Peterloo, Cable Street and Olaudah Equiano

This is a transcript of episode 37 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Celia Richardson, Norma Gregory, Billy Reading, Paul Fitzgerald and Jenny Mabbott as we begin our journey through the history of power, protest & progress in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Welcome to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places. I'm your host, Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, a historian based at the University of Roehampton. In these programmes we're exploring 100 locations selected by ten different judges from thousands of nominations sent in by you. Each of these remarkable sites represents a pivotal or pioneering development in the history of England or has a special story to tell about our country. In this episode we begin the Power, Protest & Progress category which has been judged by historian and broadcaster, David Olusoga.

To take a journey through these locations, I'm joined by Celia Richardson, Director of Communications for Historic England; historian, Norma Gregory; and Billy Reading, Historic Buildings Inspector. Welcome to you all. In the next few podcast episodes we'll be considering the locations that define power, protest and progress in the History of England. Our judge in this category, David Olusoga, has chosen a wide range of locations from nominations sent in by members of the public.

It's a category that focusses on challenges to entrenched power, includes extraordinary efforts to achieve human progress and democracy and covers tales of sometimes violent uprising and bloodshed. In today's podcast we'll be looking particularly at the theme of protest. So, my first question to my guests is how much you believe that England has been shaped by protest in order to achieve progress.

Celia Richardson:
I think hugely. I would say that there's not much in this life that's worth a damn that hasn't been won through somebody's blood, toil or tears, often all three. And I think progress happens when power is shared or power is given away most of the time. But it's very rarely given away voluntarily and that's why, you know, we're going to hear some of the stories that we're going to hear today, about people putting themselves at great risk, about loss of life and limb and, you know, a lot of the people that we've got to thank for some of the privileges and the rights that we have today.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Thank you, Celia. How about you, Norma?

Norma Gregory:
Yes, I would agree with Celia. My thoughts are that in order to achieve progress and the development of people into a nation, they should have a right to protest. I believe it's a basic human right. The right to be heard in a political context and the demand for improvement too and within society for all is a foundation of the democracy that we dream of, I dream of, as a black woman in Britain today.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Billy, how much do you think England's been shaped by this?

Billy Reading:
Massively, and I think all three elements - power, protest and progress - are inextricably linked. You need the protest to challenge the power and in that way we make progress as a nation.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Thank you for tying that all together for us! The first location chosen by David Olusoga was the setting for an important but a traumatic event, the scene of the Peterloo Massacre of August 1819. On the morning of the 16th of August 1819 an immense crowd poured into Manchester for what was supposed to be a peaceful rally calling for political reform but the authorities were spoiling for a fight. Tragedy unfolded as troops charged the assembled masses to disperse the crowd. The soldiers were so violent that 18 people were killed and more than 650 injured. It was one of the bloodiest clashes in British political history. For Mancunians and beyond, it was a defining moment in the history of democracy in our country.

In the early 19th Century St Peter's Fields was a flat three-acre open space on the edge of the city. It was only just big enough for the crowd of 60,000 people who gathered there to hear the parliamentary reformer, Henry Hunt, speak. We paid a visit to Manchester to get a sense of how events unfolded on that day 200 years ago.

Paul Fitzgerald:
My name is Paul Fitzgerald and I'm Chair of the Peterloo Memorial Campaign. I'm also a graphic novelist by trade, so I'm working on a graphic novel of Peterloo.

Jenny Mabbott:
Jenny Mabbott, Head of Collections & Engagement at the People's History Museum.

Paul Fitzgerald:
We're actually outside what's known as Manchester Central Convention Centre, which is kind of the nearest, if you like, open space left that reflects St Peter's Square and it's the location of Peterloo, which is, of course, named after St Peter's church- the square was named after the church. And that's a kind of sort of bitter reference to Waterloo, the idea that our soldiers fought bravely at Waterloo, man to man, but at Peterloo they basically - well, some of them - cut down women and children.

Jenny Mabbott:
Well, you're talking about a period that is not long after the French Revolution- the French Revolution is within living memory. But you're also talking about a time with cuts in wages, unemployment and poverty and textile workers - weavers and spinners - didn't have a say in the system that was controlling them. Manchester, for example, didn't have any members of Parliament. You had places like Old Sarum near Salisbury that had two MPs for 11 people.

