by Martin Odoni

FOREWORD: Today is the 16th of August 2019, and it is the bi-centenary of a notorious atrocity committed by the British Government against its own people in Manchester. A peaceful pro-democracy rally at St. Peter’s Field (very roughly the site of St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets today) was broken up by British armed troops on horseback, indiscriminately attacking the crowd with sabres. At least fifteen people were killed, probably more, and over six hundred were injured.

Given that the slaughter happened just four years after the great British victory at The Battle of Waterloo, and reflecting the fact that some of the protesters had served in the armies that fought Napoleon, this infamous act of state ruthlessness was rapidly named, with grim humour, ‘The Peterloo Massacre‘.

Last year, Mike Leigh directed a film chronicling the events that led to the Massacre. I saw the film shortly after its release, and wrote the following review of it on social media. I now reproduce it here to mark the bi-centenary.


All-in-all, certainly not a bad film. The Peterloo Massacre was a critical turning point in British urban history, even more so in the history of Manchester (my adopted hometown), and with the bi-centenary now just months away, this is an appropriate tribute.

As an historical account, it’s reasonably accurate (at least by the dismal standards of cinematic historicals), with the known order-of-events broadly presented correctly – potato hurled at the Prince Regent notwithstanding. (The event that’s based on happened around two years before this.) The script does a very correct and skilled job tying in the terrible events of August 1819 with the backdrop of the Battle of Waterloo just four years earlier. As the film explains through the story of a soldier with shell-shock called Joseph, the rise of political radicalism at the time was largely fuelled by the return from the war of tens of thousands of British soldiers. They had fought long and hard in the Napoleonic Wars, but found when they got home that the economy had become so heavily-geared towards supporting the war-effort that there were now no jobs for all these extra workers. The Government of the era cared not a jot, and the only gratitude they felt for the wartime exploits was directed solely at the Duke Of Wellington. Poverty and deprivation became widespread across Britain, problems that are perhaps described more than portrayed here, but nevertheless accurately so. That poverty led to a growing radicalist movement, demanding suffrage for all working men (women, alas, would have to wait another century, although it is to the film’s credit that it makes clear that women played a very substantial role in the post-Napoleonic radical movement), relief from the high price of bread caused by the Corn Laws, and a fairer wage for workers. This all led to the remarkable mass public meeting at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester in August 1819, with tens of thousands arriving from all over Lancashire.

So the film more or less succeeds as a history lesson. It further has fine visuals, and a feel that is very authentic, with both costumes and scenery that convince that this really is Manchester in the Hanoverian era, and not Lincoln in 2018 (which is where and when it was really filmed).

However, it does less well in other departments. It is a little over-long, with the early stages meandering and cumbersome at times. Several scenes could easily have been cut away with no real loss. And the characterisation as performed on screen is questionable.

The magistrates in Manchester, who gave the order to attack the demonstrators, would be difficult people to feel much sympathy for, but they are so pompous, venal, officious and degenerate here that it almost dehumanises them, to the extent of offering the wrong lesson; the sorts of leaders who order the deaths of innocents are, whether we like it or not, as human as you or I. But the Dickensian-bully stereotype here would have us believe that only caricatures would behave in such a fashion, potentially catching us off-guard in the real world. In particular, Victor McGuire (the guy who played Jack Boswell in Bread) is really quite absurdly over-the-top as Detective Chief Constable Nadin, almost turning him into a Dirty-Harry-with-a-Scouse-accent bad-cop.

Equally, there is little doubt that the real Henry Hunt did let his popularity go to his head. But the way Rory Kinnear portrays him here, he is so vain and so contemptuous of other campaigners that he almost seems like a prima donna celebrity from the 1990s. Samuel Bamford comes across as a likeable buffoon rather than a formidable campaigner in his own right. We can’t say this characterisation is exactly ‘wrong’ because no one alive today would ever have met him, and therefore no one can say for sure that he was all that different from the merry loudmouth seen here. But it doesn’t altogether tally with what we know of him, which suggests something more akin to Wolfie Smith.

Even allowing for the very dark subject matter, the film lacks a degree of humour. There are a couple of mild moments of comic relief, such as the maid, Bessie, apparently thinking the painting of portraits works like a camera would today, and some of the crowd, unable to hear the speeches, grumbling about it like it’s the start of Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. But in a film lasting two-and-a-half hours, it gives the sad and very wrong impression that jokes weren’t invented until the 20th Century. It doesn’t need to be treated as a comedy film of course, far from it, but when the grimness is as unrelenting as this in a film as long as this, it starts to tire the audience.

