Film Review: Peterloo

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The film poster for the 2018 film Peterloo, directed my Mike Leigh (Source: Thin Man Films).

2019 will mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, arguably one of the key turning points in the history of British radicalism. In anticipation of this anniversary, Peterloo, directed by Mike Leigh, was released on the 2nd November 2018. I recently went to see the film, and whilst I think it is a very well-made film that will make an excellent teaching resource, I don’t think it has much popular appeal, and I wonder what it is actually trying to achieve.

On the 16th of August 1819, between 60,000 and 80,000 protesters gathered in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester to call for more men to be given the vote. The local magistrates panicked and ordered local soldiers and special constables to disperse the crowds. Mounted soldiers charged into the crowd with their sabres drawn. Unable to leave the area, hundreds of people received injuries from the sabres or were trampled by horses. It is estimated that 18 people died, although more may have died later from their injuries. The horrific events became known as the Peterloo Massacre, a play on the Battle of Waterloo, a triumphant victory for the British and Prussians over Napoleon’s French forces in 1815.

The massacre was an important moment in the history of British radicalism. It started a period of repression of dissent by the British government, but it also served to crystalise the goals and determination of radicals, leading to significant victories in the mid-nineteenth century. Much like the centenary of the Representation of the People Act in 2018 (for more information, see the Vote100 page of this blog), the bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre in 2019 looks set to be marked with a wide range of events, exhibitions, and cultural outputs. Peterloo is sure to be the first of many.

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The famous orator Henry Hunt (played by Rory Kinnear) greets the crowds in St. Peter’s Fields (Source: BFI).

It took me a while to work out what I actually think about Peterloo. It is undoubtedly a well-made film, with historically accurate costumes, sets, and dialogue. The representation of the massacre itself is wonderful; well, when I say wonderful I mean shocking and violent and awful, but that is because it was made so well. The acting is very good; Maxine Peake is wonderful as always, and Rory Kinnear does an excellent job of portraying the charismatic but pompous Henry Hunt. At 2 hours and 34 minutes it is a long film, but it doesn’t drag at any point. It also takes care to make sure that the viewer understands the context of Peterloo; the political and social conditions that allowed such an event to take place. For some, this may also be one of the film’s biggest weaknesses. It has a very ‘educational’ feel about it–I think it will make an excellent teaching resource, but how many people go to the cinema or choose something on Netflix because they want to learn something?

For me, this issue gets at the biggest problem with Peterloo; it isn’t clear who it is trying to appeal to. It is quite different from other recent films about historical British protest. Pride (2014) is a light-hearted comedy about overcoming difference to develop mutual respect and solidarity. It appeals to anyone who enjoys light-hearted comedies with a happy ending. Suffragette (2015) is a character driven story about Maud Watts, a fictional woman who grows as a person through her participation in the women’s suffrage movement. It appeals to anyone who likes character driven stories. I don’t really know what kind of film-goer Peterloo would appeal to, beyond people who like historical protest, which I am willing to admit is a relatively niche group.

Both Pride and Suffragette have been criticised for leaving out individuals and groups in order to simplify the stories and politics (for example, see Diarmaid Kelliher’s post on this blog: Thoughts on Pride: What’s Left out and Why does it Matter?). This can be very frustrating for historians, but perhaps it is worth editing the story a bit in order to make it more approachable for the general public. A historically accurate film is all well and good, but is there any point being historically accurate if nobody watches it? Peterloo has what feels like hundreds of characters, many of whom we meet only briefly. In most films, all the characters have a purpose; they learn a lesson, develop as a person, or do something to drive the story along. Peterloo has multiple characters that seem to do nothing but make the film more difficult to follow. It lacks the neatness of fictional stories or those adapted to better suit the silver screen, like Pride and Suffragette.

Peterloo is not a bad film, but I’m just not sure what it’s trying to achieve. If Mike Leigh wanted to make an accurate portrayal of a significant event in British history, then I think he has done a good job. If he was trying to bring the story of the Peterloo Massacre to a new audience, then I’m not convinced the film will be effective.

On This Day: Black Friday, 18th November 1910

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A suffragette struggling with a police officer during Black Friday. Photo by Rachel Barratt (Source: Museum of London).

By 1910, the women’s suffrage campaign had been gathering steam for several years. Frustrated with the lack of progress, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) were becoming increasingly militant, and their relationship with the government was deteriorating. Violence was escalating on both sides; the force-feeding of hunger strikers began in October 1909, for example. On the 18th of November 1910, around 300 members of the WSPU were treated so poorly by the police and bystanders outside Parliament in Westminster that the day became known as Black Friday.

