Being a tourist in your own city is an unusual and dislocating experience. Like most urbanites, I never really take the opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of my home town. We all say “I can do it any time”, then never get round to it. I’d love to know the percentage of people who live in London but have never been to its most beautiful building – the Natural History Museum – because they can “do it any time. I was 30 before I stepped inside the John Rylands Library, a building I’d walked past hundreds of times. I go in there now whenever I get the chance and curse myself a little for leaving it so late.
There’s a similar attitude to the history of the city. Too much is going on in the here and now for events of the past to have any resonance with or relevance to modern lives. Clear nonsense, but it’s a prevalent stance.
I’m not very comfortable displaying my own ignorance, but here goes. Before last Saturday’s walk, my knowledge of the events of Peterloo were as follows:
A large crowd of protestors was attacked by soldiers and some of them died. I wasn’t totally certain why they were protesting. I knew it happened in the city centre, but I wasn’t sure where. I knew it happened in the early 19th century but didn’t really know why it had been dubbed Peterloo, when no such place existed.
A pretty poor summary of one of the most significant events of the last two centuries, I think you’d agree, but one that I reckon a good two thirds of Mancunians would be hard put to expand upon.
Fortunately for me, Michael Herbert was on hand to fill in those yawning gaps in my knowledge and understanding of the Peterloo massacre. Michael is a trustee of the Working Class Movement Library and an historian of Manchester’s radical political and social movements. These credentials made him the perfect guide for our group of 13 and, over a riveting two hours, he brought the Manchester of the late 1700s and early 1800s to life.
It was a time of great change and inequality, with manufacturing moving from cottages and villages into mills and cities. It was a time where workers came to be known as ‘hands’, the only part of their bodies that the mill owners were interested in. Greater world events like the American War of Independence and the French Revolution were woven into the narrative, throwing a spotlight on the motives and hopes of British, pro-democracy reformers.
As Michael talked, we moved around various locations in the centre. We started off at the Quaker Meeting House on Mount Street before moving on to the Town Hall, where something was immediately pointed out to me that I’d never seen before, – the Roman soldier above the entrance, quietly signifying the city’s ancient origins. It was interesting to watch fellow Mancunians wander past and observe our little group. Some of them saw us as an inconvenience to get round and I could see others loitering around to eavesdrop. As the walk progressed, we took in various sites of importance like Parsonage Gardens and the Hidden Gem Catholic church, before finding ourselves standing on Windmill Street, with the entrance to G-Mex at our back and the rear of the Midland Hotel to our front.
It was chilling to be on the exact spot of the hustings, where a crowd of more than 60,000 people had assembled to hear Henry Hunt speak. An attempt to have him arrested ignited a 20 minute powder keg, which resulted in the deaths of 15 people and injuries to more than 600. The statistics, when presented at the place they occurred, are truly shocking. With the aid of maps provided by Michael, we could transpose the Manchester of August 16, 1819 onto its modern footprint, and imagine sabre wielding cavalrymen riding down Mount Street into a panicked crowd of men, women and children.
Historical walks are a fantastic way of bringing events from the past to life and, with the streets of Manchester as our backdrop and Michael as our guide, I now feel that I have more of a grasp on the immediate horror and subsequent impact of that day, nearly two centuries ago.
Review by Charlie Bell
What: The Story of Peterloo, walk conducted by Michael Herbert from the Working Class Movement Library
When: May 18, 2013