The Very Public Art of Setting Democracy On a Pedestal

Atoll Blog article uploaded 16th August 2019 on the ‘Peterloo Memorial’ in Manchester by artist Jeremy Deller unveiled this week to mark the important 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre . Click on link to open.

December 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of that extraordinary virtual monument, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As an advocate for free society its original creation had been influenced by a myriad of earlier bills produced over the centuries, and starting with the Magna Carta (1215). In the seven decades since it’s own creation in 1948, the declaration has evolved from its origin as first a proposed treatise and global standard for humanity, to becoming completely embedded in many aspects of international and constitutional law.

In terms of commemorating the more modest, regional beginnings of Lancashire’s own evolution of it’s human rights, a month earlier in November 2018 had seen  the UK release of film director Mike Leigh’s Peterloo. [1]  The film was premiered in Manchester, rather ironically as an expedient outreach of the BFI London Film Festival. The event marked the (then) impending 200th anniversary in August 2019 of the notorious ‘Peterloo Massacre’ by a state militia of pro-democracy and anti-poverty marchers attending a ‘Manchester Reform Meeting’ at St Peters Fields on 16th August 1819. Earlier in 2018, the film had also been showcased at the 75th Venice International Film Festival. Although relatively small in scale, it highlighted that the historical events the film portrayed were still significant in the long, slow reform of universal democracy and free speech.

Up until fairly recently in Manchester, the public awareness of Peterloo had remained relatively low. In addition, all that existed in the public realm to commemorate it in civic terms had been one small blue plaque – often criticised for being far too inadequate. It referred only to the “dispersal by the military” of an assembly. It was only as recently as 2007 that Manchester City Council finally replaced it with a new red plaque. This new version now talked of “a peaceful rally” being “attacked by armed cavalry” instead, and for the first time mentioned “15 deaths and over 600 injuries”.

Shortly before the actual 200th anniversary date in August 2019, the City Council had already “quietly unveiled” its new £1m Peterloo Memorial. This has been created by the 2004 Turner Prize winning artist Jeremy Deller, [2] in collaboration with Caruso St John Architects. [3]  Deller’s vision for the monument has been to create a public art podium to be used as a gathering point for future protests and hustings – rather than just be seen as a more traditional (and so often figurative) sculpture and memorial looking backwards in time.

The resulting six-foot-high pedestal comprises 11 circular stone steps that bear the names of victims of the 1819 massacre, as well as the carved names of all the towns from which the rally travelled. The contrasting graphic symbols of loom shuttles & bobbins , crossed-sabres, love hearts, ‘solidarity’ handshakes and the Scales of Justice are also cut into the treads of the reducing discs of the ascent. They look very much like fondants inset into the coloured icing of a birthday cake. Enscribed onto the top tier, and encircled by a ‘triumphal’ laurel wreath, various compass needles point out towards distant locations where other states have killed their own demonstrating citizens. Amongst notorious others, these include the Bloody Sunday in The Bogside of 1972 Derry-Londonderry and the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989 China.

On the BBC Radio 4 programme Art of Now [4] that recently marked the memorial’s launch, Deller called Peterloo part of an “eternal story” of the “armed state against unarmed civilians” that had been going on for thousands of years. Projecting things forward, he cited more notable precedents of public unrest being violently contested by the state today, and alluded to recent examples like the Arab Spring uprisings and Hong Kong protests.

With a number of repeated commissions gained over the years set within Greater Manchester, and with these and his other northern works not being afraid to court controversy, the commissioning of this London-based artist had always been welcomed by Mancunians: His Acid Brass (1997) had been a seminal musical collaboration with Stockport-based Fairey Brass Band; whereas his Battle of Orgreave (2001) was his incredibly ambitious re-enactment of the infamous clash between striking pickets and police from the UK miners strike of 1984 Rotherham; More recently, and with both commissioned for the Manchester International festival, his Procession (2009) had been a free and uniquely eccentric mass parade promenaded throughout the streets of the city; whilst his What Is the City But the People? (2017) was a highly public catwalk created to celebrate the life of 150 selected good citizens. So it was, his northern, working class kudos could not have been higher going into the start of this commission.