During the 1910 general election campaign, Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, promised a Conciliation Bill to allow some women the right to vote in national elections. The Liberal Party won the election, and a committee of MPs proposed legislation that would have given 1 million women the right to vote. For many suffrage campaigners, the proposals didn’t go far enough, but it was still a massive step forward, and most campaigners supported the Conciliation Bill. Many MPs also supported the Bill, and it passed it’s first and second readings in Parliament. Asquith refused to give the Bill more parliamentary time, however, and called another general election before it could become law, killing it.

The WSPU saw Asquith’s actions as a gross betrayal; they had suspended militant action on the 13th of January 1910 because of the promise Asquith made to give some women the vote, and now their hopes had been dashed. They organised a rally at Caxton Hall in Westminster, followed by a protest march to Parliament. The rally started at 12pm, after which WSPU organiser Flora ‘the General’ Drummond organised the women into groups to march to parliament and petition Asquith directly. The first group was led by Emmeline Pankhurst and included several prominent suffragettes including Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Dr. Louisa Anderson (sister and niece respectively of Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Hertha Ayrton and Sophia Duleep-Singh. When this group arrived at parliament at about 1:20 pm, they were admitted, told that Asquith wouldn’t see them, and then shown out into Parliament Square where they were met with utter chaos.

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WSPU leaders at the meeting at Caxton Hall in Westminster on Black Friday (Source: Museum of London).

When the rest of the 300 marchers reached Parliament Square, they were met by aggressive police officers and male bystanders. The local A Division of the Metropolitan Police had plenty of experience policing suffragette protests, and knew how to handle them without resorting to excessive violence. Most of the policemen in Parliament Square on the 18th of November, however, were from Whitechapel and East London, and had less experience of policing WSPU protests. The women clashed with the police for 6 hours, during which time many of the women were sexually assaulted. Rosa May Billingshurst was a WSPU member who used a wheelchair. She was taken down a side street by policemen who stole the valves from her wheelchair so she couldn’t move, and abandoned her. Caxton Hall became a triage point, where injured protesters could retreat from the chaos. It appeared that the police deliberately tried to sexually humiliate the women to teach them a lesson rather than just arresting them. 4 men and 115 women were eventually arrested, although all of the charges were dropped by the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill, the following day.

The committee which had proposed the Conciliation Bill were appalled by the accounts of violence, and decided to investigate. They interviewed 135 protesters, 29 of whom described examples of sexual assault. Media sympathy was largely with the police, although plenty of people did speak out against the treatment of the protesters. There were calls for an inquiry, but Winston Churchill refused. The protest led to a change of tactics on both sides. The WSPU increasingly turned to covert protest tactics, such as window breaking and stone throwing, which gave them a chance to escape before the police arrived. The Metropolitan Police were also more careful about how they policed protests and when they made arrests.

The term Black Friday is now associated with over-the-top sales and rampant consumerism, but 100 years ago it had very different connotations. It was associated with the violent suppression of peaceful protest that became a defining moment in the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Sources and Further Reading

Hawksley, Lucinda. March, Women, March: Voices of the Women’s Movement from the First Feminist to the Suffragettes. London: Andre Deutsch, 2015.

Raw, Louise. “The Sexual Assaults Faced by the Suffragettes.” Politics.co.uk. Last modified 8 February 2018, accessed 23 October 2018. Available at  http://www.politics.co.uk/comment-analysis/2018/02/08/the-sexual-assault-faced-by-the-suffragettes

Wikipedia, “Black Friday (1910).” Last modified 21 July 2018, accessed 18 October 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Friday_(1910)

Book Review: The Road Not Taken- How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution, 1381-1926

The Road Not Taken Front cover

The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn. The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution, 1381-1926. London: Vintage, 2013. RRP £12.99 paperback.

There are several books that document and discuss the history of protest in Britain. I have reviewed two of them–A Radical History of Britain (2010) by Edward Vallance and The English Rebel (2010) by David Horspool–on this blog. The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution, 1381-1926, takes a very different approach to the previous two and, despite being quite difficult to read, manages to bring something new to the table.

The Road Not Taken is based on the premise that whilst Britain has never experienced a revolution, defined as an “overthrow of a regime and a drastic change of direction, politically, economically, socially,” it has come close at several points (McLynn, 2013; ix). McLynn analyses these moments in great detail, considering why they happened, what happened, and why they failed to achieve revolution. The revolutionary moments he considers are: the Peasant’s Revolt (1381), Jack Cade’s Rebellion (1450), the English Civil War (1642-51), the 1745 Jacobite Rising, Chartism (1837-48), and the General Strike (1926).

“why has there been no true revolution in British history? It goes without saying that Britain never approached anything like the socio-economic convulsions of the Russian, Chinese, or Cuban Revolutions. The nearest the nation came to something like the upheavals in the French and Mexican varieties was in the aftermath of the English Civil War, but Cromwell slammed the brakes on hard and turned abruptly right.”

(McLynn, 2013; p.479)

In the Conclusion, McLynn evaluates different explanations for why Britain has never experienced a revolution, including Britain’s island status isolating it from the worst impacts of land-based war, the monarchy, the British Empire, and Methodism. He gives each argument a fair hearing, evaluating its strengths and weaknesses. My issue is that McLynn never comes to a conclusion. He has valid reasons for why every hypothesis is flawed, but he doesn’t explain what he thinks is the best explanation. McLynn does the same thing in the Appendix, where he evaluates the different theories and typologies of revolution more generally, but he doesn’t draw conclusions.

I also found McLynn’s writing style difficult to get along with. The text is dense, and includes unnecessarily complicated words like “fissiparious” (p127), “galimaufry” (p312), and “exiguous” (p430). All that such a writing style does is make a narrative or argument much harder to follow. Academics often write in this way, perhaps in an attempt to appear more impressive. All it does, however, is widen the gap between academics and the general population, particularly when it is used in a book aimed at a popular audience such as The Road not Taken. The history of protest is one of the thing I am most interested in, but even I struggled to stay engaged with the book at some points.

The Road Not Taken does manage to bring something new to the topic of Britain’s history of protest. It may well prove useful to me in my research someday, with its detailed and measured analysis. However, I would not recommend it as a ‘fun’ read, something to relax with curled up on the sofa or in the bath.

Turbulent Londoners: Jessie Kenney, 1887-1985

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. To celebrate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, all of the Turbulent Londoners featured in 2018 will have been involved in the campaign for women’s suffrage. This post is about Jessie Kenney, younger sister of Annie Kenney, the best-known working class member of the Women’s Social and Political Union.


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Jessie Kenney (Source: Unbound).

Most people who are familiar with the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) know about Annie Kenney, the charismatic working class organiser from Oldham in Greater Manchester. What fewer people know is that Annie’s sisters were also involved in the fight for women’s suffrage. Annie’s younger sister, Jessie, was also a full-time organiser for the WSPU, although she had a different skill set to Annie.

Jessie Kenney was born in Oldham in 1887, the ninth of 12 children. When she was 13, she left school to start working in a cotton mill, although she continued her education through evening classes. In 1905, she went with her sister Annie to the Oldham Clarion Vocal Club to listen to Teresa Billington-Grieg and Christabel Pankhurst speak about women’s suffrage. After that, both sisters joined the WSPU. Annie, eight years older than Jessie, was a charismatic and engaging speaker. Jessie’s skills were more organisational, and in 1906 she began working for the WSPU full time as Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence‘s secretary.

Jessie used her organisational skills to great effect, arranging deputations to visit politicians and interrupt meetings. On the 23rd of February 1909 Jessie took advantage of a loophole that allowed ‘human letters’ to be sent through the Royal Mail to send Daisy Soloman and Elspeth McClellan to the Prime Minister from the Strand Post Office. In October 1910, she organised the WSPU’s campaign during the Walthamstow by-election. In 1912, she did the same in South Hackney.

Jessie did not just organise WSPU actions, she also took part in them. She was imprisoned for a month after being arrested at a protest in Parliament Square on the 30th of June 1908. On the 10th of December 1909 she disguised herself as a telegraph boy in order to try and access the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith at a public meeting in Manchester. On the 5th of September 1910, along with Elsie Howey and Vera Wentworth, she accosted Asquith and Herbert Gladstone whilst they were play golf.

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Jessie Kenney’s office in the WSPU headquarters in Clement’s Inn, London. The picture was taken by an H. Seargeant in July 1911 (Source: Museum of London).

In 1913 Jessie was taken ill and sent to Switzerland to recover. She didn’t destroy her papers before she left, and evidence that the authorities found in her flat was used to convict the WSPU’s chemist, Edwy Clayton, to 21 months in prison for his role in the group’s arson campaign. In 1914, Jessie went to stay with Christabel Pankhurst, who was living in hiding in Paris. Between July and August, she travelled to Glasgow once a week to make sure the WSPU’s newspaper, The Suffragette, was published successfully.

When Britain joined the First World War in August 1914, Jessie threw herself into the war effort with the rest of the WSPU. In 1915, she travelled to America to organise the early stages of the Pankhurst’s Serbian Mission. The following year, she helped to organise the WSPU’s War Work Procession in London, encouraging women to join the war effort. In 1917, Jessie travelled to Russia with Emmeline Pankhurst to meet with the Provisional Government and try and persuade them to keep Russia in the war.

After the war, Jessie worked for the American Red Cross in Paris. She decided she wanted to be a Radio Officer on a ship, and trained at the North Wales Wireless College. She got a first class certificate in Radio Telegraphy, but was unable to get a job in such a male-dominated industry. Instead she worked as a steward on cruise liners before settling in Battersea and working as an administrative secretary in a school. She died 1985.

Jessie Kenney may not be as famous as her sister, but there is no doubt that she worked just as hard to win women the right to vote. Her skills kept her out of the spotlight, but she made an invaluable contribution to the WSPU and deserves just as much recognition as any other woman who campaigned for the right to vote.

References and Further Reading

ArchivesHub. “Papers of Jessie Kenney.” No date, accessed 14 October 2018. Available at https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/046b1a57-c944-3de8-bc81-00176e398001

Simkin, John. “Jessie Kenney.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified February 2015, accessed 14 October 2018. Available at https://spartacus-educational.com/WkenneyJ.htm

Wikipedia, “Jessie Kenney.” Last modified 15 August 2018, accessed 9 October 2018. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_Kenney

Mill Girls and Militants at Preston’s Flag Market and the Harris Museum

The centenary of some women being given the right to vote in the UK has inspired a huge variety of creative outputs, including books, exhibitions, and even a few of my own blog posts (see everything I’ve written about Vote 100 here). On 27th of October, I went to see a performance piece that creatively engaged with the suffrage centenary in an entirely different way. Mill Girls and Militants is inspired by Lancashire’s suffrage stories, and created by Ludus, a Lancaster-based dance development charity.

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Mill Girls and Militants on the Preston Flag Market on Saturday 27th October 2018 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The performance took place in Preston’s Harris Museum, and on the Flag Market outside. A combination of music and dance, the performance was the culmination of a summer of activities and research designed to connect women in Preston, Lancaster, and Burnley with local suffrage history. It was performed by the Ludus Youth Dance Company and local community groups, and was recorded with special Virtual Reality cameras, which means the performance will be available as a VR experience, increasing the number of people who can experience it and creating a teaching resource.

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A defiant group of suffragettes on the second floor of the Harris Museum (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The performance began on the Flag Market, with a wonderful rendition of ‘Nana was a Suffragette,’ a song written by Jules Gibb. Dancers then took on the role of the women of Lancashire, working their shift in the mill as word of a pro-suffrage meeting spreads. Beyond that, the ‘narrative’ became less easy to follow (for me, anyway!). The audience followed the women into the Harris Museum, where groups performed on three different floors. We were all then evicted from the museum, replicating women’s experiences of being banned from museums and art galleries after suffragettes damaged exhibits. One of the most famous examples is the slashing of The Rokeby Venus, a painting by Diego Delazquez, in the National Portrait Gallery by Mary Richardson in 1914. We were led back to the Flag Market, where the ‘protest’ continued. Each of the earlier sections had been performed by smaller groups, but this one involved the whole cast, communicating a real sense of collective power. The choir sung again, and the performance culminated with the whole cast flipping their aprons around the reveal the flags and colours of various pro-suffrage organisations.

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The flags of different suffrage organisations were revealed as part of the performance’s finale (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

I’m not ashamed to say that I don’t often ‘get’ modern dance performances, I struggle to connect with the story they are telling, or the emotion they are trying to convey. And I will admit that there were parts of Mill Girls and Militants that I didn’t understand. However, I enjoyed the performance, which was definitely the most creative way that I have seen the suffrage centenary engaged with over the last 12 months, and I can see its potential for engaging the general public. Lots of people who were in town for other reasons stopped to see what was going on, and who knows, perhaps a few of them went home and did a bit of research on Edith Rigby or Selina Cooper, or any of Lancashire’s suffrage campaigners. I also liked the way that Mill Girls and Militants used the space of Preston’s city centre; the Flag Market is a large open space which has probably witnesses hundreds of protests over the years, and the more enclosed spaces of the Harris Museum created a completely different atmosphere.

Thanks to the VR experience that is being produced of the performance, Mill Girls and Militants is not yet over. It will be interesting to see how this next stage of the project develops, and whether it is as effective in virtual reality as it was in real life.