So, really this was industrial workers coming together to try and get representation in Parliament. Trade unions were banned at the time due to the Combination Acts, so there really was no way for the people to improve their own lives. It was almost like the boiling point, really. There'd been things going on all around the country in different cities and I think this was kind of a moment when the people of what is today Greater Manchester, many of them came together to demand the representation that they needed.

Paul Fitzgerald:
People arrived for what was essentially a pro-democracy rally. They arrived from all across the region, marching in the morning to arrive here for one o'clock to hear famed speaker, Henry "Orator" Hunt- a really, really big crowd of 60,000 people. You're talking about people being shoulder to shoulder, with a massive emphasis on peace and order and sobriety. I think they knew that at the slightest excuse the authorities were going to go for them. So, that was the order of the day. People did bring their families with them. Lots of the women were dressed in white as a way of symbolising the purity of their cause.

There was a ban on anything that could be interpreted as a stick. You know, like people even left their walking sticks in the pubs on the way, just to make sure the message was "we are orderly". Over there where we've got the Midland Hotel was where the magistrates were stationed. Now, I mean, they were just nervous as hell. They watched this crowd grow in size and eventually, as Henry Hunt arrives, you can imagine the crowd just explodes. There's a huge noise, Hunt's carriage arrives, he gets on stage, he's about to speak when the magistrates decide to send in the local constable, (Joseph) Nadin, the deputy constable, to have him arrested. Nadin just goes: "this isn't going to happen, okay, I need military back-up to do this…"

Now, the magistrates send out for military back-up but there are two different military groups in the city, stationed very nearby in the back streets, and one is the yeomanry. Now, they are private militia formed by the very people who run the city, the wealthy who do not want people to get the vote because they know it's going to have a huge impact on the financial structures around them. And you've got the regular army, the 15th Hussars, who will actually be drawn from the working class communities who were there, you know, to demand the vote. And it's the yeomanry who get summoned first.

They get sent in. They go in to assist this arrest, Henry Hunt's pulled off the stage but then the yeomanry just go wild. They start hacking at the banners which they call the colours- as if the crowd are a military enemy, you know, they start hacking at those. They're particularly enraged by the fact that people are displaying what's called liberty caps, the symbol from the French Revolution basically, which was also used in the American Revolution. There's chaos. This huge cloud of dust starts forming. The magistrates can barely see any more what's going on. They interpret the yeomanry attacking the crowd as the crowd attacking the yeomanry and send in the regular army and that's... you can imagine, just all hell broke loose.

But we're talking about 15 people who died and then over 600 with really, really serious injuries. Some people have questioned why is it called a massacre when only 15 of the protesters died? Well, because of the sheer brutality of the attack, the sheer intention to really, really hurt people and to teach them a lesson. I think that's what makes it a massacre. And I think that one bears thinking about in a historical context, that there was no social support for these people. You wouldn't have been able to work for a long time if you have a six-inch slice in your shoulder from a sabre. So, you know, when we say casualties we're talking about really serious stuff. This was a turning point. I mean, this shook the world. It was a turning point in the story of democracy, even though it was repressed for decades afterwards.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, let's take a look at the context here. Who was Henry Hunt, this great reformer that they had gone along to hear? What was he pursuing?

Celia Richardson:
He was radical and he was an orator. He was there to enthuse the crowd. So, when we talk about the context for Peterloo and, you know, how hugely important it's been, I think looking at the fact that it's not actually that long after the storming of the Bastille and the terrors that followed. I think history teachers all say, you can make two steps forward and one step back, and the way that, following the French Revolution, the gentry, the upper classes in lots of European nations and beyond became very fearful.

So, yes, I think a lot of this was about resistance to political reform because the gentry knew they had a lot to lose but let's not forget the broader context which is 30 years since... you know, that the gentry were beheaded in the streets after an uprising. So, bound to have had an effect and bound to, you know, still those shockwaves were being felt there.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Yes, absolutely. So, you've got this sense that it might happen here, it might happen in England. So, from our point of view this is a horrific massacre and, indeed it is, but context is all.

