Peterloo, Straw and the Law

It was announced yesterday that as part of the Statute Laws Repeal Bill, the 1819 Unlawful Drilling Act (one of the repressive Six Acts imposed after the Peterloo Massacre) would be ‘removed or amended.’

Jack Straw said: “Laws on turnpikes, workhouses and the Peterloo Massacre are rightly of interest to historians but there is no need to retain them on the statute book. This is a necessary and overdue parliamentary spring clean.”

This is part of the on-going process of removing obsolete legislation which was started in 1965 with the setting up of the Law Commission and Scottish Law Commission.

But the Ministry of Justice  have got their facts wrong. As Michael Bush’s excellent The Casualties of Peterloo demonstrates, the figure of 11 fatalities usually quoted is a serious underestimate.  Bush has used the surviving casualty lists to demonstrate that fourteen people died directly as a result of the cavalry assault with a further four dying away from St. Peter’s Field later in the day. He also finds 654 casualties of Peterloo, not the usual 400-500 quoted. As Bush points out, both of these figures are almost certainly too low. There are a number of districts which sent delegations to Peterloo for which no casualty lists survive. Moreover, the types of injuries that the lists catalogue are overwhelmingly severe: slashes to and through the bone from sabres, arms, hands cut off, limbs crushed and mangled, brain damage caused by frenzied police beatings. Many of those who survived Peterloo must have lived foreshortened lives.

I hope Straw’s comments aren’t meant to imply that Peterloo is an irrelevancy, only of interest to dusty academics – this is a minister who at least likes present himself as giving a monkey’s about the history of radicalism after all. In Manchester itself, the Peterloo Memorial Campaign has done a great service to history by getting rid of the travesty that was the original plaque commemorating the event (which merely spoke of the crowd as being dispersed by the military.) By all means, let’s get rid of bad, old laws, (and while the law commission is at it why not get rid of some of the more ridiculous pieces of legislation our own government has created, SOCPA for instance) but let’s not pretend they were just ‘absurd.’ The repression that followed Peterloo was conscious, calculating and cruel, and it should never be forgotten.

Published in: on March 20, 2008 at 2:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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