Labour History Review

Book Reviews

Labour History Review (2020), 85, (1), 85–98.


Book Reviews Book Reviews Robert Poole, Peterloo: The English Uprising, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, pp. xxiii + 453, h/b, £25, ISBN 978 01987 83466 The Peterloo massacre, Robert Poole insists, was not a clumsy exercise in crowd control, but an atrocity requiring explanation. His book, published to mark the bicentenary, reflects continuing anger at the events of 16 August 1819, explained convincingly here as a riot by the forces of order. What makes the argument compelling is Poole’s deep understanding of its specific context: Regency Manchester. An old established market town, or rather manor with a medieval system of governance, Manchester, in a seeming paradox, had forged a modern free-market ideology, establishing itself as the marketing and distribution centre of cotton manufacture in the North West. By no means a mill town – only about one in twenty of those injured at St Peter’s Fields were cotton factory workers – Manchester was surrounded by what Poole describes as ‘industrious countryside’ inhabited by handloom weavers, by far the largest group of casualties at Peterloo. Wartime pressures, intensified dramatically by post-war distress – never a worse time to be working class, Poole observes – had brought an end to residual loyalism. As conditions worsened, political protest took hold in the adjacent districts, thence the heartland of popular radicalism. Renowned for their ultra-loyalism, reinforced by Orangeism, the close-knit, self-perpetuating Church-and-king oligarchy in control of unreformed (and corrupt) local government and policing in Manchester reacted with fear and alarm. To their relief, they were able to rely on support from the military. Most of the troops in the northern half of England were within striking distance. By the start of 1819, indeed, Manchester had become the garrison town for the cotton districts. From the perspective of the Home Office the most favourable place to suppress the radical movement by military force was in Manchester. As depicted by Poole, Manchester was the obvious and inevitable location for decisive confrontation. Poole’s analysis of the radical challenge is impressive but not entirely convincing. Better than any previous study, his account shows how pressure from without developed in a cumulative manner in the years after Waterloo, progressing from the politics of petitioning and remonstrating to the politics of confrontation in the summer of 1819. In his version, the veteran Major Cartwright (whose longevity and faith in democracy is equated with that of Tony Benn!) is posited as key architect, organizer, and tactician. Cartwright was indeed a venerable and venerated figure, but he was by no means to the fore on the radical mass platform. Schooled in eighteenth-century gentlemanly association, he sought to arrange an assembly of dignitaries at the Mansion House ready to take the lead once the humble Hampden Club provincial delegates arrived in London with Labour History Review, vol. 85, no. 1

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