How Accurate is the Movie Peterloo?
The movie Peterloo tells the story of a mass demonstration in Manchester in 1819, where British forces ultimately broke up the protest that was calling for increased democratic representation. The government forces killed many of the protesters, leading to the event to be called the Peterloo Massacre. The area where the massacre occurred was known as St. Peter's field, and since the famous battle of Waterloo had occurred just four years earlier, protestors criticizing the government gave the events the mocking name of Peterloo. How historically accurate is the movie Peterloo?
In 1815, the United Kingdom, after the Napoleonic wars, had vast wealth inequality with many areas very poor and receiving little to no representation in parliament. Economic stagnation began to take hold. Voting was still relatively restricted to the wealthy and those who held land, who held virtually all the power in the country. In fact, one had to prove they owned a portion of the land of a given value before they received the right to vote. The situation worsened as the country recovered from the war.
Furthermore, constituencies that could be represented in parliament were based on Medieval maps and drawings of districts, leading to some areas which were virtually uninhabited having more representation than places that had large populations. This was known as the rotten boroughs, areas that had representation without proportional population. The textile industries were hardest hit as the economy soured, with many workers losing their jobs after the wars. There were also tariffs passed, the so-called Corn Laws, which imposed tariffs on foreign grain, making it very expensive to buy food and the quality of British grain was much lower and increasingly expensive. Many people could not afford the higher food costs, leading to famine and with areas such as Lancashire and Machester being particularly hit hard.
Henry Hunt became a leading agitator of this period, calling for the repeal of the Corn Laws and greater representation and rights for the working class and full suffrage. Protests and gathering had taken hold in Manchester and other places throughout 1819, leading up to the critical events. The government, meanwhile, has seen the French Napoleonic wars beginning with the period of the French Revolution, was fearful that protestors could try to overthrow the government and political system, which felt in jeopardy (Figure 1). In fact, this was a common fear not only in Britain but other countries in Europe and even the United States.
The movie begins by giving background to the story. The Napoleonic wars had just ended. Rather than relief, for most English people this meant misery with oppressive conditions and no hope of improving their condition under the current laws. Former soldiers, textile workers, and others begin to organize protests and rallies against the government as the Corn Laws and other legislation that makes their lives worse are passed. Henry Hunt arrives in Manchester from London to speak to the protestors, where he was invited to join and lead the protests. He is depicted as a wealthy man who was nonetheless sympathetic to the plight of the working and poorer classes, wanting greater equality for the classes and greater representation. Despite this, he still has some arrogance to his character, being of a higher class than many of the people he speaks for and considering himself better positioned to represent them.
Lord Sidmouth, who controls a network of government spies, sees sedition and the threat of violence to the country if the protestors are allowed to continue to agitate for greater reforms. His spies make the situation sound worse to him and he becomes more paranoid with events. Events lead to August 16, 1819, when dragoons and yeoman soldiers stationed nearby are brought to the gathering taking place as Hunt begins talking to the crowd. As they move in to arrest Hunt, they then try to disperse the crowd but the situation soon lost control as panic sets in the crowd and soldiers move in. This eventually leads to pandemonium, with the soldiers then charging the crowd with their weapons and swords, with 18 people killed and many more injured. The government then begins a severe crackdown on reforms and suspends rights to gather, passing the Six Acts law that suppressed meetings seen as potentially radical.
However, while the protest movement was largely suppressed, the events inspired locals to found the newspaper the Manchester Guardian in 1821, which becomes the Guradian of today. Protests eventually become non-violent in focus, with writing being the key vehicle of protest. Writers such as John Taylor and others begin to call for greater government reforms using the Guardinan as their key mouthpiece, making the paper ultimately become a key voice for later reforms and later protestors and activists who began to use the events and founding of the newspaper to eventually begin to convince the British government to reform and create a more inclusive democracy.
