The Peterloo Massacre was a tragic event that not only impacted the people of Manchester, but the social and political fabric of the country as we know it today.

Peterloo Glass

On 16 August 1819, an estimated 60,000 peaceful protesters gathered in what was St Peter’s Field (now the area around St Peter’s Square) to campaign for parliamentary reform and to listen to speakers, including the orator Henry Hunt. Families and children were present, and people had travelled from miles around to be part of this meeting of solidarity and support for greater representation. After all, most of the northern population had no voting opportunity - only around 2% of the population had the right to vote - and Manchester did not have its own Member of Parliament (MP). 

Yet events took a tragic turn, as the authorities panicked and yeomanry plunged into the crowd– killing at least 15 people and leaving more than 600 injured. Tramplings, beatings and sabre wounds were examples of the injuries inflicted on men, women and children of all ages.

The tragedy became known as ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ and a watershed moment in the history of British democracy. Now a profound and powerful exhibition Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest’ has opened at The People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester, not only telling of these events of 200 years ago but also providing a unique Protest Lab: a platform to curate and showcase the spirit of activism which continues in Manchester.

From demonstrations against Austerity to The Loiterers Resistance Movement, this city is indeed a place which has pioneered reform and continues to assert positive change– often in the face of hardship. The Protest Lab therefore seems well suited to the PHM, which is after all the national museum of democracy, and will remain an active space: where individuals or groups can develop their ideas for collective action.

Peterloo Exhibition

The exhibition itself involves fascinating original artefacts which shed light both on the story of the massacre, as well its consequences on the socio-political state of the country. From the formation of The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) to calls for greater representation and respect for working people, the resilience of the want for reform at Peterloo had an enduring influence.

From George’s Cruikshank’s cartoon at the time Universal Suffrage or the Scum Uppermost (July 1819) - highlighting the level of distrust between the political classes – to a never-publically displayed-before portrait of Hugh Hornby Birley, the captain of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry believed to have given the order to attack the crowds – a highly varied range of artefacts are on display. Cruikshank’s satirical cartoons (themselves the focus of a previous PHM exhibition: Savage Ink: The Cartoon & the Caricature) often captured the tense and turbulent goings-on of 19th century Manchester, the ‘shock city’ which seethed with divisions and darkness.

Yet in the face of social plight throughout the centuries, the reform movements of Manchester and keen activists around the city have continued to offer hope. Hence, two commemorative pieces are also included amongst the artefacts, including The Skelmanthorpe Flag (below), which was a symbol partly designed in commemoration and honour of the massacre victims. The Peterloo commemorative medal is another.

Peterloo Flag

Dr Shirin Hirsch (Manchester Metropolitan University and also of The Manchester Centre For Public History and Heritage) has been involved in research at the People’s History Museum, especially considering the context of 1800s democracy movements in Manchester; in turn informing the exhibition. She had this to say:

“Here at People's History Museum (PHM) we have just launched our headline exhibition Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest.  It tells the story of the Peterloo Massacre and the changing face of protest.  The exhibition highlights the relevance of Peterloo today, examining issues within our democracy that people are campaigning for 200 years on.  A creative space within the exhibition is a Protest Lab; an experimental gallery for individuals, communities and organisations to use to share and develop their views and ideas for collective action.

“My role is focused on building partnerships between MMU and PHM.  I have worked with some great students on commemorations for Peterloo. These include a group of MMU Art students, who have created their own artistic responses, and also a History placement student who has done some really important research looking at protests through history with the museum’s incredible photographic collection. Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest is open every day and free to visit until 23 February 2020, so drop by and get involved!'”

Peterloo Image

There is another ongoing project also informed by Manchester Metropolitan University research: Peterloo 2019 – aiming to connect the stories of those present at the massacre with people today, by searching for Peterloo Descendants. This is a landmark Heritage Lottery Fund supported project, led by Manchester Histories and informed by key cultural organisations, communities and individuals across the county, including Dr Michala Hulme, genealogist and Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University (also of The Manchester Centre For Public History and Heritage). She reflects:

“We want to trace the story of Peterloo through the generations, to understand the impact of its legacy in the lives of people. We know that in a number of towns Veterans of Peterloo met in the years after the massacre, but records from the time itself are limited in their nature and in what they reveal.  So we are also fascinated to hear from anyone who believes they have a family link to Peterloo.”

More developments are due in the Summer of 2019, including an open day allowing the public to find out more about genealogy, family history and perhaps even tracing their own links to Peterloo. For further involvement in the project, interested readers can email Janine Hague (Project Manager for Peterloo 2019) at

In the meantime, ‘Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest’ is not only a vital exhibition to visit, but a wholly valuable platform for a current generation of keen-thinkers and activists.

By Emily Oldfield