You may not have heard of the Peterloo massacre but it’s a piece of political and social history that deserves to be remembered. 2019 marks 200 years since unarmed mill workers in Manchester, protesting against poor and dangerous working conditions and demanding representation in parliament, were killed and injured by an unstable and ill-led militia, fresh from the Napoleonic wars. Following the Battle of Waterloo where Napoleon was defeated it became known as the Peterloo massacre, and, although the government of the day was more than satisfied that order had been re-established, it was the start of a movement against political corruption and led to the founding of the Manchester Guardian.
Carolyn O’Brien’s dramatic and engaging historical novel takes the events that led up to the 16th August, 1819 but keeps her focus on one young mill worker, Nancy Kay. Deserted by her drunk husband, she works in the mill and looks after an ailing mother as well as bringing up her ‘delicate’ son, Walter. When a child is maimed in a factory accident, the reader is drawn into a world of cruelty, inequality and the sheer will to survive. The story is told from a variety of points of view: Nancy’s friend, Mary who always looks out for Nancy and her family; the reforming mill owner, Samson, recently released from the army who sets up a school for child-workers and Joseph, who falls for Nancy but is morally unscrupulous. Nancy herself is a feisty, strong heroine gradually becoming more radicalised as working conditions deteriorate and food is scarce. She wants to protect her family and the only way she can do this is by joining others who want reform.
It’s clear from the beginning that in spite of the workers’ determination to be peaceful events will end in tragedy, but strong, imaginative writing with voices and dialects across the social classes keeps the reader intrigued and engaged. We want to know what will happen to Nancy and her hopes for change.
I particularly admire Carolyn O’Brien’s choice to give us an unconventional character in Nancy’s son, Walter. In spite of his unusual behaviour he is always loved and protected by his family, and Nancy demonstrates ways of keeping him calm and happy in impossibly difficult situations where they are threatened with increasing poverty and starvation. Nowadays he would be described as being on the autistic spectrum.
The tragedy of Peterloo still reverberates today when our political freedoms are once again under threat. I haven’t seen Mike Leigh’s 2018 film, Peterloo, but this compelling novel has made me want to know more about an almost forgotten chapter in history that should be part of the school curriculum. The courage of ordinary workers like Nancy should be remembered. The Song of Peterloo resonates long after you finish reading it.