However, following the public launch of the maquette of his stepped podium design, and rather unexplainably given the magnitude of the project and history of meaningful consultations throughout, severe public concerns and criticism were voiced. These centred on the accusations of overlooked (or under prioritised) accessibility and inclusion issues, and these were only raised as a major problem at an embarrassingly late stage of development.

The irony of this ultimate monument to the past and future sense of public liberty and equality, when being criticised by disability groups, became an embarrassment. Hence the soft launch, in the days leading up to the actual anniversary date. Critics like disability activist Dennis Queen called the memorial inaccessible and a “monument to steps”. It turned disabled people into onlookers on the sidelines, she felt, rather than allow them to be equal “participants in democracy”. Some concessions to disabled access had been attempted, but the singular brass balustrade up to the conical top and an adjacent level platform circle mirroring the top (and with identical compass point inset), was seen as too little, too late.

Permanent public art is by its very nature often a strange and delicate beast needing far more sensitive management of public expectations and shepherding, when compared to its more temporary or ethereal artistic cousins. However, whilst not a public building, any permanent artworks planned for the public realm, still have to be governed by many of the same regulatory forces as anything else interacted with and permanently fixed in our streets – or to a fair and reasonable degree at least. This is whether consideration of feedback from public engagement linked to planning permissions or simply complying with the statutory building regulations requirements of such things as safe structures and accessibility. The way forward, whilst also aspiring to push boundaries, can be fraught. In part defence, Jeremy Deller quoted the often-used retort that public art cannot be designed by committee. Whilst of course this has to be true in the strictest sense of always needing to maintain artistic integrity and risk, there is an importance in the complex world of applied design in today’s public realm, of also having strength to listen to and (sometimes) concede to others. Whether this is through creative collaborations with more experienced specialisms or making other essential design compromises in the best interests of a more holistic project. These do not necessarily need to undermine a project artistically, and can even make it stronger potentially.

Indeed, had Thomas Heatherwick not been so intent on pushing vain structural boundaries for a free-flexing and leaning über structure, his monumental £1.42m B of the Bang, [5]  for Manchester might not have literally fallen apart and had to be dismantled in 2009 after just 4 years. It could still have been standing as originally intended today, gaining the established credence in the process, like Anthony Gormley’s now iconic Angel of the North.

As beautiful and popular as it is, optimism over active engagement with an artwork and public health and safety do not always align well either: The Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Fountain (2004) [6] installed in Hyde Park has found this out to its (or our) cost since opening. By 2011, the public purse has reportedly already racked up £1m in maintenance costs alone, not to mention its many public closures due to safety issues. The National Audit Commission had also been called in to vet this “troubled project” and work out how it could have reached £2.2m over its original £3m budget.

In a desperate act of post-rational justification, at one point Councillor Luthfur Rahman, Manchester City Council Executive Member for Culture maintained that the new Peterloo Memorial was simply a work of public art and sculpture that had never intended to be for the public to actually use it as a speakers platform anyway. Thankfully, this ridiculous argument disappeared when he and the City council finally conceded that the resulting pubic engagement over the memorial had created a “greater emphasis on interaction than they had envisaged”. The city and artist (and presumably consulting architects) had simply made a fundamental oversight, but at least had now shown a collective strength of character to at least admit to this, and look to rectify the designs, now already installed. Deller has confirmed since that any required changes will become part of the memorial and might even become a feature of it somehow. A series of holes could even be drilled into the plinth to support banner and flag poles he said. Being upbeat, he also accepted that whilst he had been personally “chastened” , he also felt that the whole “process has been enlightening” too.

In her confirmed reaction since, Dennis Queen has predicted that with the necessary modifications, the memorial now has the potential to become truly great. She also stated it will become the first truly accessible speakers corner and monument. In the meantime though, she called for all protest groups to show solidarity with her call for inclusiveness, by not climbing to the top until everyone can access it equally. What the actual scope of these modifications will be ultimately, and how long this will take is currently unclear. However, the period of waiting another year until the 201st anniversary of Peterloo, has already been mentioned by some, before the required modifications to this monument to democracy can happen.

