When first I heard of Peterloo
When I was a boy I was very fond indeed of creeping into the handloom cellar at night – especially for winter nights – to hear the men of the moribund craft talk and sing, and by the way, swear about hard times. What a quaint, independent set of industrials they were but they talked and sang sometimes of flowers, all love, or war, but mostly of hard social and political days. How they did anathematise the politicians of the hour, and, I am afraid, push revolutionary ideas into my young head. I was to carry on – so Joss Wrigley said – their spirit of political revolt when they were dead and their wooden looms were made into firewood by the factory workers. They were the radicals of Lupton yard, and when I read “The revolution in Tanners Lane” I thought if Rutherford had known them he might have handed them to posterity.
It was there I first heard of Peterloo. “Peterloo, Peterloo” was often the subject fierce conversation and denunciation. There were four of them in the cellar, in addition to an old woman who, sitting in the middle of the semi-subterranean workshop, wound course weft bobbins for them on a wooden wheel and spindle. Joss Wrigley was the leader of the poverty stricken group. My father was the owner of the looms, all bought for a few shillings, and rented to the others three weavers for a few p[ennies] a week. Joss was a great talker. Ned Greenhalgh – gentle Ned – was a listener who nodded approvingly at Joss’s political outbursts. Joss Wrigley had decorated – he called it decorated – one of his loom post with verses from Ebeneezer Eliot and democratic songs of Burns cut from the newspapers. My father sometimes played the fiddle to sooth their nerves – playing old English airs and Jacobite songs.
There was a stove in the cellar, which was lighted when they could afford to buy coal. I used to hate most about Peterloo when the looms were silent and the stove was burning, and the decrepit weavers were winding on a new warp by candlelight. One of them would guide the threads through the healds, two would sit on each side straightening the yarn and picking out foreign particles; Joss Wrigley usually sat on a stall and unfolding the warp, and, having the least responsible task, he would talk the most.
It was then that Peterloo rang most in my ears. Often I wondered where Peterloo was till I learned it was at Manchester, a few miles away. Frequently I was puzzled to know why it was that they spoke so bitterly of it. Subsequently I was informed that Joss Wrigley knew all about it because he was there in support of the People’s Charter, as he described it. Joss was a slim nervous man with white hair and a long beard for a man of 77 years he was still sprightly physical and alert mentally.
It was from these old-time weavers lips I first heard the names of Sam Bamford and Henry Hunt. There was only one picture on the walls of our front room, otherwise known as the parlour. Our house was divided into “front room” and the “back room” or kitchen. At that time our front room was an odd looking chamber owing to the height of one of the loom is in the cellar it would be necessary to take up one or two flags, it was a flagged floor, usually sanded – in the parlour to make room for the top portion of the Jacquard machine. All that the room held this portion of the loom protruding about a yard above the surface, two spindle back chairs, a small deal table, a winding frame worked by my mother, and the solitary picture alluded to which was a newspaper print of Henry Hunt. The name was underneath – “Henry Hunt Esq”. My mother knew no more of the August massacre of 1819 than she had learned from the heated harangues of Joss Wrigley, and it was she who told me that Henry Hunt was a man who had something to do with Peterloo.
I remember saying to my father one morning when he was playing his well-resined fiddle (his warp being “down”) “what was this Peterloo about?” “ax Joss” he said “it were afore my time. Joss were theer . Fro what he says, it were a damnable thing – summat as working folk should never forget!”
I was now particularly curious to know. And one day when Joss came from the cellar into the kitchen to beg some tea to drink with a meal of bread and cheese, I put the question – boy-like – bluntly to him. I have never forgotten some of his Doric phrases. He drew me between his knees, and said, partly with pride and party with indignation: “Peterloo lad! I know. I were theer as a young mon. We were howdin’ a meeting’ i’ Manchester – on Peter’s Field – a meetin’ for eawr rests– for reets o’ man, for liberty to vote, an’ speak, an’ write, an’ be eawrsels– honest hard workin’ folk. We wanted to live eawr own lives, an’ th’ upper classes wouldn’t let us. That’s abet it, lad. We were howdin’ a meetin’ a peaceful meetin’ an they sent t’ dragoons among us to mow us dean. T’ dirty devils – they sent t’ dragoons slashin’ at us wi’ their swords. There were some on us sheawtin’ ‘Stop! Stop! What are yo’ doin that for? We on’y want eawr reets.’ An’ they went on cuttin’ through us, an’ made us fly helter-skelter–aw because we were howdin’ up t’ banner o’ liberty an t’ rests o’ mon. Bournes (Burns) says ‘Liberty’s a glorious feast.’ But th’ upper classes wouldn’t let us poor folk get a taste on it. When we cried for freedom o’ action they gav’ us t’ point of a sword. Never forget lad! Let is sink i’ the blood. Ston up an’ eight for tweets o’ mon–t’ meets o’ poor folk!”
“Banner o’ Liberty,” “t’ reets o’ mon,” ’t dragoons slashin’ amung us wi’ their swords,” were dinned into my ear till I could not forget. I could not understand then why Joss was trembling with rage. I cannot then understand why he, having lived for over 50 years after the event, she still committed to disturb his mind. I suppose it had got in his blood and he could not live it out. I presume also that continuous use of poverty together with years of political injustices and vagaries, and dear food, for which she had lived, had helped to nurse his hatred which he resolutely passed on to others.
Political career began at Peterloo – a dramatic beginning, to be sure. Ended in a damp, dark handloom cellar at the age of 81. I remember asking my father years after – when thinking of the sayings of the songs of Joss – how much would be the earnings of Joss as a rule. I was told not more than 10 shillings to 12 shillings per week – sometimes a few shillings more, sometimes “nowt at aw.” Yet to the very end of his hard days just really omitted as far as I can recollect, to talk and swear about the struggle that began at Peterloo, and which he traced to the mob skirmishes in connection with the agitation for the First Reform Act, the aims of the Free Trade League, the Chartists, and the plug drawers. We talked and talked of these affairs of men, and the opposition to them, as he swung the shuttle across his loom was he sat in the impoverished kitchen or in the Tavern at the corner of the main street he was only 19 years of age when he escaped from the massacre of Peterloo. And you can say how much the working class is owed to men like Joss Wrigley a poor handloom weaver who from his obscurity passed on their spirit and opinions to coming generations?
The Guardian, 13 Aug 1919