In Haunt

Rare historic artefacts and eyewitness accounts of one of the darkest moments of Manchester’s history are at the heart of ‘Peterloo: Manchester’s Fight For Freedom’ exhibition at The John Rylands Library. Open until the 29 September, paying a visit to this free display is perhaps more apt than ever, considering that 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of The Peterloo Massacre itself.

John Rylands Peterloo

On the 16 August 1819, over 60,000 people gathered in Manchester to peacefully protest for parliamentary reform, assembling in what was St Peter’s Field (now the area around St Peter’s Square) – less than half a mile away from where The John Rylands Library now stands. Events took a tragic turn however, when the authorities panicked and sent in the cavalry to break up the crowd; with an estimated 18 people killed and over 700 wounded. It was referred to as ‘The Peterloo Massacre’, ironically alluding to the Battle of Waterloo four years previously.

‘Peterloo: Manchester’s Fight For Freedom’ allows visitors to see the stories of this history-shifting event from a whole new angle – featuring documents, newspapers and even hard-hitting handwritten records from the period. It is open to visit throughout the usual library opening times.

 Vivid and impactful, an extensive collection of Peterloo material is on display in the first-floor exhibition space, highlighting The John Rylands Library as one of the most significant university Special Collections libraries of its kind. Part of The University of Manchester Library, The John Rylands Library holds a number of rare of artefacts from Peterloo and the times leading up to it– now revealed to the public eye beneath the dramatic vaulted ceilings and towering stonework of the Gothic-inspired library. A powerful place for reflection, this includes original handwritten records detailing the names of Greater Manchester citizens who were killed and injured while fighting for their political rights.

John Rylands Library

After all, the crowd on the day was made up of men, women and children of all ages; innocent people who had come together show their support for greater suffrage – at a time when only around 2% of the population had the right to vote – and to protest against the restrictive Corn Laws which were making food unaffordable.

Therefore, the title of the exhibition ‘Manchester’s Fight For Freedom’, pays tribute to those who were part of the protest and travelled far and wide to stand for liberty and against poverty. On the 16 August, people had travelled county-wide and beyond, many dressed in their Sunday Best, to show their solidarity and listen to speeches. One of the key speakers was the orator Henry Hunt, who addressed the crowd from a makeshift platform – a single cart – overlooking a public assembly that would have been packed with positive banners bearing messages such as UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION and REFORM. Mary Fildes, President of the Manchester Female Reform Society, was another figure to take a stand on the platform.

‘Peterloo: Manchester’s Fight For Freedom’ sheds light on the tensions of the times – and why the public push for reform was so crucial. Historic documents and newspapers will bring to life the debate between radical reformers and the Manchester authorities. These artefacts allow people to see for themselves the level of public outcry against inequality, the disregard of many of the city authorities, and the striving attempts of journalists to try and document what was happening. Peterloo’s legacy includes that of the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper championing freedom of speech, which was formed in the aftermath of the tragedy. The power of the people there was also highly influential in putting the need for the development of greater voting rights on the political agenda and contributed to the rise of the Chartist Movement and Trade Unions; following on in the stand for fairness.

 According to Janette Martin, Archivist and Reader Engagement Manager at The John Rylands Library and Peterloo Curator:

The John Rylands Library holds some incredible resources for understanding this violent episode in Manchester’s history. Featuring a range of items from handbills, newspapers, and placards to engravings, ballads and poems, our exhibition is a must-see in this bicentenary year. However horrible Peterloo was, it played a crucial part in Britain’s battle for democracy. Manchester’s people were part of a movement that couldn’t be stopped: I want our visitors to know that and be proud of it.”

The John Rylands exhibition is part of county-wide measures to mark the significance and share the story of the 200th anniversary of The Peterloo Massacre. A summer programme of public engagement under the title of Peterloo 2019 has recently been launched (read more here), led by Manchester Histories, with over 180 events across the boroughs. For example, there is an exhibition and protest lab at the nearby People’s History Museum, where Dr Shirin Hirsch (Manchester Metropolitan University and also of The Manchester Centre For Public History and Heritage) has been involved in considering the context of 1800s democracy movements in Manchester – and told HAUNT more about it here.

Historian and Genealogist Michala Hulme (also of Manchester Metropolitan University and MCPHH), has also been involved in the ‘Peterloo Descendants’ project with Dr Robert Poole; now inviting people to trace their family tree back to the times, and to see whether they are linked to those involved in Peterloo.

The range of events highlights the importance in recognising Peterloo and its significance in shaping democratic history. In today’s turbulent political climate, taking note of this is perhaps ever-more crucial.

Peterloo: Manchester’s Fight for Freedom runs from 21 March 2019 – 29 September 2019, and will be accompanied by an events programme.

Follow the conversation online: #jrlPeterloo | #Peterloo2019

You can visit The John Rylands Library website here: https://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/rylands/ and read more about tours here.

By Emily Oldfield

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