Are there any details that particularly stay with you from that day?

Celia Richardson:
The first casualty was a baby, dashed from his mother's arms. And I think the other detail that stays with you is people leaving their sticks, coming in peace and, you know, probably realising that their lives were in danger, that it was, you know, the atmosphere must have built and it must have been a very frightening place to be.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
How was it reported at the time?

Celia Richardson:
I think one of the other very, very important achievements of the people who turned out on that day in Peterloo was the impact it had on the mass media. In fact, you know, we're still, some of us, reading The Guardian today as one of our mainstream newspapers and that was founded as a direct result of the Peterloo massacre. All the national newspapers at the time had journalists there. They were rushing their copy back to London on a train but, yes, I think it was outrage and, you know, you can see from the sheer size of the petitions that were got up and how quickly news of the massacre spread, that the reaction was one of shock and dismay.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Because there was quite a lot of public sympathy, therefore, for the protesters, for what had happened to them and the consequences on their lives. We heard about, you know, you get a sabre in your back, you don't have any sick aid. What's the longer legacy of the Peterloo massacre?

Celia Richardson:
For me, I think one of the interesting things that's been going on is the very longstanding campaign for a proper memorial, which is now coming to pass. It's been a really long campaign, I think it's been going on for about 40 years, on and off. There is a plaque but now there are plans for a proper statue that actually properly commemorates that and if you think about the importance of that space in Manchester, its civic importance and how it needs this story to be told, really, because it's had such a profound impact on the world and the history of Manchester becomes the history of the world. It's a really important place to have a memorial, I think.

Norma Gregory:
Remembering the past is important and understanding from the past but we have to really use the past to shape our future better and learn from that, which I think is the real issue that we've not... many aren't really learning from the past. We're kind of repeating mistakes.

Celia Richardson:
On the subject of what often happens when you make a little bit of progress, the passing of the Six Acts in the wake of the Peterloo massacre and these Six Acts were legal crackdowns on the freedom of the press, freedom of the public to congregate, as if the people hadn't been punished enough on the day. Then, you know, the people's freedom is curbed further.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, the Peterloo Massacre is today regarded as a milestone on the long road to democracy. People died here in the name of reform and, as we've heard, there is a small plaque nearby marking the significance of the spot but if the Peterloo Memorial Campaign are successful, there is going to be this official memorial to mark this incredibly important spot in British history.

Now, for our second location we move from Manchester to the nation's capital. On Sunday the 4th of October 1936 a riot took place on Cable Street in London's East End. It was a clash between the Metropolitan Police, who'd been sent to protect a fascist march led by Oswald Mosley, and various anti-fascist demonstrators, including local anarchist, communist, Jewish and socialist groups. It's estimated that 20,000 of these anti-fascist demonstrators turned out and they were met by 7,000 police officers.

The demonstrators fought with sticks, rocks, chair legs, other improvised weapons, rubbish and rotten vegetables. The contents of chamber pots were thrown at the police by women from houses along the streets. And after a series of running battles, Mosley agreed to abandon the march of his British Union of Fascists to prevent bloodshed. So, what's going on here? How did this battle come about? What's the context? Can we paint a picture of that?

Billy Reading:
After the Great War Europe faced the challenges of mass unemployment and economic depression and Britain was not immune to ideological conflicts between supporters of communism and fascism. But the climate of 1930s British intolerance did not start at Cable Street- it had been brewing ever since Hitler's 1933 election in Germany. By 1936 the British Union of Fascists had become the largest organised anti-Semitic force in Britain. They were known as the Black Shirts after the uniforms that they wore. Oswald Mosley, who was their leader, attracted as many as 40,000 members in 1934.

Mosley announced he would celebrate the 4th birthday of the BUF by staging a provocative march through Stepney, the heart of the Jewish East End, on the 4th of October 1936. There were five East London mayors who met with the Home Office on the 1st of October to warn of the likely consequences if that march proceeded. On the 2nd of October the Jewish People's Council Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism delivered a 100,000-strong petition to the Home Secretary urging the government to ban the march but the government refused to intervene and it was left to the local people to defend their community. For me the Battle of Cable Street is really important because it's about ordinary Londoners standing together and standing up against fascism.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It's interesting, isn't it? Because I think we forget, because of the sort of dominant picture of the Nazis as fascists, we forget how popular fascism was in the early 20th Century.

