“When it shall be said in any country in the world my poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want; the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of its happiness: When these things can be said, there may that country boast its Constitution and its Government” ― Thomas Paine, Rights of Man
Last Saturday we went over to Manchester to see a matinee performance of the current play at The Royal Exchange. The theme of There is a light that never goes out : scenes from the Luddite rebellion is given away in the title – it’s about the Luddites, based on events in Westhoughton (only a few miles from where I’m writing this) and Manchester in 1812.
Luddite is used as a derogative term these days – for people seemingly opposed to progress. But in the early 19th century progress and new technology was putting people out of work, driving down living standards and forcing men, women and children into working long hours at backbreaking work in the new factories and mills. Ordinary working people were powerless – they didn’t have the vote – so the only way they had to strike back was with violence directed at the source of their oppression – the factories and the machinery they contained.
The play is based on factual material – newspaper articles, police reports and eyewitness accounts – studied by the authors and cast. So the story is told from the perspective of the participants – the workers themselves and, also, one of the factory owners who agitated for reform – for the employers but certainly not the workers.
It’s a modern production so isn’t a straight story told scene by scene like a historical drama on TV or in the cinema. The cast take several roles, costumes and props are minimal and music and lighting are used to create the atmosphere and the noise of the factory. The actors speak the words of the workers, but there’s improvisation too using modern language and slang.
The Royal Exchange itself (the building, that is) also features in the play – a protest meeting held there on 8 April 1812, turned into a riot.
Ultimately the Luddites were defeated and they were viciously suppressed by a brutal state. Their cause was, essentially hopeless, as it was impossible for them to stop the march of technology. However, in Manchester and the nearby towns, the spark of rebellion wasn’t extinguished. And neither was the brutality of the state. Only 7 years later, on Monday 16 August 1819, a mass meeting of workers demanding Parliamentary reform, held on Peters Field in Manchester was attacked by cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry with sabres drawn. 18 people were killed and 400–700 were injured. A massacre that became known as Peterloo. Another defeat for the workers, but struggles continued and eventually their demands were realised. But it took a long time and wasn’t achieved without many other struggles. It wasn’t given to us on a plate.
There’s a lot of events taking place in Manchester at the moment commemorating Peterloo – the play is part of that, I guess in that it celebrates Manchester radicalism. Before the play we called into Manchester City Art Gallery and had a look round the exhibition Get Together and Get Things Done which explores
with people the wider theme of the crowd through international historic and contemporary art and group activity, looking at how an art gallery can be shaped by the crowds that use them.
One of the photographs on display was of a Chartist rally on Kennington Common London in 1848 when people were still campaigning for the more or less the same demands being advocated at Peterloo, 29 years later.
I was struck by this print, produced by L’Atelier Populaire during the 1968 events in Paris.
Today we are faced with a similar problem as in the 19th Century – the rampant charge of new technology. Is history repeating itself? How will people, and governments, respond?
The Industrial Revolution was the original Northern Powerhouse, but not everyone bought into the future it promised. Angry workers smashed the new machines and were written off as enemies of progress. Their 19th-century complaint, that bosses were using technology as an excuse to beat down the workers, resonates now more strongly than ever.Royal Exchange website