Around three years ago, a 135-year old photograph (pictured below) was sent to Dr Michala Hulme, showing 11 survivors of Manchester’s 1819 Peterloo Massacre (hence known as the ‘Peterloo Veterans’). Men and women make up the group, all of them aged in their 70s and 80s when the photograph was taken in 1884 the town of Failsworth, near Oldham, some 65 years after the massacre itself. Inspired by this fascinating piece of the past, Michala – who is a Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University and an acclaimed Genealogist – decided not only to find the living relatives of the veterans, but bring them together to recreate a modern-day version of the photograph.

Finding The Peterloo Eleven

This became Michala’s ambitious attempt at ‘Finding the Peterloo Eleven’ – the title of her project – starting out in August 2018 and setting the deadline of August 2019, the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, for completion. This would involve not only tracing the relatives, but contacting them and arranging a photograph. The result was her own remarkable image featuring an impressive nine living relatives of the eleven veterans, a piece of great historic significance that has now been shortlisted for the Research Project of the Year at the Times Higher Education Awards 2020 (in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences category).

The project also provides a fascinating way to learn more about the Peterloo Massacre itself and the lives it has impacted, across generations. On 16 August 1819, thousands of people – men, women and children – gathered in Manchester’s St Peter’s Field (close to where St Peter’s Square now is) to peacefully protest for parliamentary reform and improved social justice. Yet the authorities responded heavy-handedly, and there were tragic consequences as yeomanry panicked and charged into the crowd. Hundreds of people were injured as a result, and at least 18 people lost their lives, with the events becoming known as ‘The Peterloo Massacre’. All the Peterloo Veterans in the photograph would have been in the area on the day; all of them passionate about reform, yet made to witness a horrific series of events they never envisaged. That these eleven people gathered for a photograph long after the massacre, suggests that they still retained this dedication to the cause, even late into their lives.

‘Finding the Peterloo Eleven’ therefore marks another step in the Peterloo story and legacy, with the shortlisting further increasing awareness of this historic, yet often under-covered, event. The shortlisting also is testament not just to the remarkable recreation of the photograph (pictured below), but Michala’s months of dedicated research, requiring her to delve into census data, family trees and electoral records, as well as social media and online archives, to find the living descendants. Michala is after all no stranger to delving deep into the secretive and so-often obscured aspects of the past, having authored the likes of A Bloody British History Manchester (2016) and A Grim Almanac of Manchester (2014), alongside her extensive Genealogy work.

Finding The Peterloo Eleven

Yet finding the relatives proved no straightforward feat. There were plenty of twists and turns along the way, including untraceable records, surname changes, dead ends and Michala having to balance the project with a range of other commitments… including her PhD! Another challenge was the time frame, combined with even more questions - even if the descendants were found, would they be willing to come together for a photograph, and where?

Months of painstaking research initially led to no luck. Yet Michala was determined to find the relatives of these Peterloo Veterans, people who had proudly stood for social justice in the face of great hardship. Just eight days before the project deadline, Michala traced the first descendant… and more hard work was to pay off.

Writing letters, posting on social media and even knocking on doors, Michala was joined by her friend and former MMU Heritage MA student Zoe Willock, to attempt to still find as many of the relatives as possible, in just over a week. Six people was the minimum required for the photograph to work, and another key element was the location, with Michala determined to use a site near Wrigley Head in Failsworth, as that is where the original photograph was taken in September 1884. With just a week to go, a visit to Wrigley Head initially seemed to show that a photograph point might be trickier than initially thought – as a road now cut through the area! However, the Landlord of a nearby pub called The Church Inn agreed to be the place for the picture-taking… but what about the descendants themselves?

Finding The Peterloo Eleven

Hours of work, lengthy discussions with genealogists on Ancestry, radio broadcasts and plenty of painstaking research later, Michala had managed to connect with an impressive nine descendants of the Peterloo veterans; with all of them agreeing to come and be a part of the picture. Some lived only a short distance away from where the original photograph was taken, others travelled from as far as North Yorkshire and even Warwickshire; all were united for an afternoon of making history and capturing a unique photograph.

The project also highlights the level of skill as well as the exciting potential involved in the study and practice of Genealogy; the study of family history and lineage, using a variety of records and means – something Michala has long-practiced, in increasingly innovative ways.

Read more about Michala’s project on her blog here. Haunt Manchester also decided to speak to Michala about the ‘Finding the Peterloo Eleven’, as well as the shortlisting news:

Hello Michala. Congratulations on the shortlisting! Why were you drawn to finding the descendants of the Failsworth Veterans in particular - and what do you think can be learned from connecting history with the contemporary in this way? 

 “This project was important because it connected a group of strangers to their ancestors and also to a significant historical event that previously to this, they had not connected to. What also made this project special, is that the descendants could actually see what their ancestors looked like. We were also able to take the descendants back to the place where their ancestors lived and worked.

 “It was also important to share the stories of the Veterans with their descendants and also the wider public because they really were remarkable. Not only did they live through the horrors of Peterloo, some 60 odd years later, they were still protesting and campaigning for a fairer society.”

What was the biggest challenge? And the most rewarding thing? 

 “There were several challenges with this project. The first challenge was trying to find all the descendants and then it was convincing them to take part. Ten days before the scheduled shoot to recreate the photograph, I think I only had one confirmed descendant and the whole thing looked like it wasn’t going to happen. Then it was trying to find a suitable place to take the photograph. Unfortunately, the original weaver cottages were no longer standing, so I had to think of an alternative.

 “The most rewarding thing or things, was seeing everyone sat in the seats of their ancestor and watching the recreation of the photograph. The second thing was watching the descendants connect with their ancestors, which at times was quite emotional.”

 Did you learn anything new/surprising about Peterloo in this process?

“I think was surprised me the most is that these people were still campaigning for reform in their late 70s and 80s. Even after the horrors that they witnessed at Peterloo, they still felt the need to fight for a fair and equal society.”

Dr Michala Hulme is also a key member of the Manchester Centre for Public History and Heritage (MCPHH), part of the History Research Centre at Manchester Metropolitan University – and has been involved in a wide range of public history projects, specialising in the 19th century. This includes her new blog series ‘Our House’ – considering the pasts of buildings, which is also available in podcast format. Other podcasts she has worked on include ‘Behind the Headlines of History’ with co-host Brad Argent, now in its second series. No stranger to the screen, recent months have also seen Michala involved in ITV’s Pandemic Story, Channel 4’s ‘Britain’s Most Historic Towns’ and a discussion with CNN anchor Richard Quest, which will be broadcast on CNN in October 2020.