Celia Richardson:
Yes, it had been on the rise across Europe and I think, you know, only going to war against the Nazis in Germany put paid to the Black Shirts in this country. The Battle of Cable Street seems to have sort of got this, you know, quite admiring following. People see it as a sort of celebratory... something to celebrate. As Billy said, you know, when ordinary people came together and did something very important. You know, the mural on Cable Street is very well restored, it's very vibrant. The slogan that was chanted in Cable Street, "They Shall Not Pass", has, you know, been picked up and used again and again in anti-fascist demonstrations.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Because, of course, this area of London was predominantly a Jewish area in the East End. By the 1930s there were some 183,000 Jews living in London. Many of them, of course, were families who'd fled from Russia and Poland and other Eastern European countries, fleeing murderous persecution, fleeing anti-Semitism and had settled in the East End because of the cheaper rents. So, Stepney, for example, was home to 60,000 Jewish people and really was the heart of Jewish East London. Modern claims, which are hard to verify, boast that up to 250,000 people had assembled in and around Shadwell and Whitechapel to oppose Mosley's march that day in October. So, let's talk about what actually happened on that day.

Celia Richardson:
Imagine the atmosphere. Imagine 250,000 people, although as you say that's difficult to verify. It must have been loud and it must have been frightening and something I can't even imagine today!
Suzannah Lipscomb: So, we've got this densely packed crowd, this huge number of people. They're trying to stop, of course, the march but how do they do that?

Celia Richardson:
I understand the battle kicked off with the Jewish ex-Serviceman's Association marching along Whitechapel Road, proudly displaying their war medals, the medals they won for fighting for this country and they were advertising, you know, the counter-movement against Mosley's march and their route was blocked by mounted police. They were ordered to disperse and on refusing they were beaten severely and this set the tone for the rest of the day.

Norma Gregory:
The police struck out with extreme brutality. Cafés were turned into first aid units by the Communist Party to treat the wounded.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
I mean, that's quite a picture, isn't it? Back to the ideas of the French Revolution, cafés becoming first aid sites. And so we've got this sense that the East End has joined in solidarity to, you know, help protect against fascism and to protect the Jewish population of London. Do we know what life was like for the Jewish population of London at the time?

Billy Reading:
I think it was really difficult. I think many Jewish people lived in terribly overcrowded conditions and in poverty, as most East Enders did during this period.

Celia Richardson:
They were harsh conditions but the East End of London has been home to wave after wave of migrants. It's a fascinating place to visit today because you can trace that. Each different group of migrants have left their mark on the East End of London, which is what makes it such a fascinating place and during that time it was a... there was a large Jewish population. And, you know, I think it was that identifiable population of Jews. You know, sometimes, when fascism is on the rise you're trying to find an identifiable group of people to blame and anti-Semitism, you know, was as we've said, on the rise at that time.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
How is what happened there memorialised these days?

Billy Reading:
There's a wonderful mural at Cable Street. It's on the west wall of St George's Town Hall and it was commissioned in 1976 by the Tower Hamlets Art Project and then painted between 1979 and 1983 to an original design by Dave Binnington. And the mural really stands as a testament to the power of protest of the East End, particularly the East End coming under attack but turning the tables on their attackers. And murals, street art has a really sort of visceral way of encapsulating the history that happens in the streets.

Murals are really important as focal points for communities and, after all, this is really about the community. It's about a right wing group that was aiming to target areas of tension and to scapegoat vulnerable communities. The anti-fascist legacy of Cable Street survives in organisations like Hope Not Hate and the messages that it really proves is that it's unity rather than division which enables communities to overcome adversity.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
The Battle of Cable Street was an event that encapsulates the struggle between power and protest but also demonstrates, precisely as you say, that unity amongst East End Londoners in the face of fascism.

