Heritage Open Days 9-18 September 2022 - What will you discover?

Manchester’s Fight for Freedom: The John Rylands Library and the Peterloo Massacre


Next week a fascinating and deeply moving exhibition will open at the stunning John Rylands Library in Manchester. Drawing on their collection, it marks the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre – a shockingly violent suppression of a peaceful protest in the 19th century. I met one of their archivists last year and knew we needed to share their collection with you, so here is the curator of the exhibition, Dr Janette Martin, Modern History Archivist, with a preview of some of its powerful highlights.

Detail from ‘A view of St. Peters Place and manner in which the Manchester Reform meeting were dispersed by civil & military power. Augt. 16th. 1819 © University of Manchester Library - R52983.2.

Written by... Dr Janette Martin, Modern History Archivist, John Rylands Library

The John Rylands Library holds some incredible resources for understanding this violent episode in Manchester’s history, from handbills, newspapers, placards and plans of St Peter’s Field to engravings and ballads and poems.  As part of our bicentenary commemorations, the Library has digitised these important documents and are encouraging their use by researchers, local historians and the many people involved in this years’ Peterloo-themed Manchester Histories Festival

Exhibition highlight - the writing on the wall

Public notice declaring illegal the Public Meeting planned for 9 August 1819. © University of Manchester Library - English MS 1197/19

If I had to pick out a favourite it would be a large poster printed by the Manchester authorities warning people (in bold capitals) that a meeting to be held on the 9 August 1819 was illegal.  It goes on to urge the people of Manchester to stop listening to itinerant rabble rousers preaching sedition and instead to reflect on their folly.  The poster ends with an exhortation that the people of Manchester should:  ‘Fear God and Honour the King’.  Such street literature was designed to be pasted onto walls where crowds might gather. It could be easily read aloud thereby reaching those with limited literacy.  The language used is powerful but what is striking is just how big it is - measuring 20 inches by 29 inches it most certainly would capture attention. The meeting was rescheduled for 16 August and, after it was violently broken up by the military, it became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

Exhibition highlight - powerful pages

Report of the Metropolitan and Central Committee appointed for the relief of the Manchester sufferers. © University of Manchester Library

The most poignant items in our Peterloo collections are the two relief books, one manuscript and one printed, which document the injuries suffered by the victims and the compensation paid. In addition to the 18 people who died at St Peter’s Field (or in the days following), 700 more were seriously injured.  Some were trampled by horses or fleeing crowds, others sustained sabre wounds or were battered by truncheon blows.  Across the country money was collected to help the injured and the families of the dead. In an era before the welfare state, this offered vital support saving victims and their families from destitution. 

I can still recall the horror I felt when I first opened the book and started to read the names, ages, occupations and addresses of the victims and the, often graphic, descriptions of their injuries. Reading the entries, I understood the anger of contemporaries - that these unarmed men, women and children were attacked and butchered simply for attending a peaceful meeting that called for political change. There was no official enquiry into the massacre and no redress for the victims.  And yet, therein, lies the power of archives.  200 years on, these humble books expose the lies of Manchester magistrates and authorities who carefully downplayed the number of dead and injured and tried to pass off the event as a riot. The relief books are incredibly powerful, they humanise the story of Peterloo and ensure that the victims have a presence in this year’s commemoration.

Top tips for accessing the collection

My top tip for using the Peterloo collections at the University of Manchester Library is to start with the digital surrogates. During much of 2019 our star items will be in the display cases on the first floor of The John Rylands Library as part of our major exhibition on Peterloo . While digitised items can be less evocative than the real thing they have considerable advantages.  Take, for example, our run of the pro-reform newspaper, the Manchester Observer (1818-1821) with its column after column of densely typed print – it’s so much easier on the eye to use the zoom button! The pdfs of each edition have been processed by optical character recognition software so that it is possible to key word search within each edition.

Find out more

About Dr Janette Martin

Janette curated 'Peterloo: Manchester’s Fight for Freedom' at The John Rylands Library (21 March 2019 – 29 Sept 2019) and worked on the project to identify and digitise collections relating to the Peterloo Massacre held at The University of Manchester Library. Her research interests include nineteenth century radical politics, political oratory and public history. She is a long-serving member of both the Society for the Study of Labour History and Huddersfield Local History Society. Twitter @hisjlm