I first heard of Peterloo when I had been working at the Library for a few years and I was shown a little book, filled with names. It was the Peterloo Relief Fund Account Book (or English MS 172) a little notebook which records recipients of the Peterloo Relief Fund giving their names, addresses, details of their injuries and the amount of money paid to them.
The next time I heard about Peterloo was during Manchester International Festival 2013 when Maxine Peake recited all 37 verses of Shelley’s poem, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, directed by Sarah Frankcom, just yards from the site of the Peterloo Massacre itself.
But it was until Monday evening 5th October 2015, at a rally for The People’s Post organised by the CWU (Communication Worker’s Union) that I truly understood the significance of Peterloo and what went on at Peter’s Fields. When Lindsay German addressed the crowd of over 8000 people that had amassed in Cathedral Gardens, she spoke of the democratic reform that the Peterloo rally had been demonstrating for, and subsequently brought about.
I had not understood that those killed and injured at Peterloo had been taking part in a peaceful rally, much like the one I attended on Monday, to claim their democratic rights – and to defend the rights of the poor. In the back of the Peterloo Relief Account Book is a newspaper cutting, which is an account from a man named James Haslam, I have transcribed the cutting below so you can read about where first he heard of Peterloo:
‘When I was a boy I was very fond indeed of creeping into the handloom cellar at night – especially o’ winter nights – to hear the men of the moribund craft talk and sing and, by the way, swear about hard times. What a quaint, independent set of industrials they were. But they talked and sang sometimes of flowers, or love, or war, but mostly of hard social and political days. How they did anathematise the politicians of the hour, and, I am afraid, push revolutionary ideas into my young hear. I was to carry on – so Joss Wrigley said – their spirit of political revolt when they were dead and their wooden looms were made into firewood by the factory workers.
They were the Radicals of Lupton Yard, and when I read “The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane” I thought if Rutherford had known them he might have handed them to posterity.
It was there where I first heard of Peterloo.
“Peterloo, Peterloo,” was often the subject of fierce conversation and denunciation. There were four of them in the cellar, in addition to an old woman who, sitting in the middle of the semi-subterranean workshop, wound coarse weft bobbins for them on a wooden wheel and spindle.
Joss Wrigley was the leader of the poverty-stricken group. My father was the owner of the looms, all bought for a few shillings, and rented to the other three weavers for a few pence a week. Joss was a great talker. Ned Greenhalgh – gentle Ned – was a listener who nodded approval of Joss’s political outbursts. Nathan Clegg, who occasionally varied his weaving by a short term in the Debtors’ Gaol at Lancaster, helped Joss by swearing at capitalists and shopkeepers. Mary Miller, the bobbin-winder, sometimes shook with fear at the thought of what might be their plight if the police were to look in. Joss Wrigley had decorated – he called it decorated – one of his loomposts with verses from Ebenezer Elliott and democratic songs of Burns, cut from newspapers. My father sometimes played the fiddle to soothe their nerves – played old English airs and Jacobite songs.
There was a stove in the cellar, which was lighted when they could afford to buy coal. I used to hear most about Peterloo when the looms were silent and the stove was burning, and the decrepit weavers were “winding on” a new warp by candle-light. One of them would guide the threads through the healds, two would sit on each side straightening the yarn and picking out foreign particles; Joss Wrigley usually sat on a stool unfolding the warp, and, having the least responsible task, he would talk the most.
It was then that “Peterloo” rang mostly in my ears. Often I wondered where Peterloo was till I learned it was at Manchester, a few miles away.
Frequently I was puzzled to know why it was that they spoke so bitterly of it. Subsequently, I was informed that Joss Wrigley knew all about it, because he was there in support of the People’s Charter, as Joss described it. Joss was a slim, nervous man with white hair and long beard; for a man of 77 years he was still sprightly physically and alert mentally.
It was from these older-time weaver’s lips I first heard the names of Sam Bamford and Henry Hunt. There was only one picture on the walls of our “front” room, otherwise known as the parlour. To us a house was divided into a “front” room and a “back” room, or kitchen. At that time our “front” room was an odd-looking chamber. Owing to the height of one of the looms in the cellar it had been necessary to take up one or two flags – it ws a flagged floor, usually sanded – in the parlour to make room for the top portion of the Jacquard machine. All that the room held was this portion of the loom, protruding about a yard above the surface, two spindle-back chairs, a small deal table, a winding-frame worked by my mother, and the solitary picture alluded to, which was a newspaper print of Henry Hunt. The name was underneath – “Henry Hunt, Esq.” My mother knew no more of the August massacre of 1819 than she had learned from the heated harangues of Joss Wrigley, and it was she who told me that Henry Hunt was a man who had something to do with Peterloo.
