Peterloo 1819: the short and long historical view

Most historians take short historical views. There are practical reasons for this, especially when having to produce for dissertations during a limited time period, but more mature historians can be under similar pressure from research assessment exercises. The literature on Peterloo provides an example. The recent definitive book by Robert Poole, Peterloo: The English Uprising (Oxford, 2019) is an essentially short view of 1819, even though the massacre is explained as the culmination of long simmering local tensions between Manchester loyalists controlling the town’s ‘semi-public institutions’ and the post-Napoleonic war reform movement in the distressed populations of central and surrounding townships. The short view point applies even more to The Peterloo Massacre treatments of Joyce Marlow (1969) and Robert Reid (1989), let alone, notoriously, Robert Walmsley, Peterloo: The Case Re-opened (1969). Donald Read can be seen as a little exceptional since his 1958 publication, Peterloo: The ‘Massacre’ and its Background, had as Part Four, ‘The Aftermath of Peterloo’. There is now a fashion for ‘remembrance’ and ‘commemoration’ publication, as illustrated by the chapters by Terry Wyke [‘Remembering the Peterloo Massacre’] and Paul Fitzgerald [‘Remembering Peterloo in the twenty-first century’] in the Return to Peterloo volume, edited by Robert Poole, published in 2014. Yet these forays before and beyond 1819 are surely insufficient for its representation in historical long view.

One way of placing it in that context might be to treat it as an incident in a long history of parliamentary or democratic reform. If conceived in the history of parliament as modifications to the electoral system, it would precede 1815 and extend beyond Chartism to 1929 – and even to present-day tinkering with registration and electoral boundaries. But from a philosophical point of view one might extend a history of the British electoral mechanism to a consideration of broader constitutional issues and even what constitutes ‘democracy’ itself! Indeed, some of us thinking of the discontents of 1819 and the Chartist period in relation to those of our present day, have no difficulty in taking a jaundiced view of our allegedly ‘democratic’ system!

The long view implied in the last sentence of the preceding paragraph brings to mind the journal Past and Present. Its contents do not generally take the long view here implied, but the title was proposed by historians who, as members of the Communist Party History Group, clearly had contemporary politics’ as well as history, in their minds. Eric Hobsbawm, who was one of the prime movers in founding the journal, avoided publishing his doctoral thesis on the Fabians, but embarked on a series of ‘total histories’ reflecting CPHG discussions about the history of capitalism1. This, in effect, was a rejection of short view publication in favour of long view history. Even so, in relation to this, or indeed any long-view project, there is the question of whether and in what respects it elucidates a continuity between the past and the present.

As to Peterloo, I draw attention to the 2020 volume of The Hazlitt Review, which is devoted to its commemoration. In particular, the Hazlitt Society Annual Lecture 2019, delivered by Alan Rusbridger on ‘Hazlitt, Peterloo and The Guardian’. Rusbridger was, of course, editor of the paper rather than a professional historian like Hobsbawm, but his lecture takes the long view with a specific past and present linkage. The argument is for a structural continuity: His first proposition is that ‘authority’ or the ‘powerful’ often lie. The second is that its hard to establish the truth, especially when contested. The third that in this contestation, ‘power’ will always try to prevent scrutiny and challenge, especially by defining the government’s interest as identical to the national interest. Much of this comes out in the imposition, or attempted imposition, of penalties for speech or writing. For the detailed illustration taken from William Hone, Hazlitt, Cruikshank, John Hunt of The Examiner or William Cobbett, from before and after Peterloo, and the structural continuity with more modern events, such as Bloody Sunday, Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, or Edward Snowden, please go to Rusbridger. The 2020 issue of The Hazlitt Review also contains a valuable ‘short view’ article on ‘Hazlitt and Peterloo’ by John Gardner of Anglia Ruskin University.

John Halstead

  1. Emil Chabal, ‘Historians of the world unite! Eric Hobsbawm and he Communist Party Historians Group, 1946-1956’, Revista Mundos do Trabalho, 10, 19, 2018. Available at https://doi.org/10.5007/1984-9222.2018v10n19p71