There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Manchester: Chinatown and the Peterloo Massacre

I should point out right at the start that the only connection between Manchester’s Chinatown and the Peterloo Massacre is geographical proximity. The 1820 massacre had nothing to do with a Chinese community that only came into being in the 20th century.

A small Chinese community existed in the 1920s, its members mostly working in laundries. Post-1945 labour shortages prompted a relaxation of immigration rules and many more were tempted to exchange warm, humid Hong Kong for cool, wet Manchester.
Chinese Pavilions by the car park
Manchester Chinatown
They settled, as their predecessors had done, in the narrow streets north east of the city centre, in a rectangle bounded on the east and west by Portland Street and Mosley Street, and on the north and south by Princess Street and Charlotte Street. Not quite 200m long by 150 wide, Manchester’s Chinatown may be tiny but is claimed to be the second biggest in the UK and the third biggest in Europe.
Decorations, Manchester Chinatown
The first Chinese restaurant opened in Mosley Street in 1948 and was followed by Chinese banks, supermarkets and many, many more restaurants.
Chinese Supermarket, Faulkner Street
Of Greater Manchester’s 2.7m people, only some 30,000 are of Chinese origin. Most do not live within Chinatown - it would be horribly overcrowded if they did - but the majority of the people you see here are Chinese, as are most of the businesses. Even those that are not happily adopt a Chinese face.
Betting shop, Manchester Chinatown
The Chinese have a reputation as enthusiastic gamblers
Wherever the Chinese go – and they go everywhere – their businesses cluster into a well-defined area. The Chinatowns of Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City are vast compared to any in Europe, but the UK has Chinatowns in Birmingham, Newcastle, Liverpool, Sheffield and Leeds. With any other ethnic group it would be called a ghetto and there would be talk of ‘lack of integration’ and dark mutterings about ‘no-go areas’, but that rarely happens with the Chinese, indeed there is a degree of semi-official recognition. Manchester’s paifang (ceremonial gate) was a gift from Manchester Council to the Chinese community in 1987 to mark Manchester’s twinning with Wuhan.
Paifang, Manchester Chinatown
Although Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in the UK, from the Sea Palace in Penzance to The Great Wall in Lerwick, the best are often in Chinatown districts. We have eaten in The Red Chilli in Portland Street before and were keen to do so again. They specialise in Sichuan and Beijing dishes - a pleasant change from Cantonese - and on Saturday lunchtime most of the clientele was reassuringly Chinese.
Pan fried pangansiun fish (better known as basa) with sliced chilli and red peppers, strips of pork with sweet and spicy sauce and tong choi with crushed garlic had the genuine flavours of China rather than the simplified technicolour version of most Anglo Chinese restaurants - and as we only drank tea the bill came to less than £30 (almost 3 times what it would have cost in China, but so what...)
The Red Chilli, Manchester
Our previous visits to Chinatown have been to the Chinese visa office in Mosley Street; the object of this trip, apart from lunch, was a walking tour of the Peterloo Massacre site.

Having, as usual, a little time to spare, we popped into the conveniently situated Manchester Art Gallery. ‘Women and Children; and Men Loitering’ (sic) is an exhibition of photographs by Shirley Baker, shot in the 1960’s and early 70s during slum clearance projects in Manchester and Salford. They provide a fascinating record of a time that feels recent to us (Lynne and I were in our teens in the 1960s) but looks long ago. They were grim monochrome photos of a grim monochrome age, we thought, lightened only by the occasional smile on a child’s face. At the end were a few colour photos; the subjects had not changed but colour made life appear cleaner and pleasanter, particularly when the sun was shining.

Shirley Baker (1932-2014) Photographer and Lecturer
Photo borrowed from the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (Thank you)
You can see many of the photographs on their website

We also found some paintings we have not seen before and saw a few old favourites, including Julius Caesar Ibbetson’s A Distant View of Llantrisant Castle which in August 2010 inspired Manchester, Llantrisant and Beijing, the second of the 360 (and counting) posts in this blog.
At 3.00 we, and fifteen or so others, rendezvoused with. Jonathan Schofield outside the gallery. After finishing this post (but not before!) I recommend you click the link to his website. Jonathan is a tour guide, writer, broadcaster and professional Mancunian with a reputation for ‘knowledge, wit and passion.’ Following the recommendation of a friend (Thank you, Christine) we thought we would try his Peterloo Massacre anniversary tour.

Jonathan Scholfield reading from Shelley's Masque of Anarchy outside Manchester Art Gallery
The poem, written immediately after the massacre, was promptly banned
What follows is a description of Jonathan’s tour and of the events of the 16th of August 1819. I have, of course, reconstructed the tour largely from memory and as Jonathan has a reputation for accuracy, any historical or geographical errors are mine. The events unfolded in the area covered by the aerial photograph below. 
Manchester, north east of the city centre
The Chinatown rectangle is in the top right-hand corner, the paifang crosses Faulkner Street at its Junction with Nicolas Street, The Red Chilli is on the corner of Nicholas and Portland Street. The events of the Peterloo Massacre took place in the south and central parts of the map
A major economic downturn followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Chronic unemployment and even famine were exacerbated by the 1815 Corn Laws which kept the price of wheat artificially high to the benefit of rural landowners and the disadvantage of the general populace.

