The Peterloo Massacre and its Bicentenary on 16 August 2019

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On 16  August 2019, it will be the bicentenary of the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

In this dismal episode in British history, the part time militia of the Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry charged  a peaceful crowd of 60,000. This gathering was in fact  a large part of the then population of Lancashire,  many of whom were impoverished cotton workers  who had come to St Peter’s Field to hear reformers, led by the notorious Henry Hunt, talk on the issue of parliamentary reform. Through this means,they hoped to improve their living conditions.

Such were the vagaries and injustices of the electoral system  in Britain at the time, that not only were the majority of the working population  not allowed to vote , but there was not even an MP in Manchester.

On seeing such a massive crowd gathering, the local magistrates, watching from a nearby building, panicked. The normal procedure for dispersing a supposedly disorderly crowd was to have the Riot Act read, and if they crowd had not dispersed in an hour, to send in troops.

Professional mounted troops would move slowly into a crowd, using their horses and the flats of their swords to part them. However, on St Peter’s Fields on that day, the local militias charged into the crowd, using the sabres to cut down men, woman and children alike. Women holding babies were sabred, and the horrors of the day were vividly  reported by the before then unsympathetic journalist from The Times, who was standing on the platform as the massacre began, and who was mistaken for a radical and arrested.

It may astonish people to read that the official death toll was only 15, with about 700 people who either were reported as injured. However, it has to be remembered that many of those injured, however severely, would not have dared to report it. After the massacre the victims, and not the aggressors, were treated as criminals, and feared discrimination by their employers.  Lord Livepool’s government supported the local magistrate’s foolhardly decision to send in the inexperienced (and possibly drunken) local militias.We only have the figures of those injured from the numbers of those incapacited who applied for funds for relief from a charitable fund set up by sympathizers.

No doubt many of those injured subsequently died as a result  of their injuries some weeks or even months later. In those days of primitive medical care and lack of welfare provison, a serious injury was often a death sentence, and for a wage earner in the family to be incapacitated equalled the threat of starvation for a family. Many handloom weavers and spinners at this time were living in a state of semi starvation already.

One of those who later died of injuries received on the day was 21 year old  John  Lees, a spinner and Waterloo veteran from Oldham, whose father had disapproved of his attending the meeting, and who did not at first realise the serious nature of his son’s  injuries. When John Lees died on 7 September, his father demanded an inquest. The jury was  ready to return a verdict of wilful murder against the militia, when the coroner took advantage of a legal loophole to dissolve the whole proceedings.

Subsequently, the repressive Six Acts were rushed through parliament, which effectively muzzled radical newspapers, political meetings, marching and any form of dissent.

Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford and the other radical leaders were arrested for treason. This capital offence was latter commuted to a a lesser one, and they served prison sentences of severaql yesrs.

This was the outrage which inspired the poet Shelley to write his famous  ‘Masque of Anarchy’ (so subversive that it wasn’t in fact published until 1831, a couple of years after his own death).

‘Rise like lions after slumber;

Rise in unvanquishable number,

Cast your chains to earth like dew,

Which in your sleep hath fallen on  you,

Ye are many;  they are few.’

It is a grim enough episode in British history. However, I felt that I ought to write a story based about the Peterloo Massacre.  I didn’t actually know at the time when I began work on my novel, that there is in fact an epic feature film coming out about it, and I thought that the occasion of the bi-centenary should not slip by without someone writing of the appalling suffering of the Lancashire cotton workers at this time, and particularly, the injustices meted out on that day.

With luck there will now be many articles, books, blog posts and television posts over the next year on the bi-centenary of this shameful episode, which shows the neglected dark side of Regency history, and the repressive nature of the state.

 

 

 

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Wilbur Smith’s ‘Shout at the Devil’: A Book Where Comedy Turns to Tragedy

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I have been getting cold feet (very appropriate given the recent icy weather) about my short novel based round the 1819 Peterloo Massacre .  Of course, mine will be only one obscure publication out  of many books, articles, plays or whatever that will surely be released to mark the bicentenary  – I know there’s a film coming out. Still, that’s not the point; I feel I owe it to those who were slaughtered and the hundreds who were maimed or injured on that terrible day in Manchester’s history to make that novel as good as I possibly can.

If you’re just writing for fun, then it’s different. If the general response is: ‘Must Try Harder’ – Well, that smarts, but you haven’t let anyone’ s memory down.

Oddly enough, I found out how I should best write this piece by a piece of serendipity or synchronicity (now I’ve used up my quota of long words for the day). So, this post isn’t really about my latest project, but a novel I read a long time ago, Wilbur Smith’s novel ‘Shout at the Devil’.

I woke up the other day, with a strong memory of one of the first adult books I had read in my mind.

That was a story of two freebooting adventurers in German East Africa just before World War I, an outrageously unscrupulous older Irish American and his none-too-bright diffident English upper class young partner – and the love affair between the callow young man and the first character’s daughter.

I was twelve at the time, and my family were doing up those rambling old country houses in which I spent most of my childhood. I remember coming on this book in the room we used to call ‘the little sitting room’ – in those days when  great old houses were cheap and  unfashionable, that room was approximately the size of a ten million pound flat in central London these days. My father had taken the book out of the library –and seeing it on the side tablet by his favourite armchair, and bored with sampling the historical romances my mother took out, I sat down and  began to read this male adventure story.

I was drawn into the fast moving action. I laughed at the ridiculous letter which the rascally larger-than-life freebooter had written as a supposed reference from Kaiser Wilhelm II,  ‘Kaiser Bill’ himself.  He solemnly shows this to his prospective partner in order to persuade him to become, as a British citizen –  for this was, of course, in the days when the sun never set on the British Empire – the leader of the expedition.

Even then I knew that the slaughter of elephants for ivory was wrong. I didn’t like that aspect at all, and thought it to some extent contained racial stereotypes.  Also, the murder of the young couple’s baby was a very horrible part of the plot.  However, I  found myself oddly touched by the love story which forms part of the plot in this adventure story.

My recollection is that it only briefly sketched in, but after those romantic novels, I found that ‘less is more’.  I wanted at least twice as much, just as you do with jam in a trifle if someone’s skimped on it, whereas with too much of it, you find it clogs the appetite (well, I do, anyway).

I remembered that the callow partner goes down with malaria, and that the two renegades turn up at the senior freebooter’s house, where the daughter nurses him. That is, of course, the archetypical circumstance in which a man falls in love with a woman – but I remember it as working brilliantly here. I remembered the mention of the young man’s eyes being ‘Misty grey, and as unfocused as those of a newborn puppy’ and  looking into them, the heroine ‘felt something squirm in her stomach.’

My recollection is, that after that, the details of their courtship weren’t given much, though I also recall that the daughter is depicted as very determined, and the upper class youth turned bandit as shy, and that she made most of the running.

I also remembered that while the first part of the story is full of comedy verging on slapstick, soon launching into high adventure, it later becomes extremely violent and tragic. I was really upset by the ending.

Anyway, on the strength of these details, and the fact that I remembered that I knew it had been turned into a film decades since with Roger Moore in it,  despite having managed to forget the title and the author, I was able to track it down.  I was quite proud of that.

It is odd how the unconscious works. I realised that the structure of this novel is the one I must use, in writing my own: ‘What begins as a comic escapade gives way to chilling horror’. I wonder if my unconscious knew that, when it prompted me to think of it?

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I am also, of course, and despite this deluge of research I must do, going to re-read this novel. I have often wondered if, when we re-read a story that touched us when we were young, it retains some of its magic for us, because it revives for us the feelings that we had when we were part of our family of origin, with all the world before us, and our feelings still new and untried. I suspect that is often so. Yet, when I re-read this, I think I will find that murder of the baby even more awful now.

 

Review of ‘The Manchester Man’ an 1873 novel by Mrs G Linnaeus Banks

I heard of the 1873 novel, ‘The Manchester Man’  through its being  mentioned in the footnotes of Joyce Marlow’s book ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ as having an excellent account of the horrors of that day depicted within it.

‘Mrs G Linnaeus Banks’  novel (female Victorian writers were known by all of their husband’s names)  had an account from various eye witnesses from that day, and her paternal grandfather had written a satire on the outrages of the Manchester Yeoman Cavalry.