I like Tim McInnerny being cast as the indolent Prince Regent, a role he performs to perfection, and there is a lovely irony to it. He of course found fame back in the mid-1980s in the first two seasons of Blackadder, playing the Percies of the Wars of the Roses and then Tudor eras. When the third season, set in the Regency period, was being planned, McInnerny was expected to be cast in it as Prince George, performed as another Percy-type figure. But scared of becoming typecast, while also becoming increasingly bored of the character, McInnerny decided to drop out, and so Hugh Laurie was brought in to replace him, playing the Prince in a very different style. Playing the Prince now, and in a style completely removed either from Percy or from Laurie’s George IV, seems to have filled a ‘What-if…?’ gap in McInnerny’s CV rather beautifully.

The portrayal of the Massacre itself is harrowing and haunting, and had me shaking with quiet anger as I watched, clearly what the director intended. Horribly, the notorious – and very real – moment when a baby was trampled to death by a horse is included, although thankfully it is not made graphic, with the baby shown to be wrapped up in a blanket, and so we can’t make him out.

The true death-toll that day at St. Peter’s Field will never be known. It’s officially always been set at fifteen, with over six hundred injuries, but my suspicion after studying the event in school has always been that it was quite a lot higher. The indiscriminate aggression with which the Yeomanry ploughed into the crowd suggests that the minimum death-toll would have to be closer to fifty. It should be remembered that the hundreds of injuries, many with stab wounds from Yeoman rapiers, were just as terrible as the summary deaths, in an era before real hospitals were available to provide effective treatment.

Today, the site of St. Peter’s Field has become St. Peter’s Square and its surrounds. A plaque hangs on a wall of the Radisson Hotel on neighbouring Peter Street as a tribute to those who died or suffered injuries, although sadly, it gets the name of the site slightly wrong. The Square today is a frequent venue for political protests.

The red plaque commemorating Peterloo

A few dozen metres down Peter Street from St. Peter’s Square, this memorial plaque can be seen on the wall of the Radisson Hotel. Note that it wrongly pluralises the name of the site of the Massacre as “St. Peter’s Fields”. There was an earlier version of the plaque, which included the same mistake.

The name ‘Peterloo’ is of course a very dark joke, made in the aftermath of the tragedy, to drum home twin points. Firstly, that some of the victims of the Massacre were themselves soldiers who had fought for their country at Waterloo, and that country, which by any standard should have been taking care of them after they had given so much to protect it, had instead turned swords on them on St. Peter’s Field. Secondly, that after the British Army had been glorified in the four years since Napoleon’s defeat, the soldiers of the Yeomanry had sullied that Army’s name irredeemably thereafter by using the same militaristic approach on a peaceful crowd of protesters – all of them fellow Britons.

The outcry that followed the Peterloo Massacre started a kind of domino effect across the country over the next decade or so, with resistance to Government and industrial oppression becoming angrier, sterner and more pro-active. It ultimately led to the Great Reform Act of 1832, the first in a slow but unstoppable series of electoral reforms that would, by 1969, create suffrage for all British adults over the age of 18. Even now, it is not yet sufficient for what I would call a ‘democracy’, but half a loaf is still better than no bread.

The relevance of Peterloo to modern Britain perhaps needs underlining, but the film fails to join those particular dots. It’s not just that many of our social and political rights today were won partly through the blood of those who fell fighting for suffrage, and that they deserve to be remembered. It’s also that these sorts of crimes of the British state against its own people have never entirely stopped happening. The Bloody Sunday/Bogside Massacre in Derry, in which British soldiers ruthlessly took fourteen lives during a largely-peaceful protest, was less than fifty years ago, and still in the memories of many people alive today. The Battle Of Orgreave, in which the South Yorkshire Police on horseback violently attacked picketing miners and then tried to falsify evidence in order to convict their victims, was as recent as 1984. The strength of Trade Unions was almost completely destroyed in the years that followed. Right now, we have a Government that is trying to sweep away workers’ rights almost entirely. Years of malicious, toxic Government Austerity have crushed many of the working poor into increased poverty and destitution, leaving them in a situation not entirely dissimilar to the one Wellington’s soldiers returned home to two hundred years ago.

We are in danger, as a country, of sleepwalking into the same kind of situation, where we will have to fight the same battle once again that led to the Peterloo Massacre. If we want to prevent it happening again, we have to stop the surrender of our rights now, before we become as vulnerable as the people of Manchester were on 16th August 1819.