The government favoured rural landowners because it was elected by rural landowners. Firstly only the well-off could vote and secondly the distribution of Parliamentary seats had ignored the huge population movements of the industrial revolution. Newly important cities, like Manchester and Liverpool, had no representation while over half the House of Commons was elected by ‘Rotten’ and ‘Pocket’ Boroughs like Old Sarum in Wiltshire, where seven voters, returned two MPs.

Radical politics was on the rise, particularly in Lancashire where the cotton industry created a huge proportion of the nation’s GDP but where the workers saw little of the wealth. Insurrection was in the air and revolution close when the Manchester Patriotic Union invited the well-known radical orator Henry Hunt to be the main speaker at a mass rally at St Peter’s Field on the 16th of August 1819.

With this in mind Jonathan led his tour up Mosley Street, turned left and approached Kennedy Street from the north. Here there is the unusual sight of three adjacent pubs, The Waterhouse, The City Arms and The Vine.

The Waterhouse, The City Arms and The Vine in Kennedy Street, Manchester
None have any direct connection with the events of 1819, but The Vine is one of the few surviving buildings once used as cotton weaving workshops. The upper floors, well-lit by the standards of the time, would have housed the looms, while the ground floor pub would have provided an extra source of income. The City Arms was the same but the upper storeys have long gone.

A closer look at The Vine, Kennedy Street, with the loom weavers' workshops above
Those heading for St Peter’s Field from the north, between 6 and 10,000 from Oldham 3,000 each from Bury, Middleton and Rochdale and smaller contingents from elsewhere, would have passed down Cooper Street or Mosley Street, then lined with the houses of the well-to-do. The 16th of August 1819 was a hot summer’s day (the same could not be said of the cool, blustery 19th of August 2017!) so some might have paused at the Vine or the City Arms for a little rehydration, but not too much; the instruction from leading radical Samuel Bamford were that the ‘meeting should be as morally effective as possible,’ the demonstrators should exhibit ‘cleanliness, sobriety, order and peace’ and carry ‘no weapons of offence or defence.’ They could not have stopped at The Waterhouse, which only became a pub when Wetherspoons put together three late 18th century houses and an office.

Cooper Street, down which the demonstrators would have marched -
and the other side of the Waterhouse across Princess Street
We walked past the cenotaph into St Peter’s Square.

Past the cenotaph and into St Peter's Square, Manchester
In my ignorance, I had assumed the St Peter’s Square was the site of the massacre. It was not, having only become a square in 1907 with the demolition of St Peter’s church - Manchester's new commercial centre no longer had sufficient residents to form a congregation.

The ‘square’ is an elongated rectangle, its centre dominated by St Peter’s Metro Link station.

The Metro Link Station and the east side of St Peter's Square, Manchester
While on the east side are the mid-20th century Central Library and Town Hall Extension.

The Central Library and Town Hall Extension, west side of St Peter's Square, Manchester
Continuing south across Peter Street we walked down Mount Street past the Midland Hotel. To observe proceedings the magistrates had gathered at a house where the Midland Hotel spa now stands. Looking from the spa windows you would see only the other side of Mount Street, but in 1819 they were looking over open ground. St Peter’s Field was not part of a city plan – there was no plan - Manchester’s haphazard development had just not yet claimed it.
The Midland Hotel, Manchester with Mount Street on its left
If the organisers were hoping for a peaceful demonstration, the magistrates were expecting violence if not insurrection. They had intercepted a letter from Joseph Johnson, secretary of the Manchester Patriotic Union inviting Henry Hunt to an earlier, cancelled, meeting. Johnson wrote ‘Nothing but ruin and starvation stare one in the face, the state of this district is truly dreadful, and I believe nothing but the greatest exertions can prevent an insurrection. Oh, that you in London were prepared for it.’ The magistrates had drawn their conclusion.

We gathered outside the Manchester Central Conference Complex at what was once the south-east corner of St Peter’s Field. From here we looked west towards the hustings, two carts lashed together, from which Henry Hunt would speak. The Radisson Hotel occupies that spot now, on the 1819 map (below) it was at the end of the line of Constables.

Looking west along Windmill Street from what was the South East corner of St Peter's Field.
The Radisson Hotel, the large building on the right of Windmill Street covers the spot where the hustings stood
The magistrates watched the banner waving crowd arrive, seeing men in their Sunday best and columns of women dressed all in white. Frightened by its size, 60,000+  is now the generally accepted figure, the magistrates deployed a double line of Special Constables (men sworn in for the day) through the crowd to the hustings and charged Chief Constable Jonathan Andrews with walking down that line and arresting Henry Hunt and the rest of the platform party. Andrews, understandably, declined.