Six months after the 70th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, June 2019 also saw the opening of the 13th UNESCO Creative Cities Conference in Fabriano, Italy. [7] This brought together 50 city mayors, and representatives from 145 cities worldwide. Here they renewed their commitment to achieve the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, through culture-oriented policies and exploring their theme of The Ideal City. This advocated for the principles of “sustainability, resilience, innovation, culture, participation, and anti-fragility”. As part of this global collective, Manchester as a City of Literature, and with its population of 540,000, comprising 91 cultural groups and an estimated 200 languages spoken, has already signed up to the same ambitions of this new sustainable, cultural manifesto.

The backdrop and paradox to such renewed idealism is arguably the sense (or the hope) that we are also on the cusp of a new urban democracy. This is perhaps more of a wish than reality in the UK currently, with the spectre of Brexit looming and public dissatisfaction with politicians being voiced increasingly. Sadly, any rosy optimism and calls for ‘an end to austerity’ also need to be tempered economically for the moment, especially with world markets predicting another imminent global downturn. Such major cyclic shifts of world fortune never seem to change unfortunately.

The Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 [8] have their own long-term vision for Europeans, which is to write a new Constitution of Participatory, Open-Source, Democratic Action. But where does this leave Manchester and the rest of the UK post-Brexit? In the recent 2019 BBC Reith Lectures, author, historian and former senior judge Jonathan Sumption [9] remined everyone that the UK still has no written Constitution, but also argued against us ever adopting one as a response to any political alienation.

So, in terms of exploring the changing design and culture of our civic life, even our public spaces now look to be standing at a critical point in time – and particularly regarding the facilitation of any new public engagement models. One has only to consider the rapid rise in the reclamation of our public spaces, as used by various pro-democracy movements such as Hong Kong’s ongoing Umbrella Movement; Greta Thunberg’s school strike for the climate; Extinction Rebellion; Gilet Jaune; Occupy; and the Peoples Vote march, to see the potential role for our ever-evolving public realm.

In classical times the Greek Agora provided their citizens with a central public gathering place or assembly. It was seen as the physical centre of the athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life of any city. But could a new democratic blueprint for a modern equivalent for this ever fit with the complexities of our shared public realm today? With urban centres increasingly coming under the guise of something being called ‘pseudo public space’ or ‘privately owned public space’ (POPS), a free market neo-liberalist approach to governing (and sanitising) our civic life is seemingly growing fast.

The ultimate murder of men, women and children by the state in Peterloo 200 years ago marked a turning point to a long trajectory ever-upwards of Manchester’s inherent sense of egalitarianism. That this massacre came on the cusp of massive change happening throughout both world, country, region and city was perhaps no coincidence though. The citizens of Manchester rightly saw themselves on the brink of a new dawn of liberty, and intellectually looked to their peers for their inspiration. When it finally happened though, the catalyst for change came first not through social but a technological revolution. But this was still fired by the relentlessly entrepreneurial spirit of a ‘greater north’. Today, such a seismic shift could never be to that same magnitude as in earlier eras perhaps, but the call for a new sustainable and democratic momentum remains valid, and could potentially even be gathering pace.

Social & Economic Aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre

Immediately prior to the Great Reform Act (1832) that was to change the British electoral system, the political fear of a popular uprising in the United Kingdom had been founded upon the precedent of the American and French Revolutions of 1783 and 1789 respectfully, and the Irish Rebellion of 1798. This and the philosophy of key thinkers like the English-born American patriate Thomas Paine, whose published manifesto Rights of Man (1791) had argued that popular political revolution was permissible when a government did not safeguard its people. In this, he also called for reforms to English government, including the need for a written Constitution, composed on national assembly lines of newly independent America. Stemming from the French Revolution was also the key influence of a call for ‘natural rights’ from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), as produced in consultation with the ‘Founding Father’ of the U.S, Thomas Jefferson.

Deliberately opposing such democracy, statutes like Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger’s Combination Acts had been conceived as An Act to prevent Unlawful Combinations of Workmen: The 1799 and 1800 acts were passed under the Tory government and set up to prohibit trade unions and collective bargaining by British workers. It came from a government paranoia of a Jacobin-like rebellion similar to that which had happened earlier in France, and the fear that workers would strike during conflict to force the government to accede to demands. Tempered by a preceding century that had seen the so-called Age of Enlightenment flourish, expectation on the intellectual advancement of public ideals were already heightened, as indeed were common social ambitions for liberty, progress and toleration.

