Protest Music, radical readings, soapbox speeches, art battles, a Peterloo Picnic and plenty more will unfold across Greater Manchester over the next three months, marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. Under the title ‘Peterloo 2019’, a packed events programme –containing over 180 separate features and running until mid-August– was launched last week at Manchester Central Convention Centre; a building overlooking the former location of what was St Peter’s Field, where the events of The Peterloo Massacre took place.

Peterloo 2019 Launch

 Organised by Manchester Histories and supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, cultural partners and event hosts, Peterloo 2019 seeks to connect the public with more information and insight into what was a history-shifting event. The Peterloo Massacre was the name given to describe the tragic events that unfolded in Manchester on the 16 August 1819: when a crowd of over 60,000 men, women and children gathering in St Peter’s Field to peacefully demand parliamentary reform, were brutally crushed by the authorities. 18 people were killed and around 700 were injured when troops were sent in to break up the crowd.

The Peterloo Massacre was a watershed moment in British history, and yet public awareness of it is still relatively low. In turn, Peterloo 2019 and Manchester Histories seek to open up hidden histories and heritage, including the context of the massacre and the real lives of people involved. The varied events programme will allow people to remember and reflect, as well as the opportunity to learn more about communities at the time – and their courage to stand up for their rights. Events will continue towards the 200th anniversary day of the massacre itself – the 16 August 2019 – which is a Friday, and will be followed by further features over the weekend. 32 Peterloo Ambassadors (some pictured above, at the launch event), who have undergone extensive training including learning more from Peterloo Historian Dr Robert Poole, will also play a key role in the commemorations.

 Inspired by the themes of protest, democracy and freedom of speech, the programme of exhibitions, screenings, performances, takeovers, dramatisations and much more invites the public to interact with the past in a whole new way. Over 400 people gathered for the programme launch, which included a moving performance from Commoners Choir and a premiere of the trailer for what will be the Peterloo Visitor Film, revealed as featuring actor Neil Bell (pictured below) – the star of Mike Leigh’s hard-hitting big-screen drama Peterloo. Neil presented the short film (which now can be seen online here) –commissioned jointly by Marketing Manchester and Manchester Histories  – whilst also urging people to learn more about the past for themselves. He reflected:

“Playing Samuel Bamford in Mike Leigh’s Peterloo gave me a real appetite to find out more about what happened in Manchester in 1819.

“That tragedy was also a defining moment for the city and it’s fitting that so many events are taking place this year to mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.

“It was a real privilege to retrace the steps of those protesters and learn more about the historical context of modern Manchester. I hope this film will encourage others to do the same.”

Neil Bell

In turn, The Peterloo 2019 programme provides plenty of opportunity for people to find out more about the context of the protest and the people involved. Men, women and children had after all gathered to call for the right to vote (at a time when only about 2% of the population had the right to do so), for the people of Manchester to be represented in parliament, and to repeal the restrictive Corn Laws that had led to higher food prices and many hungry working-classes.

The first of Peterloo 2019 events was Billy Bragg In Conversation at Manchester Central Library on Friday 7 June - with the iconic musician and campaigner interviewed by writer and broadcaster Dave Haslam, in front of a live audience. The focus was a topic at the heart of Peterloo 2019: freedom of speech. According to Billy Bragg:

“Peterloo was a watershed moment for ordinary people, it changed the fabric of Britain and the need for representation for all. I'm delighted to be part of the opening weekend of the Peterloo 2019 programme. To start the conversation around democracy today, who has the right to speak and what it means to be free.”

On the same day, a new exhibition also opened at the Library titled The Hidden Tableaux’s Peterloo Massacre 1819 –a visually striking series of photographic artworks by artist Red Saunders, representing some of the scenes that unfolded at the Peterloo Massacre. Profoundly powerful, these images will allow the public a visual perspective on Peterloo like never before.

The wide-ranging programme after all invites people to consider Peterloo through a variety of mediums, often taking forms that evoke the energy and drive of the protestors. For example, music and song would have likely rallied the 60,000-strong crowd in peaceful solidarity as they gathered at St Peter’s Field – and it is this which will be at the heart of an event titled Protest Music at the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) on Saturday 6 July. Taking place at 3pm and 8pm, there will be performances of original, evocative protest music for the modern day, newly-created by locally-based artists including MC Fox (Levelz, Swing Ting), che3kz, Streetwise Opera, Mandy Wigby a.k.a. Architects Of Rosslyn and the Ignition Orchestra.

Commoners Choir

There are also events as part of the upcoming Manchester International Festival which commemorate Peterloo – including Rise Like Lions on Saturday 6 July, which will be a free powerful performance putting the rallying cries of protest at the fore in Festival Square. Sunday 6 July then sees the world premiere of The Anvil, an elegy for Peterloo created by Emily Howard, Michael Symmons Roberts (Professor of Poetry at The Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University) and the BBC Philharmonic.

The Peterloo 2019 commemorations also extend far beyond the city centre and into the ten boroughs – as people would have travelled from across the county to come and participate in the protest. According to Dr Shirin Hirsch (Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and member of the Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage), who is also a Researcher at the People’s History Museum, where a Peterloo exhibition and Protest Lab is free to visit:

“The industrial towns surrounding Manchester put huge efforts into the preparations in the weeks beforehand and contingents from each area had different creative responses.

