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The Peterloo Relief Fund Account Book

This is a cross post by Peter Risdon

John Baker, 3 Pump Street. This poor man was beat by the Constables, but his principal injury was an overstrain by carrying Wm. Taylor of Boardman Lane off the Field, who was wounded & lost so much blood. 40/- final.

Perhaps less has changed since the Peterloo Massacre than we’d like. The above extract is from the Relief Fund Account Book, which details payments made to about 350 people who were injured when the Yeomanry charged a crowd that had assembled to hear Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt speak.

“There’s Saxton, damn him, run him through,” shouted one Yeoman when he saw a reporter from a radical Manchester newspaper. Those of us who are occasionally disgusted with what has become of the Manchester Guardian, which was founded as a direct result of the massacre, might sympathise with the officer, but in truth few today would disagree with the protesters who were so brutally attacked. The Napoleonic Wars had been followed by famine and hardship, the first of the Corn Laws had come into effect, designed to keep the price of corn high despite widespread hunger, and Parliamentary democracy was at its least legitimate:

In 1819, Lancashire was represented by two Members of Parliament(MPs). Voting was restricted to the adult male owners of freehold land valued at 40 shillings or more – the equivalent of about £80 as of 2008[1] – and votes could only be cast at the county town of Lancaster, by a public spoken declaration at the hustings. Constituency boundaries were out of date, and the so-called “rotten boroughs” had a hugely disproportionate influence on the membership of the Parliament of the United Kingdom compared to the size of their populations: Old Sarumin Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs,[2] as did Dunwich inSuffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea.[3] The major urban centres of Manchester,SalfordBoltonBlackburnRochdaleAshton-under-LyneOldhamand Stockport, with a combined population of almost one million, were represented by either the two county MPs for Lancashire, or the two forCheshire in the case of Stockport. By comparison, more than half of all MPs were elected by a total of just 154 voters

Banners at the rally read: “REFORM, UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE, EQUAL REPRESENTATION and, touchingly, LOVE”. The Relief Fund accounts tell the stories of those who were brutalised for having the temerity to make such demands. People like John Baker, above, and:

Ann Bickerstaff, 63 Cropper Street. Was thrown down & so much trampled on & so much exhausted as to be carried off the Field for dead. 20/- final.

A month ago, the Peterloo Relief Fund Account Book was one of ten historical documents added to the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register:

… a list of documentary heritage which holds cultural significance specific to the UK. These ten inscriptions come from across the country, span nearly 1000 years of history and embody some of the pivotal moments and periods that have shaped the UK.

It’s a worthy addition. The anniversary of the Massacre is this coming Monday, August 16. I’ll be raising a glass in salute to the radicals who gave so much. Without their bravery, and that of their successors like theChartists, few of us would have the vote.