The Luddites and Peterloo

Peterloo and the politics of failure by Richard Holland

Shortly after the August Riots in Manchester last year, a sparsely attended commemoration was held at the site of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester to mark the 192nd anniversary of the ‘Peterloo Massacre’. Apart from the Peterloo Memorial Campaign, also present were a gaggle of local politicians and civic dignitaries, all lining up under the brand new memorial red plaque to remember the massacre and hold the obligatory minute’s silence.

The ‘Peterloo Massacre’ is the term given to an attack by Yeomanry cavalry on a pro-parliamentary reform demonstration which had converged on St Peter’s Fields, Manchester on 16th August 1819, leaving 18 dead and 653 injured. The response of the State to the massacre was to throw their support behind the action of the local authorities, and to crackdown on reform and introduce the Six Acts, which prevented meetings and suppressed publications, and other forms of dissent and organisation. The demonstration had no effect on the pace of reform.

For a large swathe of the Greater Manchester left, Peterloo is a veritable shibboleth, a point from which everything else flows and, prior to which, anything else might as well have not existed. At the commemoration outside the old Free Trade Hall last year were local Labour Party figures as well as the organisers of the Memorial Campaign. They’re joined by the SWP, ever the opportunists, whose Mark Krantz has recently published a booklet about Peterloo called ‘Rise Like Lions’ (a line from Shelley’s poem about Peterloo, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’). Even Anarchists aren’t completely immune to the pull of Peterloo, with the publishing arm of the Manchester Anarchist Federation being called ‘Peterloo Press’.

For the critical and sober reader, Krantz’s booklet highlights many of the reasons why it could almost be better to forget about Peterloo than remember it: that it was principally a one-off demonstration to demand constitutional change and universal suffrage, whose figurehead was a gentleman farmer called Henry Hunt (a ‘Workers’ Hero’ according to Krantz). Krantz places Hunt’s involvement in Peterloo at the centre of the booklet, but adopts an almost uncritical exposition of his views at the time: Hunt was someone who was not even a republican and was highly critical of any suggestion that workers’ organisations should seek to confront capital and the State or even attempt to meet and/or dislodge it using force – Hunt urged his followers to “come … armed with no other weapon but that of a self-approving conscience” and advised those drilling with pikes on Lancashire moorland to “cease playing soldiers”. The result on the 16th August 1819 was one-sided wholesale slaughter. Yet for Krantz “To many workers Henry Hunt … provided the best leadership available”.

Yet these are the very reasons why Peterloo is held as such an important event by many on the left: it’s not a coincidence that Krantz’s booklet has a section titled “the biggest demonstration ever seen in England” and goes on to blather on about how “a movement is growing against austerity, pay cuts, job losses and injustice”. 192 years later it is possible to see that exactly what was wrong then is still popular – and utterly flawed – now: the idea that workers must be lead by a sympathetic middle class with contrary objectives rather than themselves; that they must remain passive and be directed by a specialised leadership rather than organise themselves to confront and resist; that a series of one-off, very large demonstrations that march from A-to-B will somehow ‘build class confidence’ to do something, well, unspecified and vague; that there is some kind of salvation to be found in being outraged at the brutality of the ruling class and the licking of our wounds.

And this is convenient for the more vague Left too, as it allows them to graft onto all this the idea that Peterloo was part of a historical fight for Liberal Democracy in which the Labour Party could play a part in government every now and again: a fight which is now complete. This is the best you can expect, just thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to endure the slashing sabres of the local drunken middle class anymore is the subtext of these earthlings.

Yet in the years 1811-1812 there is another bicentenary far more deserving of attention and reflection than one which is still more than 7 years away. And worryingly, it is looking extremely unlikely that it will bear any kind of memorial whatsoever. For these years are the bicentenary of the Luddites in the Midlands and the North of England, arguably the closest we have ever come in this country to a revolution. A largely united working class exhibiting virtual total solemn solidarity, who took the fight to the ruling class and the State, and could only finally be suppressed by the virtual military occupation of the North and Midlands and by show trials, deportations and executions, even of old women and children.

Whilst Krantz does at least (briefly) acknowledge the Luddites, he uses a brief passage from Marx and the Stalinist historian Eric Hobsbawm to label them ‘unsuccessful’ and slurs them by using the incorrect, lazy and oft-repeated trope that they hated technology itself rather than the way capital used it to destroy their lives. Whilst Krantz’s recommended reading list includes E.P. Thompson’s ‘Making of the English Working Class’, he doesn’t refer to this classic work throughout the booklet once. Perhaps this is because it was Thompson who did more to rehabilitate the importance of the Luddites and their struggles than anyone else before or since. Thompson spent some time examining why the Luddites have been airbrushed out of history by the Left: because the historians themselves were Fabians whose history of the Labour Movement begins with the Great Reform Act and culminates in the creation of the TUC and Labour Party – with their pro-active use of force, the Luddites simply don’t fit into this story neatly

“hence ‘history’ has dealt fairly with the Tolpuddle Martyrs … but the hundreds of men and women executed or transported for oath-taking, Jacobin conspiracy, Luddism, the Pentridge and Grange Moor risings, food and enclosure and turnpike riots … have been forgotten by all but a few specialists, or, if they are remembered, they are thought to be simpletons or men tainted with criminal folly.”

Arguably, Rochdale displays a more balanced history. Sculptor Tim Rushton was recently commissioned to design public artwork to commemorate both the Luddites and Peterloo, among other aspects of the Town’s history. In the centre of Middleton are 2 plaques, one commemorating the two-day riot centred on Burton’s Mill that took place in April 1812, contrasting with another remembering the gathering point of the Middleton contingent of the march to Manchester on 16th August 1819. The link between the two is local Middleton writer Samuel Bamford, who witnessed and gave very vivid descriptions of the rioting in 1812 and who led the Middleton contingent to Manchester and was arrested at the Peterloo Massacre and spent a year in gaol.

There’s still time to suitably commemorate the Luddites in 1812, but it’s clear that memorials will not come from the Labour Party, Liberals of all sorts, the Trotskyist Left – perhaps not even most Anarchists: and maybe the commemorations will be all the better for it? It seems that 200 years later, in our apathy, we may simply not be worthy of the lessons that remembering the Luddites holds for us.

The Northern Anarchist Network is hoping to facilitate a memorial booklet about the Luddites in 2013. Contact us if you have any ideas you’d like to contribute.


  1. dobraszczyk · · Reply

    Great post. Good to see the Luddites remembered here at least.

  2. Alan Brooke · · Reply

    I agree with Richard’s interpretation of how Peterloo has been interpreted and used by the left to focus on workers as victims and martyrs rather than on the revolutionary heritage. However I do think it is an important event because it shows what the bourgeoisie is capable of when they feel threatened. The class hatred in Manchester at the time was palpable. The massacre marked the end of ‘mass platform’ radicalism and opened the field to the revolutionaries. Unfortunately the revolutionary movement, which culminated in the uprisings in the Huddersfield, Barnsley and Paisley areas in 1820, was not strong enough. Partly this was due to the focus on parliamentary reform advocated by people like Hunt and Cobbett. I would support a commemoration of Peterloo if its’ focus was on the role of the state, then and now, in repressing dissent, and not on how we owe our wonderful democracy to the sacrifice of martyrs, and the fact that the massive mobilisation which made the St Peters Fields demonstration possible, was due to the fact that working class radicals had deep roots in their communities, not due to bureaucratic formal organisation. Something the left, (thinking now particulalry of the SWP, as above), does still not really grasp.

  3. I have a slight problem with history as wishful thinking, and I detect a bit of it here. I have spent many years studying both primary and secondary material about August 16 1819 and I agree that the main lesson of Peterloo is that of the vicious repression of the British state, both local and national. The massacre was planned, as is evidenced by the presence of troops blocking the exits to the meeting place opposite to the direction the yeomanry and the regular cavalry charged in (see The Casualties of Peterloo by M. L. Bush). Having read lots of the correspondence of the likes of Hulton and Fletcher with the Home Office, and the jaw-droppingly callous description that Hulton pencilled of the day some year later, how could I not note such viciousness? Universal Suffrage was not a panacea, yet up until the late 19th Century there was no other obvious solution to the ills of the workers. Reform and Revolution did not seem to be alternatives to most radicals, the one would entail the other. I think that Hunt is somewhat traduced by this piece as well. He was certainly no proletarian radical, yet I’m not sure what alternative there was to the mass platform he facilitated (see John Belchem in EHR October 1978); there was no internet, no easy means of communication and, if you were poor, then the only method of transport was shanks’ pony. Hunt, and the other demagogues, provided a means of communication around the country. I’m not pretending this was ideal, but it was real. I’m a member of the SWP, but I’m not interesting in defending Mark Krantz’s pamphlet, for the excellent reason that I haven’t read it; but I do think a more nuanced and realistic approach to the likes of Hunt is needed.
    What is more scandalous in most accounts of that awful day, is the lack of attention to what happened afterwards, in the New Cross area of Manchester, to where many of the local participants, often dragging their wounded, retreated; the folk retreating to Middleton, Bury, Rochdale etc would all also have to go that way. The authorities followed, and were confronted, and repelled, by the organised working class, not just for that evening, but for the next day as well. Of course we should commemorate the Luddites, but the participants of the Peters’ Field meeting were not mere passive victims or dupes of demagogues. They fought back!
    Great meeting on June 30, and I’m looking forward to the next!

  4. “The Luddites and Peterloo Northern Radical History Network” actually
    enables myself think a tiny bit extra. I personally treasured
    every single section of it. Thanks -Verla

  5. Peter Thomas · · Reply

    Isn’t it wonderful to see two passing references to the events of 1820 as flowing from Peterloo !
    The repression of 1819 polarized the Radical Movement. The Radicals mostly gave up, but there was a rump which became militant, and formulated the plan to overthrow the state in March 1820. When that failed, their leaders wrote it off as “premature”; revised their plans; and tried again a fortnight later. Grange Moor and events in Scotland were the visible parts of this second phase, and they were part of a single plan. On the same day, there were “riots” in Sheffield – in fact, an attempt to seize the barracks, in order to arm the rebels. The Grange Moor men – in fact three contingents, from Huddersfield, Barnsley, and Dodworth, and all armed – intended to march to York, where they expected to be met by a sizeable contingent from Manchester, and to gather more support along the way.
    But the Radicals were beset by spies, and most of their plans and communications were copied to the Home Office within hours. The magistrates were very effective at coordinating local responses, and the troops were waiting at Grange Moor, just as they were in Scotland.
    The government fractured the public image of the Militant Radicals, in order to portray them as isolated and uncoordinated, whereas the truth is quite the opposite: a widespread and coordinated revolution would be a much more dangerous situation for the ruling class.
    One of the mysteries of 1820 is how the various participants were dealt with so unevenly: three beheaded; 31 transported beyond the seas; but many more released in England after serving only a few years imprisonment. One transportee died at Parramatta, still serving his life sentence for his role at Grange Moor, in 1858.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: