CHT Blog Post 1  - September 2019: The Pioneers and Peterloo

In August, the Co-operative Heritage Trust held some events related to the Peterloo Bi-centenial including an open day, craft sessions, film screening and webinar hosted by the Co-operative College.

Our display theme for 2018-2019 was 'Our Voices' and during this time we looked at ways in which voice has mattered to co-operators and how the movement has worked to give co-op members a voice and help others find theirs.

The Rochdale Equitable Pioneers Society (the clue being in the name) was established in order to give people more of a say in how things were done, and change the power dynamics of an organisation in order to make bigger economic and societal changes.

The question has been asked; why, when co-operatives are supposed to be politically neutral, would 'Peterloo' matter to us as a co-operative organisation today, and why would it have mattered to the Pioneers who founded their society twenty five years after the events on St Peter's Field in 1819?

Political neutrality was one of the principles on which the Rochdale society was set up in order to prevent exclusion. Many of the Pioneers themselves described themselves as politically active, with several involved in Socialism or Chartism. Political interest in the 1840's or membership of unions would be enough to get a person fired, or blacklisted, and membership of a 'neutral' organisation provided a safe space for these people. It did not mean that members could not be very politically engaged themselves.

But what about the direct impact of Peterloo itself? Historians debate the impact of the 'meeting' itself as after the crowd was violently dispersed with the leaders arrested and tried; there was a clamp down on political activity and suppression of reform movements in general.

Looking at Peterloo in context was important for us, not for what it specifically achieved, but as a 'watershed' moment and an action of such magnitude that it could not be easily forgotten. Some historians have argued that it is the violent action and the reporting on it nationally, even internationally which helps to spread the word for reform beyond the industrial towns, and in tandem with the increased literacy levels and the improvements in infrastructure to help people communicate more effectively, Peterloo would be a source of inspiration for a later generation of reformers.

Most of the Pioneers would have been very young, some not even born in 1819. At least one of them, Miles Ashworth (Father of Sam) would have not only been in Rochdale at the time, having been recently de-mobbed from the Marines after Waterloo, but we believe it is highly likely he participated in the lead up to the march to Peter's Fields. The radical writer and poet Samuel Bamford of Middleton wrote extensively about Peterloo after he was arrested for his role in encouraging reform, and mentioned the preparations taken in the Pennine Towns such as Oldham and Rochdale. He explained that people met on the moors to 'drill' in military fashion and that this was done in order that the crowd would present an orderly and sober appearance for the planned march to the 'picnic' in Manchester and give the authorities no cause to panic and arrest them.

The 'drillings' were led by what Sam called 'old veterans of Waterloo' who lived locally. One of these veterans is likely to have been Miles Ashworth who had in fact not only been present at the point Napoleon Bonaparte was captured after the defeat at Waterloo, but had also accompanied him on the ship which took him into exile on St Helena. He can be found on the crew lists for both the HMS Bellaraphon (nicknamed the 'Billy Ruffian' by the crew) and the HMS Northumberland. Interestingly it was said of Miles during his lifetime that he stood guard outside Napoleon's cabin on board Northumberland and at least his presence on the ship can be confirmed so the rumours of his involvement in Peterloo is just as plausible. On returning to Rochdale after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, Miles would have experienced the same as the other returning soldiers, a textile manufacturing slump, economic downturn and the mass unemployment made worse by the steep prices for bread pushed up by the Corn Laws (which were enacted to prevent the British market being undercut with wheat from overseas). Times would not be so hard again until the 1840's or 'hungry' 40's.

Immediately after Peterloo, a clampdown in the Six Acts restricted the press, public meetings and the formation of trades unions and it was not until the 1832 Reform Act which allowed more middle class men the vote, that Manchester was able to achieve the representation it had lacked in 1819. The Chartist movement and writing of a six point 'People's Charter' in 1838 was the direct development of the reforms not having been perceived to have gone far enough. The Chartists were led by working class spokespeople, co-operators and reformers and the movement was a natural extension for the previous generation of social and political activists. Both Miles and his son described themselves as for the Chartist cause and attended meetings in Rochdale and Manchester.

Aspects of what the Chartists wanted such as one member - one vote, a secret ballot and for MP's to be paid to allow people of more modest means to stand, are directly echoed in the rules or 'law' of the first successful co-operative society. The Rochdale Pioneers wanted a vote for each member, the freedom of religious or political conviction, the profits of the society to benefit the members and to use the society to improve the wider community. Although politically neutral, the aim of changing society and expectation was surely a political move, and one born out of the context of struggles and sacrifice of the 'Peterloo generation' who would not live to see the changes they helped bring about.

In 1919, The Co-operative News published an article explaining that the aims of the Peterloo protesters had now been answered in full and that effectively there was nothing more to campaign for. Although women over 30 had just been given the vote, universal suffrage was still not in place. At the time, the striking shipyard workers in Glasgow and Belfast were shouting "remember Peterloo" at the picket lines and under the government machine of the British Empire, not all citizens were equal.

As we look back on how far we have come, we are reminded of what is yet to achieve, and how the founding principles of co-operation can be applied to making the modern world a better and fairer place for everyone.