“Ye are many—they are few”: Exploring the Peterloo massacre through our library resources

Next year on this day, 16th August, it will be the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. The ironic name given to events at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester on 16th August 1819 when the cavalry charged into a peaceful crowd of 50,000-80,000 people who were attending a mass demonstration for political reform. Between 10-20 people were killed and 100s were injured. In this week’s blog post I have pulled together just a small selection of Library resources, digital and physical, that will help you explore Peterloo, the events leading up to it and the aftermath.

The Massacre of Peterloo. George Cruikshank [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The 19th century was a period of huge economic, social, political and idealogical changes. Post the Napoleonic Wars, which ended just four years before Peterloo (“Peterloo” a play on Waterloo), demands for political reform were growing. Industrial cities such as Manchester had no representation in Parliament,only relatively small numbers of wealthy male citizens were eligible to vote and working and economic conditions were incredibly poor. Campaigns for parliamentary reform became more strident and found growing levels of support, political radicalism in the UK was on the rise.

On 16th August 1819 between 50,000 and 80,000 men, women and children gathered in St Peter’s Fields to hear the eminent orator Henry Hunt speak on the needs for political reform. The people attending were not just from Manchester but from many towns and villages in the North West. While the meeting was peaceful Manchester magistrates panicked and ordered that the crowd be dispersed and Hunt, along with other leaders, be arrested. What followed was a level of confusion, violence and carnage at a mass scale.

What did the papers say?

The Library subscribes to a large number of digitised newspaper archives that will allow you to see what events were being reported on at the time and how they were being reported. Read full text articles, compare how different newspapers were covering the same issues and stories and track coverage of the growing radical and political movements leading up to the meeting at St Peter’s Fields, reports on the events of the day itself and the subsequent trial and onwards to the Chartism movement, Reform Acts, rise of trade unions, the women’s suffrage movement, the Representation of the People Act 1918 and 1928, etc.

Screenshot of Accounts From Manchester. The Times (London, England), Friday, Aug 20, 1819; pg. 2; Issue 10739. Available from The Times Digital Archive, 1785-2012.

You can search individual titles, such as The Times, The Scotsman, The Guardian and The Observer  (the Sunday newspaper, not the Manchester Observer – more on that later) or cross-search a range of titles, such as British Library Newspapers or Irish Newspaper Archive (both cover local and national titles) to examine how the Peterloo massacre and subsequent trial was reported on. And you can use these and other newspaper archives such as The Daily Mail, The Illustrated London News or UK Press Online (which covers tabloid and popular titles such as Daily Mirror and Daily Express) to find out more about the radical and political movements of the 19th and 20th century.

Periodicals and magazines from this time can also shed new perspectives on how these events were viewed and reported on, why not try British Periodicals (which includes radical journals The Black Dwarf and The Examiner) or 19th Century UK Periodicals?

Screenshot of Provincial Intelligence. Hunt, Leigh (ed.); Fonblanque, Albany William (ed.); Forster, John (ed.). Examiner; London Iss. 620, (Nov 14, 1819): 725-726. Available from British Periodicals.

All digitised newspaper and periodicals/magazines archives available via the Library can be accessed from the Newspapers & Magazines database list .

Want to look at more recent coverage of the Peterloo massacre? The Library also subscribes to databases, such as Factiva and Nexis UK, that allow you to search and access the full text of a large number of UK and international newspapers from around the 1980s up to date. You can access these, the databases mentioned above and many other newspaper archives and magazine archives from Newspaper & Magazines Databases.

What do the archives tell us?

Primary sources reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer and they enable you to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period. Primary sources can include diaries, correspondence, historical and legal documents, eyewitness accounts, newspaper and magazine articles, statistical data, speeches, audio and video recordings, art objects, etc.

The Library has access to a large range of primary source databases that allow you to search for and view digitised primary source material. Here are just a few you may want to use to find more about the Peterloo massacre and surrounding events.

Nineteenth Century Collections Online: British Politics and Society

British Politics and Society includes tens of thousands of primary sources related to the political climate in Great Britain during the “long” nineteenth century, covering approximately 1749 to 1984. From Home Office records and papers of British statesmen to working-class autobiographies and ordnance surveys it presents materials that enable in-depth examination and analysis of the growing calls for political reform that were met with state resistance and marked a crisis of legitimacy for both the government and the reform movements themselves.

Screenshot from 1819, 1-15 October. MS Home Office Papers and Records Box 196. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). Available from British Politics and Society.

You may also want to take a look at the House of Commons and House of Lords Parliamentary Papers (sometimes referred to as UK Parliamentary Papers) which contains bibliographic records and searchable full text for papers printed between 1688-2014 and it also includes Hansard 1803-2005 or British History Online a digital library of key printed primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland, with primary focus on the period between 1300 and 1800.

Or why not try Archives Unbound, which presents topically-focused digital collections of historical documents? There are currently 265 collections in Archives Unbound covering a broad range of topics from the Middle Ages forward-from Witchcraft to World War II to 20th century political history. What’s interesting in Archives Unbound is seeing how Peterloo becomes a reference point and rallying cry for other movements as the years progress e.g. the women’s suffrage movement, communism, socialism, civil rights movement, etc.

