John Harris

Journalist & Author

Peterloo shaped modern Britain, as much as any king or queen did | John Harris

Mike Leigh is right to call the massacre a ‘major, major event’ – it can teach us much about our country today

“Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down, and smothered. Some of these [were] still groaning … others, with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more … Persons might sometime be noticed peeping from attics and over the tall ridgings of houses, but they quickly withdrew, as if fearful of being observed, or unable to sustain the full gaze of a scene so hideous and abhorrent.”

The words are those of Samuel Bamford, the weaver, writer and advocate of universal suffrage who in August 1819 witnessed first-hand what history came to know as the Peterloo massacre. The site in central Manchester where it happened, known back then as St Peter’s Field, is marked by a plaque on the wall of what was once the Free Trade Hall but is now the city’s Radisson hotel, a luxurious flophouse I mostly associate with hordes of boozing delegates at modern political party conferences. How many passersby ever look up at that tiny red circle and think about the awful day when “a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries”?

One lesson runs through Peterloo’s legacy – the ruling class is not some phantasm of leftie demonology, but a real thing

Related: The spectres spooking Britain that Philip Hammond can’t banish | Andrew Rawnsley

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