Peterloo: What You Need To Know
This year will mark the 200th anniversary of one of the most momentous – and notorious - incidents in British history: the Peterloo Massacre. On August 16th, 1819, a crowd of somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 assembled at St. Peter's Field, on the site of what is now St. Peter's Square in Manchester, to protest peacefully as part of a campaign for electoral reform.
Fearful that the protest could develop into a riot, the authorities dispatched a regiment of local Yeomen, supported by a cavalry regiment, to arrest the organisers of the protest. However, the cavalry brigade charged the crowd, who were trapped in between them and a brigade of footsoldiers, leading to as many as 15 deaths and leaving an estimated 700 wounded.
The event caused public outrage and is credited with being one of the key incidents which led to widespread electoral reform, but it's also one that is not always taught in British schools, despite its obvious importance.
With the bicentennial of Peterloo coming up in August this year, a new film attempts to bring the story of the massacre to a wider audience in a new film detailing the key players behind both the radical movement protesting for fair political representation, and those responsible for the resulting crackdown on the protesters.
Peterloo made its arrival in cinemas last year and is due to land on the shelves in stores on Monday (March 11th), here's everything you need to know...
Who's in it?
Rory Kinnear and Maxine Peake lead a cast which also includes Pearce Quigley, Rachel Finnegan, David Moorst and Robert Wilfort.
And who's directing?
Peterloo is directed by veteran filmmaker Mike Leigh, the man behind movies such as Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake and Mr. Turner.
What's the plot?
The film centres around the events of August 16th and those leading up to that day, providing some context for the conditions in which the protest was organised. Following the end of the Napoleonic wars, the textile industry which was largely centred in Manchester and surrounding Lancashire had enjoyed a brief upturn in fortunes, but the good times didn't last long and by 1819 conditions for most people living in the city were dire.
The introduction of the Corn Laws, which added tariffs to grain imported from outside the UK, were ostensibly designed to protect the British farming industry from cheaper imports, but had resulted in price rises for basic items such as bread, causing widespread poverty in poorer areas of the country. To make matters worse, voting was still the privilege of a select few and, thanks to the way that constituency boundaries were drawn, many areas of the country were left without any real political representation.
In response, calls for electoral reform were becoming more common and Leigh's film focusses in particular on the role of Henry Hunt, a political radical and campaigner who the government considered a key organiser of the upcoming protest in St. Peter's square – and therefore a major threat to the establishment.
The film details the anxieties amongst the authorities that Hunt's speech at the rally could incite a riot, or even a full-blown rebellion. Government militias are sent to control and disperse the crowd, but when the protests begin to turn rowdy the cavalry panics and charges the crowd, causing several civilian deaths and numerous injuries.
As well as the events on the field, the film also tells the story from both the side of the city's workers, mainly through Maxine Peake's character Nellie, and the side of the British government, who are chiefly represented here by Karl Johnson's wonderfully arrogant home secretary Lord Sidmouth.
Does it deliver?
While the storytelling is occasionally overshadowed by Mike Leigh's sheer, righteous fury, Leigh's film is nevertheless an epic, powerful and deeply moving account of one of British history's most momentous events, and one that deserves the attention of anyone interested in political history.