Thousands to re-enact Peterloo massacre in Manchester

Event marks 200th anniversary of defining moment in British political history

A scene from Mike Leigh’s 2018 film, Peterloo. Photograph: Entertainment One

A scene from Mike Leigh’s 2018 film, Peterloo. Photograph: Entertainment One


Thousands of people are to take part in a huge re-enactment of the Peterloo massacre to mark the 200th anniversary of one of the defining moments in British political history.

Around 3,000 people will perform a “combination of giant karaoke and autocue” on Friday near the square in Manchester where 18 people were killed and more than 650 injured by a sabre-wielding cavalry on 16 August 1819.

The names of the dead will be read out at 1.30pm, the exact time when 200 years ago troops were ordered to break up the crowd of 60,000 protesters who had gathered peacefully to demand political reform.

Instead of a solemn civic ceremony, the event is designed to be an immersive, noise-filled show with a ticketed audience of 3,000 people but “no spectators, only performers”.

The performance is described as “a dialogue between 1819 and 2019” and is shaped around the contemporary words of protesters and poets, mixed with the witness testimonies of those present in 1819.

Descendants of those present 200 years ago will read out the names of the deceased, alongside public figures including Mike Leigh, the award-winning director whose film about Peterloo won rave reviews last year, and the film-maker Danny Boyle.

Su Bindless, a retired teacher, said she was “terrified” but felt privileged to read the name of her great-great-great-great-uncle, Edmund Dawson, an 18-year-old who was fatally sabred by the cavalry. “I think it’s very, very important. It’s amazing how many people don’t know about it but that’s not their fault – it’s always been a hidden part of history,” she said.

Ms Bindless said it was “disgraceful” that Peterloo and its legacy was not taught in schools and that Manchester itself had neglected to properly acknowledge the impact of the massacre, which paved the way for parliamentary democracy.

Small plaque

Denise Southworth, a direct descendant of Mary Heys, one of the protesters who died, said the significance of that day had been “criminally neglected” in Manchester for 200 years.

A small plaque on the Radisson hotel was for years the only permanent memorial to the massacre. A £1 million monument was quietly unveiled earlier this week despite continuing criticism about its lack of disability access.

“What annoys me is that it’s never, ever been recognised in Manchester,” said Ms Southworth, whose ancestor was trampled by the cavalry and died later during childbirth.

“We’ve got this tiny plaque on the hotel and it’s so high up you’d have to be about 8ft to see it. When you talk about the history of Manchester they will talk about the Arena, Manchester United, Manchester City – yeah, but what is it built on?

“Two hundred years ago people had to go through all that to get the laws changed. The sacrifices that had to be made ultimately led to the fact that we have some equality.”

As the last name is read out 18 bells will ring from Manchester’s neo-gothic town hall followed by a minute’s silence and the release of 18 ribbons of red smoke. Screens across the city will display all the names of the dead.

The new monument, designed by the Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller, was expected to be unveiled formally on Friday but was made public without any fanfare on Tuesday afternoon, amid the criticism from disability rights campaigners.

The sculpture is designed to be a speakers’ podium of 11 concentric steps but will be modified to make it fully accessible, Manchester City Council has said. There is deep anger at the council’s management of the issue. “I don’t think it’s been very well handled,” said Ms Bindless. “It’s a great moment – there should have been a grand unveiling.” – Guardian