Map of the Peterloo Massacre site, 1819

Having foreseen this eventuality, troops had been held in reserve. The magistrates sent a message to the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry in Portland Street and the 15th Hussars near Quay Street.

Sir, … I request you to proceed immediately to no. 6 Mount Street, where the magistrates are assembled. They consider the Civil Power wholly inadequate to preserve the peace.

When the note reached the Yeomanry, Captain Hugh Birley and 60 of his men drew their sabres and galloped towards St Peter’s Field. Birley was a mill owner and his yeomanry were recruited from local tradespeople; all were amateur soldiers and few were skilled horsemen, even when sober which, by some accounts, they were not.

In Cooper Street a woman ‘came into contact with one of the horses’ as the report disingenuously put it and her son was thrown from her arms and killed. Two-year-old William Fildes became the first victim of the Peterloo Massacre.

Arriving at the field the Yeomanry were tasked with escorting Andrews' deputy through the crowd to make the arrests. They managed this, but exactly what happened next is disputed. It is easy to see how amid the press of a huge, angry crowd, sitting atop frightened, rearing horses, the amateur soldiers lost their nerve. They began slashing indiscriminately with their sabres.

Print of the events on St Peter's Field produced by radical publisher Richard Carlile 

At this point the 15th Hussars arrived. They were told the crowd was attacking the Yeomanry, but as the disciplined regulars pushed forward their perception changed. ‘For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away,’ one of their officers is reputed to have shouted at the Yeomanry. I suspect his actual language was more pithy.

St Peter's Field has completely disappeared, but the 1819 map shows a rectangular enclosure on the north edge of the field just below Dickenson Street. That enclosure is the wall seen above. It surrounds the Quaker Meeting House, though that was not built until 1830.
The Hussars cleared the field in ten minutes without further casualties. The number of dead was disputed but the usual list has fifteen names. It includes the unfortunate William Fildes, two special constables, one sabred in error, another killed by a mob two days later, and several who died of their wounds in the following days or weeks. Some 600 were injured, many of them later refused treatment in Manchester Infirmary.

We walked to the Radisson which incorporates the former Manchester Free Trade Hall, built to commemorate the repeal of the Corn Laws. After the Yeomanry were cleared of all wrong doing, the day’s events remained controversial in Manchester. For many years the only memorial was a blue plaque on wall of the Free Trade Hall, its wording strangely muted.

 The site of St Peter’s Fields
Where on the 16th of August 1819
addressed an assembly of
about 60,000 people
Their subsequent dispersal
by the Military is remembered as

In 2007 it was replaced by a more forthright red plaque.

Red memorial plaque, Free Trade Hall, Manchester

The dead are also commemorated in Library Walk, between the Central Library and the Town Hall Extension,…

Library Walk, Manchester
where fifteen red centred stars on the floor bear the names of the victims.

Memorial to two-year-old William Fildes, Library Walk, Manchester
In St Peter’s Square a cross stands where the altar of the church once was…

The site of St Peter's Church, Manchester
…and the victim’s names are temporarily attached.

Peterloo victims remembered on the St Peter's Church cross
John Tyas, the Times journalist covering the meeting, was on the platform and so was ‘accidentally’ arrested. Unable to file his report, the story was covered only in the radical papers. One of them coined the word ‘Peterloo’. The suffix -loo was popular after Waterloo (like -gate after Watergate). The 15th Hussars had fought at Waterloo and so had John Lees who was sabred to death in the massacre, so the name was particularly apposite. Peterloo was not the only event of its type and even though the sporadic rioting that followed resulted in more fatalities it was far from the worst, but its name has made it the best known.


Sir Hugh Birley was booed in the streets of Manchester for the rest of his life. He was buried in St Peter’s and now lies beneath the Metro Link so Manchester’s citizens ride over him daily, which is justice of a sort.

Henry Hunt and others were tried for sedition and received short jail terms. Men can be jailed, but ideas cannot and eventually (and it took a while) the radicals' demands were met.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 abolished rotten boroughs and granted Parliamentary seats to the new cities. It also doubled the suffrage to about 20% of adult males, a small step in the right direction.

The Corn Laws were not repealed until 1846, a belated and inadequate response to the Irish famine, but still welcome.

John Edward Taylor, a businessman who witnessed the massacre was moved to found the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper that would ‘zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty ... warmly advocate the cause of Reform ... endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy and ... support, without reference to the party from which they emanate, all serviceable measures.’ Now simply The Guardian it may sometimes fall short of those ideals, but gets far closer than most of the shameless propaganda sheets that masquerade as our free and fearless press.


My thanks to Jonathan Schofield who led a fascinating historical walk. Now would be a good time to look at his website.

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