Date to note August: Bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre, which inspired a Shelley poem that led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper

Dates to note in the Guardian Review literary calendar this month were:

1st Bicentenary of birth of Herman Melville, best known for Moby Dick
3rd 75th anniversary of 1944 Education Act gaining royal assent
9th Kenneth Branagh-directed film Artemis Fowl, based on Eoin Colfer’s 2001 YA fantasy novel
10th Edinburgh international book festival, until 26th
16th Bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre, which inspired a Shelley poem that let to the founding of the Manchester Guardian newspaper
25th 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris

It seems fitting for this review to consider the founding of the Manchester Guardian given the Review section of that paper’s direct descendant is the whole raison d’art of this blog.

So it seems to me there are three fairly big biggies of this post. Firstly, the Peterloo massacre, then the poem and then the dear old Manchester Guardian – subsequently to become The Guardian, so pull up a chair and let us begin.

The Peterloo Massacre.

On a hot summers day in 16th August 1819, the 15th Hussars were summoned by a Manchester magistrate to disperse a large (thousands) but well organised demonstrating crowd gathered to hear a radical reformer Henry Hunt speak about the need for reform in the context of economic depression, severe unemployment and poverty. Manchester had already become something of a hotbed of political activity and radicalism with demonstrations relating to the repeal of the Corn Laws (costs of food products were kept high through tax and import duty) and concern about inequalities in political representation and who could vote.

The cavalry men charged with weapons.

The number of people killed and injured is difficult to estimate with accuracy but it is thought to be in the region of up to twenty people killed and hundreds more were injured.  Injuries are reported as being caused by horse trampling, sabre wounds and musket shots.  The event prompted a wave of protest meetings across a large number of northern counties. 

There was widely reported condemnation about what had happened but the government responded by legislation (the Six Acts) aimed at cracking down on reform, gagging newspapers and preventing meetings under threat of swift legal action and the seizing of funds and goods so that the possibility of a post French Revolution type revolt was kept at bay. 

It has been argued that the event was a turning point for the struggle for the enfranchisement of the working class and and the beginnings of a new political order of reform.

Percy Shelley poem

Percey Shelley’s poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ was written in 1819 following the Peterloo massacre although it did not appear in print until 1832 because of concern that it would be misunderstood and perhaps, a call to arms in that it describes the massacre and speaks of the unjust tyranny of the authorities and invites the reader to imagine new forms of social action including the notion of non-violent peaceful process which would shame soldiers of conscience. The poem also names members and roles of government and calls for the people to be revived in hope of a new ways of being.

The poem has been lauded as the most important political poem in history

It is not without criticism for its call to non-violent action and certainty of voice. Whichever way you read it, it is certainly a stirring call to arms!

The Founding of the Manchester Evening Guardian

In 1821 a printed booklet published by cotton merchant John Edward Taylor was distributed proposing a new newpaper. As a direct response to the Peterloo Massacre, which Taylor had give a first hand narrative of in another paper, Taylor wanted a newspaper committed to ‘political change and truthful reporting’.

The first print run of the weekly was to be 5th May 1821 costing seven pence.

The prospectus specifically identified the paper was to be focused upon and actively support and enforce civil and religious liberty, advocate for reform and seek just and unbiased principles of the management of the economy. The paper was to be interesting, avoid slander, report news but also seeks to be of interest to literary and scientific communities.

The plan managed to raise significant patronage to enable a wide distribution. Over the next thirty years the paper went from weekly, to twice weekly to daily publication and to reduce its price.

In 1921 CP Scott writes the essay ‘A Hundred Years’ which has ever since been recognised as a blueprint for independent journalism.

The Manchester Guardian became ‘The Guardian’ in 1959 in response to a more internationally focused editorial position.

In 1976 the Guardian moves to London.

And the rest, as they say is history.

This history includes prize winning notable journalism and journalists, new formats and a radical approach to keeping news free through paying supporters as opposed to firewalls. In 2019 The Guardian announced that it had broken even for the first time in recent history – and, HUGELY importantly, stuck to the principles of the founders of the Manchester Guardian.

So this ‘date to note’ features one of the first thoroughly recorded mass demonstration against inequality, for the eradication of poverty and the power of the will of the people to prompt change. It features an incredibly modern poem proposing both that ‘enough is enough’ and that non-violent direct action is a way forward. Finally, the best English newspaper without question (showing my own colours here) is launched and continues to stick firmly to its ideals, even in the context of a challenging financial climate and new technology.

What is not to like? This is possibly the most exciting of all the dates to note in the Guardian Literary Review supplement. And of course, a helluva story.