As I read, I became drawn into the story, which is intirguing, if highly melodramatic.  I particularly liked the fact that as in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, there is a story of a deubauched wild young man from a landed family who falls for an innocent young girl, who is determined to save him – and unlike in the hearts and flowers HEA’s envisaged by so many Regency Romances – fails.

This is not to say that the author doesn’t, unfortunately, go in for bursts of purple prose and Victorian sentimentality fairly often.

On this, as an aside: I wonder why were many Victorian writers so sentimental, Dickens being one of the most crass examples? Is it a question of taste changing, so what was acceptable to the reading public then is cloying and embarrassing to us? I suppose there are stylistic excesses which modern authors adopt – all of us – which will cause later generations to raise their eyebrows. We will appear naive to them – those of us who are still read – and we have a blind spot – we cannot predict in what way.

I’m willing to predict, that those individualistic Hearts and Flowers Happy Ever Afters in escapism for the main pair might well be part of it.

Anyway, to return to this story. Parts of it are based on fact; not only the depiction of the Manchester of that era – the buildings, customs, speech and the day to day life of the people – and parts invented.

Intriguingly, the most dramatic  episodes, not only the horrors of the massacre – which is widely known  –  but a baby rescued from a flood, swept along in a cradle and the details of the disastrous love match of the main female character and the villain of the piece are, according to the author’s appendices, matters of historical fact.

The story begins when the tanner Simon Clegg and his daughter Bess rescue and subsequently adopt the baby whose cradle has been carried away in the terrible flood of 1799.  Unable to trace his parents, they adopt him.

Named Jabez, he grows up to be a the ‘Manchester Man’ of the title and a blessing to his adopted family. He rises by dint of his character and application to be first an apprentice, then a master, and then a partner in his own business.

The hero is a bit too exemplary at times, but I still liked him, even when he felt obliged to turn informer on his workmates, who were cheating their master, who is also his benefactor.

Personally, I deplore giving names in such a situation, but Jabez’s orthodox religious convictions oblige him to.

However, this is the only occasion when he does speak against his colleagues, however roughly they treat him.  Earlier, he remains silent when he is persecuted by a group of bullies led by his later rival in love, Laurence Aspinall and he endures much unfair treatment from his fellow apprentices with good nature.

It is interesting that the author’s depiction of schoolboys and the fights between them is wholly realistic, and she points out that this robust attitude towards violence between young males was typical of the Regency era, as is the heavy drinking of some of the men in the story.

Meanwhile the main female character Augusta decides that the bold, rakish behaviour of  Laurence Aspinall resembles the heroes she has read of in the circulating library- also rakes in need of reform.

Intriguingly, Laurence Aspinall does resemble Arthur Huntingdon in Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, even down to his cheerful wildness, his prized chestnut curls, bright blue eyes and addiction to the bottle, besides being a Regency contemporary.

However, the author’s appendices state that these characters and the events of their relationship leading up to their marriage are based on real characters from an earlier date. This is even true of some of the quotes from Augusta, ‘I’ll please my eye even if I plague my heart’ and their two foiled elopements between Aspinall and Augusta.

Parts of Aspinall’s abuse are, in fact, so extreme that I guessed that it had to be based on fact – no author would try to convince readers of such excesses in fiction. For instance, he rides his horse up the stairs to the bedroom where his wife lies with their new baby (not so difficult a feat as it might seem, given the wide staircases and shallow stairs of Georgian mansions).

As I say, the author often falls into purple prose: ‘Poor Mr Ashton’s care was his stricken child, whose white shoulders, bathed in blood, were washed by a father’s tears’. Still, much of the writing is strong, ie, on the victims fleeing from St Peter’s Fields: ‘From their windows they had seen men, women and children flying along, hatless, bonnettless, shoeless, their clothes rent, their faces livid and ghastly, shrieking in pain and terror as they ran by or dropped in the path of pursing troopers…’

I would recommend this book to anyone who are interested in reading historical fiction set in the UK during the Regency and the late Georgian era.  The story provides not only drama and excitement, but a realistic account of the everyday lives of people from varied backgrounds in the Lancashire at the beginning of the industrial revolution.