Peterloo

Mike Leigh’s new film about Peterloo goes out on general release today. We were lucky to see the preview a couple of weeks ago. It was shown at Home in Manchester, a few hundred yards from where the events actually happened,as part of the London Film Festival. We weren’t at Home but in Horwich at one of the cinemas around the country where the film and the question and answer session with Mike Leigh and Maxine Peake was relayed.

The film tells the story of the Peterloo Massacre which took place on St Peter’s Field in Manchester on 16 August 1819 and is one of the first key events in the struggle of working people in England. Manchester had grown massively from a small settlement in south Lancashire to become a dynamic metropolis of manufacturing based on the cotton industry. The mill owners became extremely rich but this was at the expense of their workers who lived in appalling conditions (described by Frederick Engels in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England written a few years later in 1845). In 1819 conditions were particularly bad due to the economic depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which resulted in wage cuts and unemployment, and the passing of the Corn Laws in 1815 which led to increased food prices. The vote was restricted to the wealthy and there was massive disparity in representation around the country – the whole of Lancashire had only 2 MPs.

Manchester was something of a hot bed of radicalism and it was decided to organise a mass meeting on Peter’s Field in Manchester and the renowned Radical orator Henry Hunt was invited to speak and act as chair.

The local representatives of the ruling class were terrified, believing that revolution was in the air so they arranged for a military presence comprising 600 men of the 15th Hussars, several hundred infantrymen, a Royal Horse Artillery unit with two six-pounder guns, 400 men of the Cheshire Yeomanry, 400 special constables and 120 cavalry of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry.

On the day 60,000–80,000 workers and their families, including children, marched to Manchester from the city and surrounding districts, with banners bearing slogans such as “Liberty and Fraternity” and “Taxation without Representation is Unjust and Tyrannical”, and assembled on Peter’s Field, an open space in the centre of the growing city. They came from all around South Lancashire, including a contingent from Wigan. Many of them had to walk a considerable distance to get there. Perhaps some of my ancestors were amongst them.

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By Jhamez84 – self-made but based on work in Reid, Robert (1989) The Peterloo Massacre, William Heinemann Ltd ISBN: 0434629014., CC BY 3.0, Link

The meeting started and seeing the enthusiastic reception Hunt received on his arrival the local Magistrates lost their nerve, read the Riot Act and sent in the troops. They charged into the crowd, running over demonstrators with their horses and slashing out with their sabres. Hemmed in in a restricted area there was nowhere to run. At the end, by the time the field had been cleared there were 11–15 demonstrators killed and 400–700 injured.

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By Richard Carlile (1790–1843) – Manchester Library Services, Public Domain, Link

Currently there’s very little evidence in Manchester of this pivotal event in working class history other than a circular memorial plaque high on the wall of the Free Trade Hall (where I used to go to concerts when I was a teenager and which is now a posh hotel)which stands where the massacre took place.

The events provoked outrage, summed up by Shelley’s poem, the Masque of Anarchy with it’s call to action

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number.
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.

Next year there are plans to stage events to celebrate the bicentenary and the conceptual artist Jeremy Deller has been commissioned to create a memorial to be located on the forecourt of the former Central Station, behind the Midland Hotel, close to the location of the assembly. Details of the design were released this week.

As for the film, well it’s not a Hollywood action movie. The story develops gradually , bringing to life the lives of workers in Manchester and the radical atmosphere in the city. There’s a lot of talking, using the words of the protagonists themselves, illustrating the different views on what action was needed. Those arguing for a peaceful demonstration prevailed over those agitating for a more violent response to repression. Henry Hunt himself was shown to be something of a vain and pompous demagogue. The real heroes were the ordinary men and women of Manchester and Lancashire. It builds slowly to the demonstration itself and culminates in the slaughter.

Mike Leigh believes the events of Peterloo and the reasons why it occurred need to be more widely known. I agree. His film should help.

Quarry Bank Mill

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On Saturday we decided to drive over to Styal, on the edges of the Cheshire countryside near to Manchester airport, to visit Quarry Bank Mill, an old cotton situated in a valley of the River Bollin. It was established in in 1784 by a textile merchant, Samuel Greg. The site was chosen as the fast flowing river in the narrow valley could be exploited to provide the power to drive the mill machinery.

Coming from Lancashire, when I researched my family tree it was no surprise to discover that many of my ancestors worked in the cotton industry. My mother started work at 16 in the office of the mill where her mother, aunt and cousin already worked as weavers. So visiting Quarry Bank has a particular resonance for me.

Lancashire cotton workers, 1910 (Picture source: Beautiful Britain website)

On a cold, but reasonably pleasant, winter’s day, the mill was fairly quiet. But as well as visitors to the mill buildings there were a number of people enjoying a walk along the paths through the woods. In the summer it’s also possible to visit the restored gardens created by the Greg family for the house they’d built next to their mill, but it was closed for the winter.

We started our visit by touring the Apprentice House, a short way from the mill, up a hill.

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It’s a guided tour, which takes about 40 minutes. The house was built to house “apprentices” – essentially indentured child labour from workhouses and poor families from as far away as Liverpool and London. The children were brought to Styal when they were only 9 years old and made to sign “contracts” that bound them to work a 12 hour day, 6 days a week for Greg, typically until they were 21. Their only day off was Sunday when they had to make two trips on foot to attend services at the Parish church in Wilmslow, about 2 miles away. The guide showed us round the house and talked about the apprentice system and the life of the children and the conditions they lived in. No photos are allowed but there are some pictures on the NT website here.

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Just outside the Apprentice House the Trust have recreated  the vegetable garden where the vegetables and herbs were grown. These weren’t used to feed the apprentices who had to survive on a thick porridge and “lobscouse” (stew), but to sell in the village shop.

After a meal in the restaurant, we toured the mill building.

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The architecture of the mill is very typical of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries when it was built. It has very simple neo-classical lines and a large number of windows to let natural light into the building. The most distinctive features are the tall chimney, that must have been built when the mill converted to steam power, the bell tower and the pediment with the clock face.

Inside the mill there are exhibits providing information on the history of the mill, cotton, textile manufacturing processes, the lives of the mill workers and the Greg family. There are examples of cotton manufacturing machinery starting with hand spinning wheels and hand looms then moving on the powered machinery from the 20th century – including carding machines, spinning machines and looms.

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Mule spinning machines at Quarry Bank Mill (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Trust employees give demonstrations of the equipment, and in the spinning and weaving rooms visitors gains an impression of the noise generated even when a small number of machines are operated. Noise levels would have been considerably higher when the factory was still in operation producing cloth. In fact they still do produce yarn and cloth. Some is sent out to customers and tea towels and a few other goods manufactured from the cloth woven in the mill are on sale in the shop, which is an inevitable feature of all “visitor attractions”.

The tour culminates with exhibits about how power was provided to mills, including a chance to see the restored, massive water wheel. There were also some working steam engines (I always find them hypnotic to watch) and a chance to peer up from the bottom of the chimney to see the sky.

The water wheel (Picture source: Quarry Bank Mill website)

The original Mill owner, Samuel Greg, who was a Unitarian, was reputably one of the better employers, but it was all relative. I wouldn’t have fancied working in the noise and dust with amongst lots of unguarded machinery for 12 hours a day, six days a week that his employees, some as young as 9 years old, had to endure. He’s actually mentioned in Engels’ book “The conditions of the working class in 1848”.

The tour around the mill provides an introduction to cotton manufacture and an impression of how the cotton workers used to live and their working conditions during the late 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The Trust don’t romanticise life in the mill too much. The visit makes you realise just how much working people have achieved since then, mainly by organising and fighting for themselves. And it’s quite sad that a once great industry, that provided jobs for millions of people in the North West of England, has now all but disappeared.