On Peterloo, poetry, and the politics of protest history

History disproves the idea that political awareness, activism and culture are beyond the grasp of ‘ordinary’ people.

History disproves the idea that political awareness and activism are alien or inimical to ‘ordinary’ people. The ways in which historical struggles are remembered can also disprove the argument that ordinary culture cannot be political and that culture is only the concern of an elite.

Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo, released last week, commemorates events at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, in August 1819, when a mass meeting in support of popular democracy was violently dispersed. The ensuing confusion, with cavalry horses and sabres wielded against an unarmed crowd of men, women and children, left fifteen demonstrators dead and six hundred injured. At the film’s premiere in Manchester, Leigh spoke about the absence of attention in the national curriculum to events like Peterloo which illuminate working-class lives, thoughts and experiences, even – or perhaps especially – when such stories constitute the history of one’s own class, community and locality. Leigh said that of the range of ages and backgrounds of the actors who worked on the film, many had not previously heard of the events they were recreating. Actor and activist Maxine Peake’s introduction to Peterloo, meanwhile, was the result of her family’s interest in politics and local history. Peake went on to note that the national love for period drama seems only to explore certain lives and experiences – the ruling class central to the story, the rest merely extras.

The absence of working-class political history from both mainstream history and culture means that we miss out on a multitude of powerful and inspiring stories to tell of both collective struggle and the personal journeys involved. The Lancashire weaver, political activist and Peterloo organiser Samuel Bamford’s memoirs, Early Days and Passages in the Life of a Radical, are as engaging as any bildungsroman, and both documentary sources and published histories are full of personal stories and dramatic, moving, and even comic moments, that it would be great to see onscreen. But it can also mean, more broadly, that we lack a sense of our own history, and of ourselves as historic agents at the centre of a narrative, rather than simply as extras and backdrop. Comma Press’s 2017 anthology Protest: Stories of Resistance demonstrated the potential that exists here, its authors drawing on several centuries of history to imagine the personal experience of pivotal moments of political conflict, from the fourteenth-century Peasants’ Revolt to the marches against the Iraq War.

The development of protest history since the 1960s has produced a huge amount of reading and research on popular unrest, class struggle and social movements, which gives the reader a sense of their own history and place within it, from E P Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class and Eric Hobsbawm’s essay “The Machine Breakers” – in which he conceptualised the Luddites’ industrial struggle as “collective bargaining by riot” – to C L R James on the Haitian revolution and James C Scott’s chronicling of peasant resistance to power in Weapons of the Weak. Historical drama must therefore compete, at least for this viewer, with both the historical record and the feats of imaginative empathy that reading protest history can generate.

In the space of a feature film, it’s already a massive task to convey the great narrative arc of nineteenth-century politics, the gradual drive towards parliamentary representation and universal rights and suffrage, from its germination in British responses to the French Revolution to its culmination in the mass working-class reform campaigns of Chartism. Add to this the movement’s often neglected extraparliamentary edge, beyond reliance on middle-class methods of petitioning or appeals to government – the myriad local struggles in workplaces and market-squares over wages, working conditions and the price and distribution of bread or grain, anti-enclosure, anti-workhouse and anti-Poor Law protests, the clandestine meetings in taverns or at night on hills and moorland, the sporadic attempts at arming, drilling and dreams of wholesale insurrection, and the ebb and flow of all this according to economic change, trade depression and war – and it becomes almost impossible to portray in a single story.

Nonetheless, Leigh’s film captures important aspects of the development of movements for political reform, not least the capacity of ordinary workers to grasp the complexities of constitutional debate and the principles of popular sovereignty, and the involvement of women in both organising and demonstrating. While the film occasionally seems guilty of dealing in caricature, historians of the period have pointed out that the Dickensian grotesques of Leigh’s magistracy and ruling class were in fact not far off the real-life mark. On the other hand, the state’s use of spies, informants and agents provocateurs – a whole other story with obvious contemporary echoes – is dropped in without being further examined, and the film’s sometimes clunky exposition of exacerbating factors like the Corn Laws or the suspension of habeas corpus could have been more smoothly integrated. Ultimately, though, Peterloo is a good-faith effort to recover an important episode in the history of this country’s democracy, demonstrating how hard-won it was by those below and how begrudgingly granted by those above.

