Peterloo massacre 'could happen again', warns Maxine Peake

Frances Perraudin North of England reporter
A cartoon by George Cruikshank of the Peterloo massacre, 1819. Photograph: Granger/Rex/Shutterstock

An event like the Peterloo massacre, which killed an estimated 15 people 199 years ago, could happen again today, the actor Maxine Peake has said, speaking following a rally to mark the event’s anniversary.

On 16 August 1819, cavalry charged into a crowd of about 60,000 people who had gathered at St Peter’s Field, Manchester, to demand the reform of parliamentary representation. About 15 people are thought to have been killed, with 11 recorded as dying on the day of the protest and others dying later from their injuries.

“We’re in a very dangerous place politically at the moment and protest is really important. We’ve got to remember our history to move forward,” said Peake, following a ceremony attended by more than 300 people outside the Manchester convention centre, near to the site of the massacre.

“People say protest is defunct nowadays and I think that’s wrong. We need it more than ever, we need people physically coming together in events,” she said. “I may be being a bit of a scaremonger, but I feel it might not be long before we have another Peterloo incident. You look at events like Grenfell and Hillsborough, where working-class people were ignored and disrespected by those in charge and there were huge cover-ups.”

Jonathan Reynolds, MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, joined his constituents in walking the nearly 10 miles to the site of the massacre to pay tribute to those who walked to join the protest 199 years ago. “They were campaigning for parliamentary representation, and to have their MP make the journey 199 years later is quite nice,” he said.

Maxine Peake: ‘We’re in a very dangerous place politically.’ Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Preparations for the 200th anniversary of the massacre next year are under way across the city, with a huge range of projects and events planned. Designs for a permanent memorial by Jeremy Deller, the Turner prize-winning artist, will be unveiled at the end of October and will be put to a public consultation.

Securing a permanent memorial for the Peterloo massacre in Manchester is a huge triumph for Paul Fitzgerald, a political cartoonist who founded the Peterloo Massacre Memorial Campaign in 2007. The group’s first achievement was to secure the replacement of a memorial plaque for Peterloo, installed on the wall of the city’s Free Trade Hall in the 1970s, which simply referred to the crowd being dispersed and made no reference to the deaths.

“It was part of this long tradition of suppressing the memory of Peterloo,” said Fitzgerald. “Even in the 70s it was still making people nervous because of the fact that the state attacked democratic protesters. In the past there was this feeling that that wasn’t the image we wanted to project for Manchester, but that’s something we’re now coming out from under and that’s fantastic.”

He said he has seen support for the memorial campaign grow steadily over the years. “What we’ve seen is classic exponential growth. I can remember being on this exact spot 10 years ago and there were about eight of us commemorating a rally of about 60,000 people,” said Fitzgerald, standing in a crowd of hundreds.