annual parliaments. The method was claiming and using the constitutional right to political organisation, the freedom of the press and the freedom of public meeting. This constitutional approach is made clear by Samuel Bamford, a weaver from Middleton, who wrote that ‘cleanliness, sobriety and order were the first injunctions issued by the Committee’ (p.28) who wished to show that they were not a mob. In many ways, it was the ‘translation of the rabble into a disciplined class’, according to E. P. Thompson, which created the deepest sense of fear in the national and local oligarchies. It was the moment when the oligarchies recognised the decaying weakness of their own regime and ideas.

As the movement was working-class and self-organised, Old Corruption did not have the choice to offer partial reforms to split the middle-class reformers from the working-class activists and campaigners. The state was faced with concession or repression, which for Old Corruption was no choice at all and this is central to why the massacre took place.

Working-class movement

1819 saw the intensification of the working-class movement. Mass meetings were held across the country, including Manchester, where a large meeting was held in January where the English radical and gentleman farmer, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, famous for his iconic white hat and his powerful public speaking, presided. The meeting was ‘enthusiastic but very peaceful’ in the words of John Benjamin Smith, a local merchant (p.20). Local meetings became a common occurrence right across Lancashire, and one of the key elements to these meetings in the words of Samuel Bamford was that ‘our females voted at every subsequent meeting; it became the practice – female political unions were formed’ (p.22). Unions like the Manchester Female Reformers and the Blackburn Female Reform Societysprung up to support and inspire their men to fight for political reform and to take direct action themselves to ensure it happens.

As it was becoming increasingly clear that this working-class movement was growing in size, in confidence and developing its organisation, the authorities began to panic. The magistrates wrote to the Home Office stating that ‘at no distant period we anticipate a general rising’(p.24). Perhaps a sign of the fear amongst the Manchester officers was that in the run up to the meeting on August 16th, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry sent their sabres for sharpening; ‘the first time this had been done for the two years since the unit was formed,’ in the words of the cutler Daniel Kennedy (p.25).

The Home Office, whilst never clearly giving an explicit order to suppress meetings or use violence, communicated to the magistrates a deliberately vague response, which can be interpreted as a blank cheque to action:

‘your country will not be tranquillised, until blood has been shed, either by the law or by the sword. Lord Sidmouth [Home Secretary] will not fail to be prepared for either alternative’ (p.24).

The build up

The build up to the demonstration on the 16th August showed every sign that it would be peaceful. Henry Hunt had spoken in January at a peaceful meeting and the Committee had issued instructions that there would ‘peace by a prohibition of all weapons of offence or defence’ (p.28). Henry Hunt had even presented himself to the magistrates on the 14th August to ask if there was a warrant against him and to hand himself in. However, the magistrates remained in a state of high alert, especially after one thousand men were spotted ‘drilling’ near Oldham on Sunday 15th August.

Drilling involved practising marching in file, halting to order and clapping hands in response to the order to fire; the whole process was to show that the crowd was not a rag-tag mob. Yet drilling further alarmed the authorities, and when two men who were spying on the meeting, one a special constable and the other a clerk in the police office, were ‘violently assaulted’ according to Thomas Jackson, police officer (p.29), the local magistrates feared the peace would be broken.

The day before the meeting, the local oligarchy placed a bill around the streets of Manchester, which showed the class-based nature of the antagonisms in Manchester and Lancashire. The bill advises ‘peaceful and well-disposed inhabitants…to keep their children and servants indoors’ on the 16th August, the day of Peterloo (p.30). This message was clearly targeted at the middle classes, as the working classes of Manchester and surrounding towns would have been those servants and their children would have been at work. This handbill is perhaps also a further indication that the local oligarchy was ready and willing to use force to repress the meeting.

16th August 1819

On the Monday, dawn broke in Manchester to the sight of Thomas Worrall, Assistant Surveyor of Paving, clearing St Peter’s Field of all ‘bricks and other things that could be used offensively’ (p.33) under the command of the magistrates. Given that the authorities knew that Henry Hunt had issued the order that people should ‘attend with no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience,’ and that he had previously presided over a peaceful meeting in January, it can be assumed that the clearing of the field was, in the words of Richard Carlile, to ensure that ‘the populace might be rendered more defenceless’ (p.33).

The imagery in the book clearly shows large groups of people marching into Manchester from all the surrounding towns, dressed in their best clothes, singing, carrying banners to demonstrate peacefully for their right to vote, for a secret ballot and for annual parliaments. The crowds were ordered and organised, made up of men, women and children who had done all they could to show that their intentions were peaceful, including all but the most infirm leaving even their walking sticks behind. As the Leeds Mercury reported: ‘it is evident from the great number of women and even children…that nothing was anticipated that could involve them in the least degree of peril’(p.36).

Soon St. Peter’s Field was crammed, with up to sixty thousand people in attendance. The sheer size of the event is worth pondering, as it was attended by roughly one in four males from Manchester and the surrounding area and one in forty women, with women making up around one in eight in the crowd according to Robert Poole. The sheer size of the crowd made it possibly the largest meeting held outside London and it is hard to imagine a higher percentage of a region turning out for a particular demonstration since.

The crowd was so close together that their hats were touching, and Jemima Bamford said that the crowd was ‘insufferably pressed’ (p.42). Such proximity meant that people would be unable to throw stones, swing sticks or fight back at all, and any sort of panic would have deadly consequences. Yet the crowd was in good heart, it was like a gala day, with striking protest banners flying and the crowd singing with Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford, Mary Fildes of the Manchester Reform Society and others readying to speak on the hustings.

This sense of gala-day joy is juxtaposed brilliantly with the dark scenes inside No. 6 Mount Street (p.44), where the magistrates were gathered. The magistrates, in fear of an uprising, issued a warrant for Henry Hunt, despite having had the opportunity to arrest him before. Realising that Nadin and the special constables could not carry out the arrest, they called for the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry and the 15th Hussars to come to their assistance. This deliberate and cowardly act is emphasised by William Hulton, Chair of the magistrates, turning from the window as the carnage was too horrible to look at (p.55). This very question was put to Hulton by Henry Hunt in a later Court case where he asked ‘then you gave orders for that which you did not have the courage to witness? (p.55).

The massacre

On receiving their orders, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry galloped furiously from Pickford’s yard to Peter’s Field. On the way, William Fildes, aged two, was knocked from his mother’s arms by a rider, killing him. His prone corpse, lying on the cobbled street in the same prone position as Alan Kurdi on a Turkish beach, with his mother stroking his hair is seared into your mind’s eye. That the magistrate, and man of the cloth, Reverend William Hay, could state that ‘the instance of Fildes’ death is clearly unconnected with the dispersion of the meeting’ (p.47) reveals a disdain for working-class lives and a failure to accept responsibility for his own actions. In the case of Alan Kurdi, that picture was supposed to change attitudes, yet governments across Europe have hardened their stance on asylum seekers and failed to take responsibility for the inequality and conflict that are the root causes for those seeking asylum.

On arriving at the field, the graphic frame-by-frame approach really allows the authors to display the brutality on show. We see the special constables, the volunteer Yeomanry and the Hussars actively engaging the peaceful crowd. The violence of the swinging of the sabres and trampling of the hooves is clear as we see them attacking their unarmed enemies, capturing and destroying the banners, attacking the injured, as well as women and children before chasing their victims into the surrounding streets. It is very hard to un-see the images of a man with his shoulder blade cut in two, or another placing his sliced off ear into his pocket, or a woman with her breast cut off, leaving her ribs bare for all to see (p.72). And the point is that you are not supposed to un-see them.