Screenshot from J188 Witch Hunts – McCarthysim. n.d. MS Fight for Racial Justice and the Civil Rights Congress: Papers of the Civil Rights Congress. New York Public Library. Available from Archives Unbound.

You can access these and a large range of other primary source resources from Primary source databases.

What’s in the Library’s own archives?

The University of Edinburgh holds world class collections, including rare books, archives and manuscripts, art, historical musical instruments and museum objects. The Centre for Research Collections (CRC) on the 6th floor of the Main Library is your gateway into these unique collections.

I thought I’d have a quick surface level delve to see what we might hold related to the Peterloo massacre (I just used DiscoverEd but there are other catalogues you can use to search the collections and do a more advanced search).

All of the following 4 items give more of the establishment’s views (or at least support the establishments views) on the events at St Peter’s Fields. There seems to be a real feeling that those gathered for the meeting at St Peter’s Fields were there to cause trouble and violence and had to be stopped. A far different picture than the reports coming through the newspapers and eye witness accounts (also Three accounts of Peterloo by eye-witnesses).

Photo from ‘The mask of anarchy : written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester’ (Special Collections S*.3.21(5))

The picture on the left is from a book published in 1887, over 50 years after the Peterloo massacre. However, it contains a facsimile of the holograph manuscript of Percy Shelley’s The mask of anarchy (sometimes called The masque of anarchy. This book seems to indicate that “mask” is what Shelley used in original manuscript). Shelley wrote the poem in 1819 after he heard the news of the events at St Peter’s Field as he was horrified at what had happened. While written just a month or two after Peterloo, the poem wasn’t published until the 1830s, after Shelley’s death.

The mask of anarchy: written on the occasion of the massacre at Manchester/Percy Bysshe Shelley and H. Buxton Forman.

Shelley’s poem or elements from it (“Ye are many—they are few”) have been used by a number of political movements and in political slogans over the years.

What research has been done on the Peterloo massacre already?

You can use bibliographic (abstracting and indexing) databases to search for journal articles, book chapters, book reviews, conference reports, theses, etc. This enables you to find scholarly research on all events surrounding the Peterloo massacre.

Bibliography of British and Irish History would be particularly useful for this area of research. The Bibliography of British and Irish History provides bibliographic data on historical writing dealing with the British Isles, and with the British Empire and Commonwealth, during all periods for which written documentation is available – from 55BC to the present.

Screenshot from Bibliography of British and Irish History.

There are other bibliographic databases that would also be useful for this area of research e.g. Historical Abstracts, Arts & Humanities Citation Index, JSTOR, etc. Take a look at the databases listed under History for more information. Why not also search DiscoverEd to see what books, articles and other material you can find in the Library related to the Peterloo massacre.

What to watch?

You can use some of the Library’s moving image and video streaming databases to search for and view films, documentaries, interviews, plays, TV programmes, etc., on the Peterloo massacre.

Box of Broadcasts (BoB) allows you to view or listen to previously recorded TV and radio programmes from over 60 stations, you can also record programmes yourself, create clips and create playlists. Why not start with Exploring the Past: Protest where 3 teenagers investigate significant examples of protest by ordinary people near where they live that have helped shape the recent history of Britain. The first film in the programme is about the Peterloo Massacre. Or why not take a look at Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency, Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power, The Real Mill with Tony Robinson or A History of Britain with Simon Schama, all of which have sections on Peterloo.

Screenshot from The Culture Show, Maxine Peake: Performance, Protest and Peterloo. Available from BoB.

For something a bit different the Last Night of the Proms from 2014 includes Malcolm Arnold’s overture Peterloo, inspired by the events at St Peter’s Fields. Or this episode of The Culture Show from 2013 from the Manchester International Festival interviewing Maxine Peake, who that year was performing Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy. The Poetry of History, from BBC Radio 4 Extra, looks at the history behind Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, travelling to Manchester to investigate the Peterloo Massacre.

And if radio is your thing why not listen to this 2005 episode of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on the Peterloo Massacre on BBC iPlayer Radio (BoB doesn’t go as far back as 2005).

As 2019 is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre I suspect there will be a number of TV and radio programmes on to commemorate it. Also watch out later this year for Mike Leigh’s Peterloo.

You can access BoB and other video streaming and moving image databases from Image and moving image databases.

Manchester digital collections: Peterloo Collection

The University of Manchester Library has a range of material in their archives related to the Peterloo Massacre, much of which has been digitised and can be viewed online for free through their Peterloo Collection. Their archives include the full run of The Manchester Observer (1818-1821). The Manchester Observer was one of the leading radical newspapers and the editor and some of the publishers of the paper were responsible for inviting Henry Hunt to speak about political reform in August 1819 in Manchester. Following Peterloo the government cracked down on the radical press and free press (as part of the Six Acts) and The Manchester Observer suffered as a consequence, finally ceasing publication in 1921.

Screenshot from Manchester Observer, August 21st, 1819. Available from Manchester Digital Collections: Peterloo Collection. © The University of Manchester Library

You’ll also find some interesting freely available digital primary sources about the Peterloo massacre via The National Archives in their Classroom resource: Protest and democracy 1818 to 1820, part 2.

Access to library databases are only available to current students and members of staff at the University of Edinburgh.

Caroline Stirling – Academic Support Librarian for History, Classics and Archaeology