Yesterday, in Manchester, I also paid a visit for the first time to the People’s History Museum in its impressive new building on Left Bank, by the Irwell. There’s a lot to see – too much to take in on one visit.
As the first industrial city, Manchester was at the forefront of radical thought and reform – a centre for Trades Unionism, the Labour and Suffragette movements, and the Co-operative Society (in nearby Rochdale), so it is a fitting location for a museum charting the dramatic struggle for British democracy and workers’ rights – Ideas Worth Fighting For, in the words of the museum’s own slogan. The Museum has been extensively redeveloped, with a four-storey extension to the original Pump House which once supplied power to some of the mills and wound the clock on the Town Hall.
The collections of the Trades Union Congress, Labour Party and the Co-op have been augmented by a number of other organisations, including the Communist Party of Great Britain. Material from these sources and some personal political papers can be studied in the Labour History Archive, in the basement of the new building. The two main galleries tell the story of Britain’s struggle for democracy over two centuries, starting with the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.
On 19 August 1819 a reform meeting held on St Peter’s Field in Manchester attracted over 60,000 mill workers and their families demanding the reform of parliamentary representation. Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest Henry Hunt, the radical orator, and several others on the hustings with him, and to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with sabres drawn, leaving 15 people dead and around 700 injured. The massacre was given the name Peterloo in ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo, which had taken place four years earlier.
Despite the horror evoked by the massacre, Peterloo’s immediate effect was to cause the government to crack down on reform, with the passing of what became known as the Six Acts. But it also led to the foundation of The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) and in a survey conducted by The Guardian in 2006, Peterloo came second to the Putney Debates as the event from British history that most deserved a proper monument or a memorial (at the moment there’s just a small plaque in St Peter’s Square).
There are displays of banners, cartoons, leaflets and photographs showing the birth of democratic ideas and movements for reform such as the Levellers, the Chartists and individuals such as John Wilkes, Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Cobbett and Francis Burdett.
One of the banners on display is a Liverpool Tinplate Workers’ banner, made in 1821 for the celebration of the coronation of King George IV. It’s a type of banner known as a colour. A colour had a Union Jack in the corner, similar to those still carried by army regiments. This suggests that the society saw itself as patriotic rather than the potentially subversive organisation envisaged by the government and employers. This is the oldest surviving trade union banner in the world.
Another aspect of this section is all about how women had to fight for the right to vote on the same terms as men. Includes the formation of the Manchester Suffrage Society 1867 and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) founded in Manchester by Emmeline Pankhurst and her sisters in 1903.
This installation – Where do we go from here? – by Bill Longshaw can be seen currently in the foyer of the People’s History Museum.