The name of Peterloo is bandied about so much these days that it would be tempting to forget there was never any such place.
It was in St Peter’s Field, close to the heart of what is now Manchester city centre, where sabre-wielding soldiers charged civilians marching in the name of parliamentary reform on August 16, 1819. It is estimated that more than 60,000 people were on the march. Fifteen died in the attack and at least 600 sustained severe injuries as a result. The incident was swiftly dubbed the ‘Peterloo massacre’ in a grave nod towards the casualty-strewn battle of Waterloo just four years earlier.
Only a fool would fail to see the continued relevance of the event in terms of contemporary democracy. Unsurprisingly then, Peterloo’s 200th anniversary next year will be marked in several ways, including a major feature film about the march by Salford-born Mike Leigh and a new book on the incident, Peterloo: The English Uprising, by expert academic Robert Poole of the University of Central Lancashire.
Poole is also involved in writing another, rather less conventional book project, a richly-researched 108-page graphic novel entitled Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre which will be entirely drawn from direct testimony from the time. It will include an introduction by actor Christopher Eccleston, a cover by artist Eva Schlunke and full colour art throughout by political cartoonist and illustrator Paul Fitzgerald, aka ‘Polyp’.
Speaking to Northern Soul, Poole says: “We’re determined that every word the narrative and dialogue will be from the records of the time. We began by talking about what sort of characters we’d use to tell the story, and we agreed we wanted avoid clunky, expositional dialogue – things like ‘Look out! Here come the cruel Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, and their sabres are drawn!’. After a while reading through all the newspapers, letters, spy reports, courtroom testimonies and so on, the penny dropped. They were there, they had the words we were struggling to find. Why not just let them speak for themselves?”
From within the Peterloo story, the team has chosen real-life figures around which to fashion a narrative.
“My hero is Samuel Bamford, the Middleton radical,” says Poole. “He organised the main march and wrote the history so he’ll be there, along with his wife Mima. He was basically peaceful, but he did get very angry about what happened and that got him a prison sentence.” Meanwhile, illustrator Fitzgerald is drawn to “the complex, flamboyant personality of Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt. He was a classic flawed political hero, brave and driven enough to defy the Government and face assault and jail, but with a seriously big ego which got him into conflicts with his allies.”
Poole has been acting as consultant historian to next year’s Peterloo memorial programme and has also shared his expertise with Mike Leigh’s film project. His extensive research has unearthed parts of the Peterloo narrative that have never been told, but which the graphic novel will aim to include.
“There’s the full story of the failed 1817 rising, which was infiltrated by spies. The reformers of 1819 were keen to avoid conspiracy but the magistrates expected the same thing again, so there was a dangerous gap opening up. And the sheer ruthlessness of the authorities hasn’t really been grasped. The Government talked about stopping the radical campaign ‘by the law or the sword’, and they meant it. But we also want to ensure it isn’t portrayed as a simplistic ‘virtuous heroes versus moustache-twirling villains’. The Manchester and Salford Yeomanry troops were essentially a militia of rich loyalists with a grudge against the crowd, but one Hussar threatened to run through a Yeoman himself if he didn’t lay off a young lad he’d cornered. We also want to explore the impact the terror of the French Revolution had on the fears, whether real or overblown, of the authorities.”
Telling the story using the medium of the graphic novel opens up certain possibilities that other forms can’t. “We won’t be constrained by a strict linear narrative, following one or two characters. We can make juxtapositions of contradictory dialogue, and have the visuals add another layer at the same time, and you just get it straight away. What we aim to create is a striking, almost dream-like ‘sound cloud’ of voices, fragments of the past that assemble into a coherent and informative whole, telling the story in a genuinely new and authentic way. We’ve often talked about the idea of a microphone drone drifting through the scenes, capturing snippets of dialogue like a wind-blown leaf.”
There have been several successful graphic novels about major historical events – The Death of Stalin, From Hell, Maus – but for Poole, there’s a very particular model at work here. “I read Watchmen month by month as it came out, and I can still remember the excitement as everything came together before the big disaster at the end. Our big, shocking ‘disaster’ will be in the middle. If we get it right, this will be Manchester’s Watchmen.”
At present, the project is seeking funding through a Kickstarter campaign which ends on March 10. It has proved to be a popular decision, with more than 100 per cent of the total raised at the time of writing. The potential readership is wide, as Poole suggests.
“We hope graphic novel fans, amateur history buffs, academics, teachers, campaigners, and anyone with an interest in the history of oppression and human rights will want to pick it up. We have schools and a younger audience in mind as well. Words and pictures can be so powerful for almost anybody. Those who like to spend a bit of time reading between the lines will be able to look up the references at the back – yes, it will be a graphic novel with footnotes – to see how it’s put together.”
The team is in no doubt that Peterloo has a powerful message for today’s readers.
“It’s not going to be a ‘reassuring’ political polemic with a pre-fabricated message built in,” explains Poole. “In one way it’s got to be about the past, which is always messy. But for now, we feel passionately that it has to be about the state of our present day democracy. What went wrong then, and what is wrong now? People made tremendous sacrifices to get us where we are now, and they would be astonished to find we have the vote and we often can’t be bothered to make it count. We want people to come away asking themselves, ‘what have we done to preserve and deepen the rights which we inherited from the sacrifices of the past?’”.
Illustrations by Paul Fitzgerald
For more details on Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre or to pledge funding: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/678551473/peterloo-a-graphic-novel