“Oldham’s centrepiece was 200 women in white dresses and a banner of pure white silk, emblazoned with inscriptions including ‘Universal Suffrage’, ‘Annual Parliaments’ and ‘Election by Ballot’. They marched to Manchester through the moors, joining the Saddleworth group.

“The protestors were peaceful and unarmed. The weaver and reform leader Samuel Bamford wrote later how the drilling of the Middleton contingent in the build up to the demonstration meant that, on the day, every hundred men and women had a leader whose order they were to obey and each leader had a sprig of laurel in their hat as a ‘token of amity and peace’.”

It is in the borough of Rochdale where one of the most significant Peterloo artefacts is located – the only surviving banner from the protest, which is on display as part of Protest & Peterloo at Touchstones Museum and Art Gallery (until 2 November). Made of blue silk and adorned with the words ‘Unity and Strength 1819’ and ‘Liberty and Fraternity’, it was originally marched from Middleton by a group led by Samuel Bamford.

A passionate dialect poet and radical reformer as well as a weaver, the story of Middleton-born Samuel Bamford is certainly intriguing. Not just capturing director Mike Leigh’s attention for the big-screen biopic last year, his life has also been explored through a creative project involving young people living in Middleton coming together with REELmcr to create a film Our Sam, The Middleton Man. This will allow people to find out more about Sam’s origins in the area and shown at a free screening at Manchester Central Library on Thursday 27 June (5pm). Another highlight from the boroughs includes Oldham’s Parliament Square being transformed into a Speaker’s Corner on Saturday 22 June (from 12pm).

Peterloo 2019 Launch

Peterloo 2019 also highlights a range of voices fighting for change, often against additionally challenging circumstances. A number of women were involved tirelessly in the campaigns for reform around Peterloo for example, despite being largely disregarded by the political classes. Many took part in the protest itself, with historians noting that women appeared disproportionately targeted with violence as the massacre unfolded; a point highly important to recognise. There also was a strong Manchester Female Reform Society and its President, Mary Fildes, was a key figure on the day of Peterloo – standing on the stage above the crowd. It was from this stage that orator Henry Hunt would also read. Despite being seriously injured in the massacre, Mary Fildes went on to additionally play a role in the Chartist Movement, highlighting her continuing determination towards reform.

What appears a running theme of Peterloo 2019 is representing the previously under-represented; revealing secret histories and hidden heritage. This carries on in the form of ‘1819-1981; a fascinating free pop-up coming to Manchester Central Library on Saturday 15 June, Thursday 18 July and Tuesday 13 August. The unique format will allow both the side of the protestors and the side of authorities to be considered; looking at the long dead Peterloo protestors and Hulme Hussars of 1819 alongside the community members and police affected by the 1981 Moss Side riots. Will considering the differing sides and differing times allow for new learning?

The variety of events happening at Manchester Central Library also reflects its role as the central hub of Peterloo 2019 – overlooking the former site of St Peter’s Fields. It is here that Radical Read will take place (Wednesday 3 July from 6pm, free entry), involving young people from across the boroughs presenting a thought-provoking evening of poetry, music, theatre performances, stories and more.  Another family-friendly feature will take the form of A Peterloo Picnic at HOME from 2pm on Friday 16 August.

The 16 August itself after all marks the day of the 200th anniversary itself- to be remembered across Manchester and the world. As part of this, there is set to be a huge outdoor interactive in the city titled ‘From the Crowd’, with full details to be revealed in July. In the evening Art Battle Mcr will present a Peterloo special at Manchester Art Gallery; artists going head-to-head to create vibrant new work in real-time. Friday the 16th will lead into a weekend-long range of events including David Olusoga in Conversation at Manchester Art Gallery on Saturday 17 August, with the broadcaster and historian discussing his recent book Black and British: A Forgotten History.

Karen Shannon

Peterloo 2019 offers something for everyone – reflecting the range and variety of people who came together to fight for their rights on that fateful day in August 1819. According to Karen Shannon (pictured above), Chief Executive of Manchester Histories:

 “The city of Manchester that we know today carries the legacy of the Peterloo Massacre in many different ways; as a city of progress, as a change creator and as a city that will listen and speak out. This connection between the past and present flows throughout this exciting and powerful line up of events.  The Peterloo 2019 summer events invite those that know nothing about this chapter of history to discover its powerful legacy and welcome those that live in, work in or are visiting Manchester to explore its contemporary relevance.”

A range of partner events and exhibitions are also ongoing including ‘Peterloo’ at The John Rylands Library, ‘Get Together and Get Things Done’ at Manchester Art Gallery and an exhibition considering news, fake news and paranoia at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.

Peterloo 2019 puts people at the centre – allowing people to consider for themselves: what is the relevance of Peterloo today? Why were the ideals underpinning it so powerful? And even, how does it connect to us personally? After all, Peterloo Descendants is a project launching across the UK and beyond to find people who may be related to those involved in Peterloo. Are you a Peterloo Descendant? Working in partnership with the Historian and Genealogist Michala Hulme (Manchester Metropolitan University and the Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage) and Manchester & Lancashire Family History Society, the project seeks to find those modern day relatives. This will involve a genealogy open day ‘Trace Your Peterloo People’, which will take place at Manchester Central Library during the Summer, with a date to be announced closer to the time.

For more information, the full programme of events and booking details (for all the events where booking is required) visit, a new dedicated website for the 200th anniversary which also features interactive story telling around the events of the Peterloo Massacre itself.

By Emily Oldfield