John Evans, Free History Project
I never expected to have Twitter followers joking that a project rooted firmly in the news of two centuries ago might in fact be parodying events in 2019. ‘Are you sure you are tweeting about 1819?’ asked one, during one of the many moments of acrimonious (probably Brexit) confrontation in 2019. ‘Some things haven’t changed in 200 years,’ said another. One saw a link between St Peter’s Field in Manchester, the scene of the massacre of what we would now call pro-democracy demonstrators, and Hillsborough and Orgreave. ‘Nowt changes. Report in the Manchester Mercury could be The Sun in 1989.’
The Peterloo 1819 News project has used Twitter to report everyday since February news as it might have unfolded at the time. From a twenty-first century office, I have brought together a range of sources to recreate events as faithfully as possible. These include the British Newspaper Archive, two papers still going in 2019, The Times and The Observer, and the radical Manchester Observer. The words politicians uttered were provided by Hansard’s digital archive, with the History of Parliament Online filling in the gaps. The British Library and specialist books and websites provided further detail about what happened on 16 August 1819. Others provided the light and shade – from the birth of the princess who would become Queen Victoria, to Arctic explorers with the first tinned food (but no can-openers), from sports like racing, boxing, and cricket, to a gambling-fuelled competitive walking craze, and courses for dandies in riding embryonic bicycles.
My news judgement wasn’t quite that of a nineteenth century editor. Peterloo itself needed no justification. But some financial news was so complex and arcane I didn’t tweet it, even when it filled many column inches. Sunk sailing ships, obviously tragic, were just too many to follow and would have meant little now. Events being marked in 2019 (like Victoria’s birth, James Watt’s death, and the start of building of the Menai Bridge) were good, so was anything with resonance to a modern audience, the odd, the occasionally gruesome – and especially the surprising. ‘Wow’ was the only possible reaction spotting, by pure chance, a snippet in a Yorkshire paper about a vicar called Bronte moving to Haworth.
Promoting the project was sometimes hard-going. The network of Peterloo ‘rememberers’ in Manchester and further afield helped a lot, as did retweeting by people with huge Twitter followings. A positive tweet from journalist Paul Mason sent my audience into orbit on the day of the massacre. But funds were limited, and the priority had to be the content.
Reproductions of newspaper pages were used to illustrate the tweeted news, along with paintings from UK and overseas galleries, and maps (mainly from the Vision of Britain website, and Prof. Robert Poole’s excellent Peterloo). The drawings of Polyp from the graphic history, Peterloo: Witnesses to a Massacre brought even more to life the frantic tweets and imagined news flashes on a breaking and bloody news story. Sabre-wielding troops were slashing at men, women and children who had set out on a hot summer’s day to hear pro-reform campaigners like Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt who they could only normally read about, if they could read of course. Nobody is certain how many died (18 is the favoured number), but hundreds suffered injuries, some in the language of 2019, life-changing.
The events at St Peter’s Field triggered a wave of protest meetings. These were occasionally angry, but more often surprisingly peaceful to modern eyes. But that was not how the Tory government and its hard-line Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth viewed this popular discontent. In November, ministers proposed what became known as the Six Acts, a raft of repressive legislation designed to curb public meetings and crack down on the radical press and politicians. Add into the mix poverty, unemployment, smallpox epidemics, regular pit and maritime disasters, slavery and slave-owners, and public executions and transportation to Australia under the ‘Bloody Code’, and you have a tough life for those dismissed as the ‘lower orders’.
Arrests for treason (which rarely even led to prosecution) or seditious and blasphemous libel, spells behind bars, being taken there in chains, brushes with draconian magistrates, police raids, and endless vilification by right-wing papers ensured life was a struggle for pro-democracy campaigners, wherever in the class system they stood.
It is all too easy to dismiss the people of 1819; to laugh at their paranoia (mainly in parliament and the press), foibles, superiority over foreigners, and scorn for their fellow countrymen and women; to believe that this past really was a foreign country, and they did things differently there. That does an injustice to people who had no idea what was coming next, some whose worldview was coloured blood red by the French Revolution, others who feared that trial for political offences could lead to jail, transportation, or even being hanged. Some today may be able to identify with their disdain for politicians and fear of the emerging medical vaccines. It is all too easy to write them off as semi-modern ‘primitives’.
These were people living through enormous change. In the case of the newspapers that were the biggest single source for @Live1819, they were inventing an industry and a profession from almost a blank sheet of paper. Peterloo was among the very first major news stories to be reported in a way that we would recognise now. The quaint front-page advertisements for quack cures, jobs in service, lotteries and all manner of charitable organisations (usually patronised by lords and ladies) were there because they made money and provided some stability, at a time when many papers did not survive long. The Times, The Observer and The Scotsman are very much the exceptions. By contrast, the radical Manchester Observer closed in 1821 after repeated prosecutions.
As to the people they were reporting on, they were no less real than we are. As one Twitter follower tweeted back at me, ‘It’s a perfect reminder that our ancestors were not so very different from us.’
About the author: John Evans is an independent historian and former BBC journalist and editor. John has an MA in the history of Britain from Birkbeck, University of London, and in 2020 will be pursuing projects to increase public awareness of the huge amount of quality material about British history available online, much of it from universities and colleges. This year he has been ‘live tweeting’ each day’s news from 1819 to mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre (but covering much more besides). Continuing until New Year’s Eve, these are written in the style of 2019.
@Live1819 gratefully acknowledges funding towards research costs from the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire.