A satirical cartoon of popular radical reform – the Scum Uppermost – represented as a many-headed monster, and embroidered flags are among the objects being brought together for the first time in an exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre.
Eighteen people were killed and 700 injured at the peaceful protest for democratic reform in Manchester in 1819, and the exhibition will chart its legacy and the ways in which the story was suppressed.
The event led to the formation of the Manchester Guardian and sparked the beginnings of the movement for universal suffrage. The exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester aims to inform a new generation about the massacre’s legacy.
“We’re at a tipping point right now in terms of climate change and democracy,” said the museum’s programme officer, Michael Powell, referencing the recent school climate strikes and women’s marches in which hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets. “So the knowledge of where our rights to protest come from is extremely important. But so many people just don’t know about Peterloo or about working-class history, and so this is something we’re hoping to change.”
Eight key objects from Peterloo will be displayed, from the satirist George Cruikshank’s drawings of the Scum Uppermost, railing against acts of radical reform, to embroidered flags detailing the massacre and showing solidarity with workers.
“The plaque that commemorates the massacre in Manchester described it as a ‘dispersal’ until 2007,” said the museum’s head of collections, Jenny Mabbott. “But these were peaceful people who were killed – including a two-year-old baby and a pregnant mother with her unborn child. This is just one example of how working-class history, and women’s history, is erased.”
An important way in which information about Peterloo was disseminated in the aftermath was via the new radical press, a tradition that led to the launch of the Manchester Guardian in 1821.
Mabbott said: “We have on display a portrait of Hugh Birley, a Manchester mill owner and captain of the Salford yeomanry who observers reported gave the orders for the first attack on the crowds, but there are no portraits in existence of the working people who were there, of the people who died. The responsibility for that story fell to the press and the unions – and it still does.”
Ultimately the exhibition aims to inspire continued protest and action, with half of its space devoted to a protest lab, where local groups will meet to plan demonstrations and publicise their causes.
“The first secret ballot – which is something the protesters at Peterloo were arguing for, as only 2% of the population had access to the vote at the time – only came into effect in 1872 in a Pontefract byelection, and we have that ballot box on display here,” Powell said. “It shows that while change doesn’t happen immediately, it doesn’t mean protesting is fruitless. Making your voice heard makes a real difference and it’s one that we continue to see today.”
Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest is at the People’s History Museum, Manchester from 23 March to 23 February 2020.