A Usable Past

Commemoration of Peterloo remembers the dead, but also promotes future democratic change.

Disturbances at Manchester!, illustration by Atkins, 1819 © Mary Evans Picture Library

On Saturday 16 August 1919 a centenary procession formed at Albert Square in central Manchester. Marchers held banners aloft in the afternoon sun. ‘Labour is the Source of All Wealth’, said one; another ‘Peterloo, 1819: Labourloo, 1919’. Processing south, the crowd headed to the Free Trade Hall – a building erected on the ground where, on 16 August 1819, the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry Cavalry had violently broken up a popular reform demonstration.

In reverence to the reformers who died at Peterloo, banners were dipped and hats were removed. The French Revolutionary anthem, La Marseillaise, rang out, followed by the Red Flag: ‘The people’s flag is deepest red / It shrouded oft our Martyred dead.’

Continuing their march, the demonstrators arrived at Platt Fields, a park in the southern suburbs of Manchester. There, a succession of labour leaders and recently liberated conscientious objectors were cheered by 5,000 people. Ben Turner of the General Union of Textile Workers called on the crowd to ‘Remember Peterloo! Remember your forefathers and their fights for freedom’, while the trade unionist Tom Mann passed a resolution which expressed the ‘deep gratitude’ of those assembled for the ‘sacrifice of the Manchester martyrs’.

The following afternoon, the Peterloo commemorations reached their crescendo with a sold-out event inside the Free Trade Hall. There, 3,000 fellow travellers gathered to hear the keynote address of Phillip Snowden, the Chairman of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), while James Hindle Hudson, a conscientious objector, acted as chair.

Unlike the official bicentenary events planned for August 2019, which have received the approval of Manchester City Council and the financial backing of the Heritage Lottery Foundation, the Peterloo commemorations of 1919 were vociferously ‘independent’ and proudly unofficial. An alliance of socialist, pacifist and trade union groups contributed to the proceedings. However, as Snowden’s headline slot indicated, it was the National Council of the ILP which was the organising force behind the event.

Established in Bradford in 1893, the ILP was the socialist parent organisation that gave birth to the modern Labour Party. As Keith Laybourn has shown, 20,000 activists participated in the cultural life of the ILP during the 1910s and 1920s, some of the most active branches of the party being in Manchester and Salford. Locally, the ILP canvassed for Labour councillors, while nationally it sought to maintain its position as the ‘socialist conscience’ and guiding light of the burgeoning parliamentary Labour Party.

During the First World War, however, most of Labour’s 40 MPs broke ranks with the pacifist stance of the ILP. The incumbent Labour MP for Manchester North East, J.R. Clynes, for example, reluctantly took a government post in Lloyd George’s wartime coalition in December 1916. Though he was critical of the imperial rivalries which he believed had led to the conflict, Clynes thought it was his patriotic duty to support the war effort. By contrast, the leader of the ILP in Lancashire, James Hindle Hudson, campaigned against conscription. He was imprisoned for three years in Wormwood Scrubs as a consequence.

Between 1914 and 1918, the pacifistic stance of the ILP was at odds with the public mood and those parliamentary candidates nominated by the ILP fared dismally in the snap election of 1918.

Despite this setback, the social and economic dislocation which followed the Armistice provided new political opportunities for the Left in Britain. Trade union membership doubled during the war to 4.2 million while soldiers returning home from the trenches struggled to find housing and jobs. Many political radicals, animated by the Russian Revolution of 1917, were keen to capitalise on the disillusionment and increased industrial militancy of the British working class. Syndicalists like Tom Mann argued for general strikes and ‘direct action’ to achieve social change, while Sylvia Pankhurst of the Worker’s Socialist Federation forged links with Soviet Russia and used her public platform to promote revolutionary communism.

In this febrile atmosphere, the centenary of Peterloo gave the British Left a golden opportunity to highlight the evils of industrial capitalism. The Liberal historian John Lawrence Hammond, for example, wrote in the Manchester Guardian that Peterloo was a clear example of class warfare waged mercilessly by the ‘rich’ against the ‘poor’. Similarly, Councillor Gylde, a founder member of the ILP, argued that in 1819 the ‘workers’ of Lancashire had been slaughtered ‘by capitalism’.

However, the Peterloo centenary was more than just an opportunity to distribute anti-capitalist propaganda. As the editor of the Daily Herald put it, ILP members saw themselves as the ‘spiritual successors’ of those killed on St Peter’s Fields. This deep feeling of mutuality sprang from the ILP’s roots in Manchester but also from its political programme. Unlike other left-wing groups, the ILP spurned ‘direct action’ and instead aimed to achieve socialism through the mechanism of parliamentary democracy.

In this regard, the timing of the Peterloo anniversary was important. The Representation of the People Act (1918) was welcomed by the ILP and several party leaders emphasised that it was only ‘out of the sacrifice of the Manchester martyrs’ that electoral reform had been set in motion.

The commemorations for Peterloo were also tinged with pathos, however. As a former schoolmaster, James Hindle Hudson recognised that the long task ahead was to ‘educate’ and ‘awaken’ the working class to the ‘power of the vote’. Towards this aim, Hudson produced a commemorative history of Peterloo, which he wrote explicitly ‘for working people to teach their children’. The pamphlet was published cheaply through the National Labour Press and the preface emphasised that ‘capitalist conditions can only be swept away by the people as citizens’.

The first centenary of Peterloo, therefore, provided the ILP with a ‘usable past’. First, party leaders sought to celebrate the ‘Manchester martyrs’ and, by inference, to highlight the sacrifices of conscientious objectors during the First World War. Second, the story of Peterloo was mobilised as a means of critiquing the perceived violence of industrial capitalism. Third, and most importantly, the ILP coupled the history of Peterloo and the long working-class struggle for the vote to their ongoing campaign for democratic socialism.

Two centuries after the events that took place on St Peter’s Fields, democratic socialists in the Labour Party are still drawn towards Peterloo as a ‘usable past’ and the present leaders of the Labour Party, like the leaders of the ILP before them, regard themselves as the rightful custodians of the memory of that day.

Joseph Cozens is a teaching fellow at University College London.