I remember saying to my father one morning when he was playing his well-resined fiddle (his warp being “down”), “What was this Peterloo about?” “Ax Joss,” he said. “It were afore my time. Joss were theer. Fro’ what he says, it were a damnable thing – summat as workin’ folk should never forget!”
I was now particularly curious to know. And one day when Joss came from the cellar into the kitchen to beg some tea to drink with his meal of bread and cheese I put the question – boy-like- bluntly to him. I have never forgotton some of his Doric phrases. He drew me between his knees, and said, partly with pride and partly with indignation:
“Peterloo, lad! I know. I were theer as a young mon. We were howdin’ a meetin’ i’ Manchester – on Peter’s Field, – a meetin’ for eawr reets – for reets o’ mon, for liberty to vote, an’ speak, an’ write, an’ be eawrsels – honest, hard-workin’ folk. We wanted to live eawr own lives, an’ th’ upper classes wouldn’t let us. That’s abeawt it, lad. We were howdin’ a meetin’, a peaceful meetin’, an’ they sent t’dragoons among us to mow us deawn. T’ dirty devils – they sent t’ dragoons slashin’ at us wi’ their swords. There were some on us sheawtin’ ‘Stop! Stop! What are yo’ doin’ that for? We on’y want eawr reets.’ An’ they went on cuttin’ through us, an’ made us fly helter-skelter – aw because we were only howdin’ up t’ banner o’ liberty an’ t’ reets o’ mon. Bournes (Burns) says as ‘Liberty’s a glorious feast.’ But th’ upper classes wouldn’t let us poor folk get a tast on it. When we cried… freedom o’ action they gav’ us t’ point of a sword. Never forget, lad! Let it sink i’ thi blood. Ston up an’ feight for t’ reets o’ mon – t’ reets o’ poor folk!”
“Banner o’ libery,” “t’reets o’ mon,” “t’ dragoons slashin among us wi’ their swords,” were dinned into my ears till I could not forget. I could not understand then why Joss was trembling with rage. I could not then understand why he, having lived for over fifty years after the event, should still permit it to disturb his mind. I suppose it had got in his blood, and he could not live it out. I presume also that continuous years of poverty, together with years of political injustice and vagaries, and dear food, through which he had lived, had helped to nurse his hatred, which he resolutely passed on to others.
His political career began at Peterloo – a dramatic beginning, to be sure. It ended in a damp, dark handloom cellar, at the age of 81.
I remember asking my father years after – when thinking of the sayings and the songs of Joss – how much would be the earnings of Joss as a rule. I was told not more than 10s. to 12s. per week – sometimes a few shillings more, sometimes “nowt at aw.”
Yet to the very end of his hard days Joss rarely omitted, as far as I can recollect, to talk and swear about the struggle that began at Peterloo, and which he traced through the mob skirmishes in connection with the agitation for the first Reform Act, the aims of the Free Trade League, the Chartists, and the Plug Drawers. He talked and talked of these affairs of men, and the opposition to them, as he swund the shuttle across his loom, or as he sat in the impoverished kitchen or in the tavern at the corner of the mean street. He was only nineteen years of age when he escaped from the massacre of Peterloo. And who can say how much the working classes owe to men like Joss Wrigley – a poor handloom weaver who from his obscurity passed on their spirit and opinions to coming generations?’
Following the Peterloo Massacre a Relief Fund was established, supported by voluntary subscriptions, to provide financial support to those wounded and the families of those who had died. The John Rylands Library holds the Peterloo Relief Fund Account Book (see image) which has now been digitised and is available to view online.
Historians believe that the Peterloo Massacre was massively influential in changing public opinion, and played a pivotal role in winning democratic rights for ordinary people or as Joss Wrigley so eloquently put ‘for reets o’ mon, for liberty to vote, an’ speak, an’ write, an’ be eawrsels – honest, hard-workin’ folk’ (for the rights of man, for liberty to vote, and speak, and write, and be ourselves – honest, hard-working folk).