A peaceful rally

The 200th Anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre

By Mike Schilling 

On 16th August 1819 a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries.

So reads the plaque commemorating the Peterloo Massacre which took place on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, England 200 years ago in August.  An unfamiliar story to many in Canada but as a young boy from Manchester, this was part of the folklore I grew up with.  The history of my home city is not about the triumphs or the trials of Kings and Queens but rather the lives (and deaths) and struggles of a hard-working and industrious people.  The symbol of Manchester is the worker bee and not only because of Peterloo, a seminal moment in the movement for workers suffrage, but for the repeal of the corn laws, the invention and progress of cotton mills to help drive the industrial revolution, the birth of labour unions and the cooperative movement - these were my legends, my heritage and what made me proud to call these people my own.

My father grew up in the, now-demolished, slums of Ancoats – a part of the city Friedrich Engels described in his 1844 Condition of the working Class in England as containing ‘a vast number of ruinous houses, most of them being, in fact, in the last stages of inhabitableness’.  Generations of my family who lived and worked on these streets were lucky – they were most of the time in work – however, the legacy handed down from father to son, from mother to daughter was one of working-poverty.

So why the history lesson?  Simply because “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.  The story of Peterloo is part of a shared heritage for many Canadians with British roots but the story of the struggle of working people is ubiquitous and timeless.  And it is as important and relevant today as it has ever been. 

No longer mounted Yeoman with sabres but we still see the disenfranchisement of the poor through manipulation of US census questions.  No longer in ‘dark satanic mills’ but we see the same erosion of workers’ rights with the explosion of precarious work and the gig economy.  No longer sent to the workhouse, but we do see over a million Canadians relying on foodbanks to feed their families. 

 As we commemorated the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, I look around and I am truly grateful for the hard-won rights that my family and I benefit from, in fact take for granted, but I also see the hard road ahead.  Even here in Canada, in our communities, in one of the richest countries in the world, I see people whose lot is not far removed from the working people of two centuries ago.  I see that if we are not ever-vigilant in defending the rights of working people, we are condemned to re-live our own Peterloo.

Mike Schilling

President and CEO

Community Savings Credit Union 

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