Peterloo: A defining moment in the struggle for democracy in Britain

Peterloo

Written & directed by Mike Leigh

Starring Rory Kinnear, Maxine Peake & Pearce Quigley

In cinemas now

***

The international release of British director Mike Leigh’s new film Peterloo marks 200 years since the infamous 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, England. On August 16 that year, a crowd estimated at up to 80,000 gathered in St Peter’s Fields to demand parliamentary reform and an extension of voting rights.

On the orders of the government in London and reactionary local magistrates, armed troops and militias arrested the protest leaders and then charged into the crowd. They killed at least 15 people and wounded 700 more. The Peterloo Massacre became one of the bloodiest and most notorious episodes in British history.

It was a defining moment in the long struggle for democratic rights in Britain. This struggle stretched back to the English Civil War of 1648, and led to the formation of the Chartist movement, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the rise of the British trade union movement in the 19th century.

The massacre provoked an outcry among the public and the national press, which dubbed the event “Peterloo”, after the recent Battle of Waterloo, in which the French armies of Napoleon Bonaparte were finally defeated in 1815.

However, the immediate effect of the massacre was an intensified British government crackdown on the democratic reform movement, as the authorities feared the country was heading towards a French Revolution-style uprising.

In the end, the Peterloo protest played a significant role in the founding of the famous Manchester Guardian newspaper, and eventually to the passage through Parliament of the Great Reform Act 13 years later.

According to Peterloo director, veteran British progressive filmmaker Mike Leigh, “There has never been a feature film about the Peterloo massacre. The universal significance of this historic event becomes ever more relevant in our turbulent times.”

Reviewer John Barrell, writing in The Guardian, accurately observes: “The version of 18th- and 19th-century British history presented on BBC4 in recent years has been puzzlingly and relentlessly aristocratic.

“Here was an era when the fight for democracy was at its most bitter, a time when members of the working class campaigned vigorously for the right to representation, and were repeatedly threatened with punishment of death for doing so.

“But on our screens, this appears as an age almost exclusively populated with posh people dancing minuets. Where are the London Corresponding Society, the Gordon Riots, Peterloo? I have heard, I hope mistakenly, that programme commissioners believe working-class history of the period to be too lacking in visual or dramatic appeal.”

Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, by contrast, presents a working-class view of the developing drama of the events leading up to the massacre, starting with a scene of a bugler-boy shell-shocked and lost in the thick of battle at Waterloo.

The build-up to Peterloo shows various poor families of the region gradually becoming involved in the organisation of the campaign for an extension of “manhood suffrage” in Britain.

Women play a leading role in the struggle. No doubt, the “Lancashire Witches”, who are shown meeting to assist in the preparations for the mass march and rally at Peterloo, were the forerunners of the women’s suffrage feminist movement of later years.

The film also gives an indication of various trends within the democratic movement: from the radical farmer calling for armed defence of the rally, to the London-based, middle-class agitator Henry “Orator” Hunt (Rory Kinnear), who is rather dismissive of the local leaders of the movement. Nevertheless, he is arrested and jailed for his leading part in the protest.

Leigh’s film gives an extensive account of the build-up to the rally and massacre, including discussions and debates among the poor communities, influenced by radical demands for equal civil and political rights for all “free men”, and against the recently introduced Corn Laws restricting the availability of cheap grain to the poor population of Britain.

Some would argue the film is a tad too long, at more than two-and-a-half hours, and could have been edited somewhat for clarity and pace.

The film also ends somewhat ambiguously, without even a piece of text to explain the important events that followed. For a modern audience, especially international, this would seem an important missing conclusion to an otherwise fascinating account of a history-making event in the long saga of the British popular struggle for democracy.

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