Lucinda Elliot

Review: ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ by Joyce Marlow


I hope I am joined by many writers – from the UK particularly – in aiming to write something to commemorate the bicentenury of Manchester’s  Peterloo Massacre of 1819 coming up on 16 August, 2019 (if this post just happens to inspire any writers, there’s plenty of time; 18 months, in fact).

I began my researches by reading the 1969  book  by Joyce Marlow on the historical background leading up to my events, and here’s my review of it.

‘This is an excellent depiction of the events and ideas leading to the tragedy of Peterloo. It centres on one of its most poignant victims, twenty-two year old John Lees, only the bare facts of whose life and death have come down to history.

We do know that he was, by a terrible irony, a veteran of the Battle of Waterloo. He is quoted as saying that he never felt so much in danger at Waterloo, as – to paraphrase – ‘Then it was one to one, but this was pure murder’.
While, through good luck more than anything, only fifteen at most people were killed, many more were seriously injured. The books of the relief committees indicate perhaps as many as 500. Of these, many often horrifically injured by sabre and crushing wounds from being trampled on by horses. Many, in those days long before  free medical treatment in the UK,  did not seek ‘official’ medical help. Besides, they knew that the authorities were striving to pin the blame on the crowd.

John Lees himself, the son of a small cotton manufacturer in Oldham outside Manchester, for all his terrible injuries, did not see a doctor until the next day. He lingered, obviously developing the infection that finally killed him, for three weeks.

The coroner’s verdict over his death, and the attempts of local ‘justices’ to bring a verdict which vindicated the outrageous behaviour of the troops and the MYC (Manchester Yeomanry Cavalry)  on that fateful day, underpinned the efforts of the establishment to quash radical dissent and outraged popular feeling.

Locals agreed that John Lees had been sabered to death by troops during a peaceful protest. The magistrates who had sent in the troops so unadvisedly wished to prove that they had been dispersing a potentially dangerous mass uprising.peterloo-massacre-2

Sadly, the Radicals, too tame in their response to the outrage, did not take advantage of the mood of the times. The leaders were arrested, mostly on the day, and  imprisoned for calling a meeting which, in demanding universal suffrage, supposedly attempted to overthrow the constitution. The government forced through ‘The Six Acts’ which effectively muzzled dissent and outlawed public meetings. It was decades before these were repealed.

The events of Peterloo led the poet Shelley to write these stirring lines in his ‘Masque of Anarchy’ (not in fact, published until the early 1830’s, ten years after his own death): peterloo-massacre-four

‘Rise like lions after slumber;
Rise in unvanquishable number;
Cast your chains to earth as dew,
Which on your sleep hath fallen on you,
Ye are many; they are few.’

A few days ago, an MP advised the British public (over a contentious speech by another MP) to ‘Rise up and switch off your television sets’.  Always a good idea, that; but the bathos of the contrast struck me as grimly hilarious.

You can buy this book, among other places,  on

and here.






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