This was no battle, no failure of crowd control but rather a deliberative, vindictive attack on ordinary people desiring their constitutional rights by the very people charged with protecting them. The people were not rioting as the magistrates contended; the only rioting was carried out by the supposed forces of law and order. It was a massacre and it was class war; as the reporter John Edward Tyas (who went on after Peterloo to found The Manchester Guardian) noted ‘there were individuals in the yeomanry whose political rancour approached absolute insanity’ (p.51). In total, there were fifteen officially confirmed casualties, with a further three associated deaths, in addition to almost seven hundred injured in little over ten minutes of violent action on the site of Peter’s Field. The wounds were inflicted face to face, in some cases by Yeomanry who knew their victims. One of the powerful aspects of the book that really sticks with me is the dedications to the memories of those who died. They all have their own equivalent of a headstone, a small black, oblong box with their name and dates of their life in white, placed into the panel which depicts their death.

The aftermath

One key frame shows people trying to climb the wall of the Friends Meeting House to escape danger. The image shows those on the top reaching down to pull up those being crushed in the attempt to flee the charge of the cavalry, and strongly recalls the terrible scenes from Hillsborough from 1989. This is very important, as both with Peterloo and with Hillsborough, the real issue is who gets to bear witness to history and shape the narrative.

In the case of Peterloo, as with Hillsborough, the government, along with loyal elements of the press, swiftly moved to control the narrative. The Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, praised the magistrates of Manchester for their ‘prompt, decisive and efficient measures for the preservation of public tranquillity’ (p.86) and passed the blame onto the demonstrators. The magistrates made a statement claiming that ‘as the cavalry were advancing… they were assailed by brickbats… several pistols were fired’ (p.49). Yet The Times, hardly a radical newspaper at the time or now, reported that ‘not a brickbat was thrown at them: not a pistol was fired: all was quiet and orderly’ (p.49).

The government dismissed the need for a public inquiry and quickly introduced the Six Acts to prevent further mass protests and the publication of seditious literature. Charges were brought against James Wroe, the editor of the radical Manchester Observer, his family and staff, as well as against eleven of the reformers who were seen as organising the Peterloo protest. None of the perpetrators of the massacre were charged. In fact, the magistrates were rewarded handsomely for their part. Reverend Hay, for example, was given the sinecure of vicar of Rochdale with a salary of £2,400 per year. William Hulton, chairman of the magistrates, grew rich from the seven coal seams beneath his land, whilst paying his workers the lowest wages in Lancashire. He continued to insist that only two people were killed on the day of Peterloo.

Yet for all the attempts to rewrite history after the fact, public meetings, the press, cruel cartoons and caricatures of the Government, Magistrates and Yeomanry such as those by George Cruickshank in William Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built, songs and poems such as Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’ bore witness to the real events of the day. Discussion of what happened spread throughout the UK in alehouses, workplaces, churches and public meetings destroying the credibility of the line pushed by Old Corruption. The real history of Peterloo bubbled up from below and undermined the British state. It provided the first steps in the process for democratic reform, with the Chartists and Suffragettes drawing on the lessons and memories of Peterloo, while successive governments realised concession not repression was the only possible approach. As such, it can be seen as a clear turning point in British history.

Democratic Legacy

This powerful book serves as a reminder that in the case of events like Peterloo, Orgreave, Hillsborough and Grenfell that the witnesses should be heard and that the official version of events is often used to hide the truth and deflect blame. The relationship between those who hold power and those who would speak truth to power is strained today, as it was in 1819. We are entering a second decade of real-wage stagnation, with a growing gig economy featuring precarious employment and in-work poverty, whilst austerity strips away the public services which help maintain the fabric of society. The gulf between those in power in London and the rest continues to grow, with few believing that our political class provides effective representation of anything but their own venal interests.

As we contemplate what happened in 1819 and what it means for us today, we would do well to heed the final question posed in the last frame of the book: ‘what have we done to defend, nurture and spread the democratic legacy that these people died to pass onto us?’ (p.97).