Friday 14 August 2015

A Lost Child at Peterloo

As the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre approaches, it is a pleasure to welcome Chris Pearce to the salon. Chris is the author of A Weaver’s Web and has kindly agreed to share his research into Peterloo with us.

Don't forget the annual Peterloo Memorial March too!

Manchester’s Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819 is remembered each year with the Peterloo Picnic. My interest in Manchester and the early labour movement started in the 1990s when I researched and wrote a non-fiction book on an Australian convict, Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway. He grew up in Manchester and became a brickmaker before being transported for 14 years for horse stealing.

The book’s first chapter, ‘A Wretched Upbringing’, is all about early industrial Manchester. With all the factories and terrace housing going up, there was a huge demand for bricks although brickmaking was a seasonal occupation and Pamphlett struggled to survive in the cold winter months. I did a lot of research into the dreadful living and working conditions in the rapidly growing city and how the cotton barons seemed to build mills wherever they wanted, polluting the air and waterways, and treating employees with complete disdain.

A Weaver's Web

This encouraged me to write a novel, A Weaver’s Web, set in the Manchester area in the early 19th century. Handloom weaver Henry Wakefield, wife Sarah and their five children lived in Middleton and suffered greatly from the shift in work from cottage-based industries to the new, more efficient factories, which he hated. He supported the Establishment but this was to steadily change as he became ever poorer and due to incidents such as when the family was asked to leave church because a son had dirty hands from digging up potatoes for breakfast and also when he heard a stirring speech by reformer Samuel Bamford at a Hampden Club meeting (a real meeting) at the local chapel just before Christmas 1816.

A new factory was to be built on the site of the Wakefields’ rented cottage and the family moved to Manchester. There they were even worse off, living in a dingy cellar that flooded when it rained. Henry finally relented and let family members work in factories. The reform movement waxed and waned and Henry was usually too busy earning his pittance to attend meetings. Sarah went to her first strike meeting with other workers from her factory and this encouraged Henry.

It was 1819 and the reform meetings got larger and noisier, much to the alarm of the magistrates. There were huge meetings in other large cities and reform was the main topic of conversation in Manchester streets and homes. The biggest meeting of all was to be held at St Peter’s Field on August 16 and Henry spent the previous day at his union society making banners.

The meeting was a family occasion and the Wakefields set off on foot along with many thousands of other residents and thousands from out of town. Henry saw Bamford leading a large contingent from Middleton and he hoped the meeting would help bring about better political representation for Manchester and northern England. He tried to explain the meaning of some of the banners to Sarah, who didn’t read, and the children.

The magistrates became increasingly worried as they watched the crowd build up from a window overlooking the field to probably the largest the world had ever seen. You can see the magistrates leaning out the window at the left side of the picture on the cover of the novel. Speaker Henry Hunt made his way through the crowd to roars of approval. This scared the magistrates even more and they watched his every move, believing that revolution would break out at any time. Finally, they couldn’t contain themselves any longer and ordered the cavalry to move in and arrest Hunt. The crowd was so large there wasn’t room to let them through and the soldiers lashed out with their swords.

Henry and Sarah Wakefield grabbed their children’s hands as the scene became more chaotic. I describe it in the novel: “Henry was knocked to the ground trying to protect Sarah and the children as a horse rode over the top of them. He got up holding his shoulder, only to be knocked down again. People stumbled over him trying to get away. He thought he could hear Sarah screaming ‘Catherine’ [their daughter] several times, but he couldn’t see either of them. As he crawled along looking for them, his face covered in blood and dirt, he saw people staggering and limping, some supported by their families and friends. And he saw other folk lying motionless as frantic loved ones tried to help them. He got to his feet but everything spun. He tripped over belongings left behind and over a number of people crawling about. He went with the general flow of those nearby, calling out: ‘Have you seen my family,’ but they didn’t know him or where his family might be.”

He eventually got home to find his family next door being looked after by the elderly neighbour, but without youngest daughter Catherine. She finally got home in the evening with one of the special constables employed on the day who had found her wandering the streets dazed. He had taken her to his place where his wife bathed and fed her before he took her back to her home.

Peterloo put reform on hold for quite a while. Reform leaders and journalists of the radical press were arrested and jailed and the Manchester Observer closed. The plight of the Wakefields and thousands of other Manchester families became even worse. It would be another 13 years before Manchester got parliamentary representation. Meanwhile, Henry was desperate so he started his own factory and after various setbacks made a lot of money. But this brought with it a whole new set of problems for the Wakefields.

I am currently researching and writing a history of daylight saving time around the world which I intend publishing as an ebook next year. After this, I plan to write a script based on A Weaver’s Web and hope to find a literary agent or producer to make it into a TV series or film. It might complement Mike Leigh’s planned film, Peterloo.


About the Author

Chris Pearce was born in Surrey, UK, and grew up in Melbourne, Australia. He has qualifications in economics, management/marketing and writing/editing. He worked as a public servant (federal and state) for 25 years and in the commercial world for 12.5 years.

He has written and published a historical novel set in early 19th century Manchester, UK. The story follows the Wakefield family through poverty and wealth. Chris also has a non-fiction book on an Australian convict,Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway. He is currently writing a book on the history of daylight saving time around the world.

His other hobbies include family history and tenpin bowling.

Chris and his wife live in Brisbane, Australia.

This post copyright © Chris Pearce, 2015.


Sarah said...

Best of luck with that, I hope you are successful!

Unknown said...

Thanks Catherine and thanks Sarah. Yes, it's not easy these days, with literary agents taking on virtually nothing and the ebook market saturated. Mike Leigh's film on Peterloo sounds interesting.

Anne said...

Interesting post! Thank you.