Monday, August 16, 2010

August 16, 1819 a date to remember

THIS unusual demonstration took place in Manchester, as part of efforts to make sure that events which took place there 191 years ago today are properly commemorated. I have taken it from a website dedicated to that purpose.

On August 16, 1819 people came from Manchester neighbourhoods and from surrounding towns, gathering on St.Peter's Fields, to hear speakers calling for political reform, to make Parliament less corrupt, and more representative of the people. They hoped this way that they could get something done about their poverty. The landlords' parliament had passed the Corn Laws, pricing bread itself out of reach of poor workers.

The weavers and labourers who produced this country's wealth had no vote.

The main speaker was to be Henry 'Orator' Hunt. The meeting had scarcely begun when the Yeomanry, led by Captain Hugh Birley and Major Thomas Trafford, were ordered in to arrest speakers and disperse the crowd. These mounted volunteers were drawn from the propertied classes, fearing and hating the poor. With cutlasses and clubs they set about people, men, women or children alike. The hussars were sent in to assist them.

Eighteen people were killed, and hundreds injured, fleeing the bloody scene. As news spread of what happened the word 'Peterloo', was given to it, mocking the 'heroes' who had attacked unarmed civilians, by comparing them with the soldiers who gained victory at Waterloo, four years before the Manchester massacre.

Sympathies and opinion shifted to people seeking reform. The struggle went on. Some of their demands were realised in the 1832 Reform Act. A second Act in 1867 extended the vote to working men. But it was a century after Peterloo before Britain got universal suffrage. Poverty has not been ended. In fact with this government it is going to get drastically worse.

As a youngster in Manchester, I was told about the massacre by my parents, one day as we were in town, and paused in St.Peter's Square. Today I heard that singer Alun Parry was taking part in an anniversary event at the Britons' Protection pub. Must have been a tough choice for many when Man. U. were playing at home. Discussion of the commemorations brought this from a friend Kevin Parslow, a member like me of Unite: "My great-great-great-great grandfather, James Moorhouse of Stockport, was one of those arrested. He stood trial with Henry Hunt and others at York assizes and was acquitted".

Politicians and assorted charlatans commend us to be proud of our "heritage". They have even made a business out of it, while laying waste much else. So, it is good that we are remembering our real heritage, and making sure it passes on to future generations. It is the memory of men and women who were not afraid to take a stand for their rights, against the rich and powerful, and though cruelly attacked, did not give up. What rights and freedoms we have today we owe to past generations. We will need their strength and courage again as the ruling class tries to drive us back.

Teach the children well.

Contemporary artist George Cruikshank's suggestion for a monument:

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