Samuel Bamford: He is considered a radical reformer who called for the repeal of the Corn Laws and greater democratic participation. He had been put in jail for treason but released by the government. He is one of the lead organizers of the 1819 protests and after the events of Peterloo he was arrested again. However, the events heavily influence his thinking on protests and non-violent movements, advocating for less violent means to change the government. He later used his writing to protest against government action.
Henry Hunt: He is a leader of the revolutionaries, and the period's best-known orator (his nickname was even the "orator"), who is also known for his opposition to the Corn Laws. Although he comes from a privileged background, he also wanted universal suffrage. After his arrest at Peterloo, he used his writing to push his causes for more inclusive government, although he died a broken man tired by years of protests.
Joseph Peake: A fictional character, he is a veteran of Waterloo, where the movie begins by showing him having suffered PTSD after fighting for the government against Napolean. He returns to Manchester distraught by events of the war and having few or minimal options in England after the war. He becomes radicalized and joins the movement against the government by 1819.
Lord Sidmouth: He is the Home Secretary who is depicted as someone who ran something akin to the Gestapo, controlling a network of spies and others who were eager to stamp out any possible agitation for rebellion or reform. He even uses the event of a potato thrown at the Prince Regent as an excuse to say that there was an assassination attempt against the Prince, justifying greater oppression of rights.
Prince Regent (George IV): An overweight spoiled man who effectively became the monarch of Great Britain as his ailing father (George III) increasingly went mad in the 1810s. He is shown as a humorous but an uncaring figure. Ultimately, he was more interested in women and drinking then government, with most of the governing tasks given to Lord Liverpool.
Lord Liverpool: The Prime Minister who ruled during the end of the Napoleonic wars and who had to oversee the rise of discontent after the wars. He was not known for having a great imagination, particularly in dealing with ills in society after the war. While Lord Liverpool was known for banning the slave trade and emancipating Catholics, who were repressed in England, he showed ignorance of other problems. He presided over an increasingly austere government towards the working poor, that feared them more than anything, limiting their collective power to strike and gather.
Wider Impact of the Film
In many ways, the film seems to be about events that most people don't remember today. However, the filmmakers try to show the parallels to today, where left-wing opposition to greater social inequality and increased populism act as agitators to push the government to reform and account for increasing discontent. The long road to eventually greater freedoms is depicted as having been bathed in blood and many years of unsuccessful protests that only succeeded with perseverance and small victories such as the founding the Guardian.
Ultimately the movie is a critique of how wealth and powerful classes pass legislation and manipulate government to keep power concentrated with them, while also using the poorer classes to fight their wars and power industry. The film does generally show key events in a historically accurate manner, although historians still debate the true impact of Peterloo on British democracy and reforms in the later 19th century. Many other repressive laws and events continued to occur long after Peterloo and, in fact, probably the event represents a beginning of several decades of agitation that slowly faded as the 19th century continued with gradually increasing freedoms given to lower classes and greater benefits given through improved worker laws and rights such as the right to gather and protest.
- For more on England and the United Kingdom after the Napoleonic wars, see: Riding, J., 2018. Peterloo: the story of the Manchester massacre. Head of Zeus, London.
- For more on the founding Guardian and its connection to the Peterloo events, see: Read, D., 1973. Peterloo: the “massacre” and its background. Manchester U.P., Manchester.
- For more on Bamford, see: Bamford, S., Poole, R., 2000. The diaries of Samuel Bamford. Sutton, Stroud.
- For more on Hunt, see: Belchem, J., 2012. “Orator” Hunt: Henry Hunt and English working-class radicalism. Breviary Stuff Publications, London.
- For more on Lord Sidmouth and his role in Peterloo, see: Walmsley, R., 1969. Peterloo: the case reopened. Manchester U.P, Manchester, pg. 268
- For more on the Prince Regent, see: Hibbert, C., Hibbert, C., 2007. George IV: the rebel who would be king. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
- For more on Lord Liverpool, see: Hay, W.A., 2018. Lord Liverpool: a political life. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge.