Going to school in Manchester I learnt about the Peterloo Massacre because the leaders of Manchester City Council, in those days at least, thought that we should know about a key event in the campaign for the vote which had taken place in the city. Years later I queued up to go to the iconic venue, the Hacienda, although I was more of a Madonna fan than a child of the rave culture.
Manchester Sound: The Massacre, the latest production from the Library Theatre Company, aims to bring together these two events. I spoke to Rachel Austin, who plays Jemima Bamford, one of the women who was at Peterloo. Jemima was the wife of leading radical Samuel Bamford and she later wrote her own account of the day when at least 18 people were killed by the local yeomanry and several hundred were injured.
Rachel knew little about Peterloo before starting to rehearse the part: ” I wasn’t taught about it at school, my Mum did know about it. But, like Jemima, I am from a working class family and live in a northern town, Leigh.”
Jemima came from Middleton and was probably a weaver’s daughter. She met Samuel when she was picking up the milk from the local dairy. They had a child together and married. As Samuel became more involved in the campaign for the vote, their house was raided and he was imprisoned. It is only through his letters to Jemima that we find out out about her life as his wife and as a constant supporter of his political activity.
Jemima did go to Peterloo, on that fateful day in August, as did many women and children. They dressed up for a day out, not knowing that it would become of the bloodiest and controversial days in the history of this country. In her account of the day she said:
“The people shouted, and then the soldiers shouted, waving their swords. Then they rode amongst the people and there was a great outcry, and a moment after, a man passed without a hat, and wiping the blood off his head with his hand, and it ran down his arm in a great stream.”
Austin’s life as a working class woman could not be more different. From early work in small productions such as JB Shorts and Monkeywood Theatre, she starred in the play Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster at the Royal Exchange last September and had a part in the film Sightseers. Proud of her Northern roots, she recognises how difficult acting can be: “It has been a long hard struggle but I am positive about the future, although I have said to my boss at the Lowry Theatre to keep my shifts open for me!”.
Interview by Bernadette Hyland
What: Manchester Sound : The Massacre
When: June 8, 2013 – July 6, 2013
More info: www.librarytheatre.com/manchester-sound; further details about the women at Peterloo can be seen inMichael Herbert’s book Up Then The Brave Women, Manchester’s Radical women 1819-1918, published by the North West labour History Society