If the success of Peterloo gives rise to greater interest in telling the stories of this period, there is no shortage of equally enlightening and dramatic material on the response by ordinary people to economic trauma, social change, the class antagonism of landlords, magistrates and employers, and their inability to change their circumstances in the absence of the vote other than by educating and organising themselves. The early nineteenth century contained several spectacular examples of popular resistance, from Luddism in the northern industrial districts to the mass social unrest of Rebeccaism in rural Wales. The British state’s increasingly draconian responses to increasingly visible unrest saw not only the suspension of habeas corpus but also, following Peterloo, a legislative clampdown on organising and public expression by radical movements. As support for reform advanced and independent working-class organisation solidified, troops were again deployed against demonstrators, leading to clashes which included the death of twelve participants in pro-reform riots in Bristol in 1831 and twenty-two Chartists in the 1839 Newport Rising. Contrary to the bad-faith fulminating of Dominic Sandbrook, there is no need to invoke a government conspiracy when the historical consequences of class-motivated antagonism are sensational enough.

Advertising for Leigh’s film made use of Shelley’s poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, written in the aftermath of Peterloo although not published until after Shelley’s death. Predicting the fall of the ruling order and demanding education and the vote for the poor, along with the material necessities of “clothes, and fire, and food”, ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ is an early example of political pop culture which has proved remarkably enduring, used beyond its immediate context from the campaign for Indian independence through the Poll Tax Riots to Tahrir Square in 2011. Its utility has been not just in immediate political struggle but as a tool of political education for those in the labour movement. The journalist and campaigner Paul Foot, who wrote a book recovering Shelley’s radicalism, sought to explain the roots of the poem’s resonant afterlife:

Because great poems, like great songs, which are only poems set to music, are easily learned and remembered. The words linger in the memory over generations. And if the words carry revolutionary ideas, those ideas are communicated in poems far more thoroughly than in prose, in conversation or even in slogans. We socialists have great difficulty in communication. However much we know and understand the political solutions to our social problems, the knowledge and understanding is useless unless we can communicate them.”

‘The Masque of Anarchy’ was quoted on the sleeve of The Jam’s 1980 album Sound Affects, a move identified by the cultural critic Mark Fisher as part of the band’s idiosyncratic brand of class struggle. An even more striking demonstration of the ordinariness of political culture, perhaps, was the poem’s appearance in an episode of the cosily sentimental 90s TV drama Heartbeat, in which its final verse is recited by a sacked worker.

So, when Jeremy Corbyn included the poem’s best-known lines in his 2017 appearance at Glastonbury, he was acting within a long and commonplace tradition of struggle, remembrance and political education. The response to this from some quarters was depressingly predictable: poetry, no matter what the subject, was dismissed as a hopelessly pretentious art form which would be rightly scorned by ordinary people. This argument ignores the centuries of culture created and made use of by ordinary people themselves, not always politicised but frequently so, and regularly produced in the course of political struggle, to record, reflect or guide it. Peterloo organiser Samuel Bamford also depicted working-class life in poetry and compiled a book on the dialect of South Lancashire. In the years after Peterloo, many working men and women in the Chartist movement produced poetry about their own experiences and aspirations, with the Chartist newspaper The Northern Star carrying a regular poetry column. In 1938 Idris Davies, a miner, Shelley fanboy and poet from the South Welsh coalfield, wrote The Bells of Rhymney, a class lament later set to music by Pete Seeger. The cultural intertwining of art and politics, and its forging into channels of communication, encouragement or simply comforting consolation, was and remains an intrinsic part of working-class consciousness.

The resonances of political poetry and art are as available to ordinary people, as both producers and consumers, as they are to the elite. The idea that working-class audiences lack the sensibility or consciousness to understand or appreciate poetry, particularly something as apt as Corbyn’s quoting of Shelley, is as insulting as the “don’t encourage them” response to Corbyn’s previous pronouncement that “In every one of us there is a poet, a writer, a singer of songs, an artist. But too few of us fulfil our artistic ambition”. The production and consumption of culture can empower individuals and carry historical and political awareness. This both underlies its importance to ordinary people and explains why their political opponents would seek to deny, scorn or undermine the idea.


Rhian E. Jones (@rhianejones)

Rhian E. Jones writes on history, politics, popular culture and the places where they intersect. She is co-editor of Red Pepper and writes for Tribune magazine. Her books include Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class and Gender (zer0, 2013); Petticoat Heroes: Gender, Culture and Popular Protest (University of Wales Press, 2015); Triptych: Three Studies of Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible (Repeater, 2017) and the anthology of women’s music writing Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them (Repeater, 2017) and Paint Your Town Red: How Preston Took Back Control and Your Town Can Too (Repeater, 2021).