Our final choice for this episode takes us to another address in London, 73 Riding House Street in Westminster where a man called Olaudah Equiano lived and wrote his extraordinary autobiography, 'The Interesting Narrative of the Life Of Olaudah Equiano' or Gustavus Vassa, 'The African'. Olaudah Equiano was a former slave from Africa who, by writing his autobiography and campaigning with other former slaves, helped to abolish slavery. Norma, who was Equiano? What do we know about his life?

Norma Gregory:
Well, we know from his autobiography that he was born in what is now Nigeria- he was born in the Igbo Province, which is Southern Nigeria, and sold into slavery as a child. He then endured the middle passage on a slave ship. After a short period of time in Barbados he was shipped to Virginia in America and put to work weeding grass and gathering stones. In 1757 he was bought by Captain Pascal for about £40 who named him Gustavus Vassa.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
And how did he end his time in slavery? How did he end up writing his autobiography?

Norma Gregory:
Equiano was about 12 when he arrived in England, so for part of that time he stayed in Blackheath in London with relatives of Pascal. It is here that Equiano learnt how to read and write; however, Equiano spent much of his time at sea. He'd served Pascal during naval campaigns in Canada and then in the Mediterranean.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, he travelled widely. Why did he write an autobiography about his life?

Norma Gregory:
Well, his autobiography was part of a genre called Slave Narratives, that they came to be called- there were many hundreds produced by writers, particularly those enslaved writers, they used it as a form of protest. He used it as a tool... as an abolition tool, he used it to travel around and to explain the real misery of slavery that was being caused to his fellow brethren all over the world, well, particularly in America. But he came, he worked in England, he travelled around England. He came to Nottingham, where I live, and he spoke there, in Manchester, Ireland…

I mean, we often think of Wilberforce as the key kind of pioneer for abolition of slavery but it was people like Equiano who took it upon themselves to learn to read and write and to produce their life story, which is often, you know, looked at today. If we didn't have these stories we wouldn't actually know what happened to them. So, they are actually really key literary forms which are understudied in schools, which are understudied in universities and I'm a real kind of passionate person about these kind of texts, that they are shared because they are personal perspectives on reality.

Celia Richardson:
The power of the narrative from someone who's experienced this cruelty. Yes, I think we are often all taught a great deal about Wilberforce. If you go to the Wilberforce Museum in Hull, which I did recently, you can see the scale model of the slave ship and it really brings something home to you but I think that narrative, coming from someone who has learnt to write, against the odds -it was illegal for slaves to learn to write in a lot of countries- but also somebody who's actually experienced this cruelty and is a self-advocate and is an inspiration to the people around him. I think this has been a really important narrative and too often we are only taught about the achievements of white abolitionists who couldn't have done what they've done without the testimony, the campaigning and the really hard work of freed slaves who told their story.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Yes, and then by... If we only hear the story about white abolitionists of course, then we actually are entrenching narratives about racial inequality. How important was his autobiography, however, in bringing about abolition, if we try and look at it impartially?

Norma Gregory:
I mean, I think it's extremely important. I mean, he was supported by subscribers and the money was you know, it allowed him to travel and to sell his book and to make a bit of money but hopefully he invested that money back into the cause. So, I think it's really powerful.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, we have the sort of sense that if you've got this honest... this brutal testimony, that it gives the force of truth to the narrative that they're telling and helps it come about.

Celia Richardson:
And to hear a real voice, you know, an authentic voice, someone who's actually lived through this speaking for themselves, especially given the way that slaves were often seen and I think to... you know, to have this person being a strong self-advocate, very articulate, able to bear witness, it must have unlocked in some people's minds who were holding some of the power, I think it will have changed the game, really, for them.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
So, that's the first of our podcasts looking at the category of Power, Protest and Progress. Thank you to my guests, Celia Richardson, Norma Gregory and Billy Reading and, of course, our judge for this category, David Olusoga. Next time we'll reveal three more locations in England's story of power, protest and progress. In the next episode we'll be looking at power, so stay tuned. If you want to tell us about an important place on your doorstep, you can always get in touch using the hashtag 100 Places, so it's the number 100. Don't forget to hit subscribe so you get every episode and follow the story as it unfolds. I'm Suzannah Lipscomb, thank you for listening and I hope you'll join me next time.

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