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Peterloo Massacre in Manchester remembered 200 years on

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A scene from Mike Leigh's "Peterloo"
A scene from Mike Leigh's "Peterloo" -
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REUTERS
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The bicentenary of one of Britain’s bloodiest political struggles will be marked in Manchester on Friday with a series of events in memory of the Peterloo Massacre.

Picnics, a march and special exhibitions are taking place in the city marking the deadly event, which became a defining moment in British democracy.

As many as 60,000 disenfranchised workers had gathered in St Peters Fields on August 16, 1819 to listen to radical reformers rallying the crowds and demanding change.

When magistrates ordered the speakers to be arrested, the cavalry was sent in and spectators were trampled by horses.

What followed has now gone down in history as the worst violence ever to occur at a political meeting in Britain.

At least 15 people died, hundreds were injured. The events prompted John Edward Taylor to start his own newspaper — The Manchester Guardian — to campaign for reform.

The event became known as the Peterloo Massacre – a name coined by a journalist in reference to the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier.

Paul Fitzgerald has written a novel about Peterloo and led a successful 12-year campaign for a memorial to the tragedy.

"The 200th anniversary has fallen at a time when people are so bitterly disillusioned and divided about democracy,” he said, explaining a project called Six Acts in which members of the public will submit ideas for new reforms that could happen in the spirit of 1819.

To mark the 200th anniversary, London's National Archives is displaying a collection of paintings, maps and documents.

"One of the things we have here is the first report of the Peterloo Massacre that was received at the Home Office and one of the first written accounts that we are aware of in the world," says Chris Day from the National Archives. “It's a note written by a magistrate from Huddersfield, called Hey Allen, explaining that there were around 60,000 people there. The cavalry that were up on the field said that people had been ridden over and there were probably a few dead."

In 2018, veteran British director Mike Leigh depicted the tragic events in his historical drama "Peterloo".

Leigh grew up in Salford, Greater Manchester and wanted to raise awareness of an event that to this day is not widely publicised. The film picked up the Human Rights Film Network Award at the Venice Film Festival that year.

Peterloo is credited with changing British politics, but real change did not come about until almost a hundred years later.

In 1918, the universal suffrage Peterloo protesters were demanding finally became law — but for men only — women had to wait another ten years.