However, things were changing fast on many fronts in the early 19th century, and none more so in the industrialised north of England: The critical cloth trades here were already well-depressed due to the long legacy of fighting Napoleon and a series of Anglo-France wars. Throughout this period, and in addition to Luddite uprisings developing in parallel against the technology of the mechanical looms, there had been many riots throughout the north, linked in part to high bread prices caused by both poor harvests and Corn Law tariffs deliberately restricting the import of cheap foreign grain.

Unemployment in this era typically meant destitution, and ultimately this was to cause a chain reaction at a time when fewer than 2% of the UK population had the right to vote anyway. Hunger was becoming increasingly a way of life, but was ultimately the catalyst for change here. In the period before 1811, many petitions to Parliament, had asked for help for the starving weaving and framework knitting communities of the north, but the calls had been repeatedly ignored by successive Tory Governments.

Putting this combined period of change and decline further into political context, the country had recently seen the Slave Trade Act of 1807 passed, and this was to pave the way ultimately for the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act that was to end slavery throughout the British Empire. Rather ironicaly, up until this point Manchester’s ‘course-check’ cotton had been mainly exported out of Liverpool to the African slave coast as part of the trade for more slaves. Along with the port of Liverpool, it had been helping perpetuate and triangulate the cyclic slave trade to the West Indies. However, despite the critical importance of this commerce to the city’s wellbeing, the ultimate passing of the Slave Trade Act had still been strongly influenced by Manchester’s campaigners, including some of Manchester’s very own cotton merchants.

So it was that on Monday 16th August 1819, an expectedly normal working day in the Lancashire mills, that a peaceful crowd of 60,000 people from Manchester and surrounding towns converged on a legal assembly announced on the open space known as St Peter’s Fields. Whilst a work day in the  cotton mills, many attending were handloom weavers, who worked from home and traditionally took Mondays off after working the weekend. Along with their banners calling for fundamental rights like “Liberty and Fraternity” and “Universal Suffrage”, they also paraded their so-called red ‘Liberty Caps’ on the top of their carried flag poles. The caps were an ancient proletariat symbol of freedom, but ominously from the perspective of magistrate overseers, also cross-referenced the proceedings with the French Revolution and its calls for the ‘universal rights’ of man.

The crowd had come to hear a British radical speaker and agitator called Henry “Orator” Hunt speak from a raised husting platform. He, along with other speakers like Mary Fildes, the President of the Manchester Female Reform Society were due to speak against worker poverty and to demand Parliamentary reforms and extensions of voting rights. The call was for a reformed parliamentary system in which Manchester would get a fairer and more proportional representation for the first time.

But seeing this as rampant insurrection, and following a magistrate verbatim reading of the infamous ‘Riot Act’ (that no one could reasonably hear amongst the din of a large crowd), an order was issued to first arrest Hunt and then break up the gathering. So it was that first the drunken, mounted militia of the Manchester & Salford and then Cheshire Yeomanry, and ultimately the regular cavalry of the 15th Hussars, entered the fray on the already heavily crowded field. In the melee, as many as 18 peaceful protesters eventually died in relation to the indiscriminate attacks and 700 were also wounded, many linked to sabre injuries or from the trampling and crushing by the cavalry horses. The immediate political aftermath of the massacre and described “Waterloo of St Peters Field” was simply a crackdown on reform itself via the passing of something called the Six Acts – that looked to stem any further fears of seditious activity in the north by suppressing any meetings for the purpose of radical reform. However, the subsequent outcry did eventually lead to the direct founding of the Manchester Guardian and also played a significant role in the passage through Parliament of the Great Reform Act 13 years later.

Only 10 years later, in 1842 Prussian philosopher and social scientist Friedrich Engels was to arrive in Manchester to work in a mill owned by his family. Here he would spend the next 30 years or so  developing his socialist and economic thinking. Influenced by his local partner Mary Burns, she helped him experienced the industrial working conditions and plight of the poor of Manchester. This in turn acted as the inspiration for his first book, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845). Just a year earlier had seen the establishment of the principles of the first modern cooperative movement in Rochdale, and so fittingly Engels was later to invite Karl Marx up from London to develop their Marxist ideals further. It was in Manchester that they collaborated out of Chetham Library (the world’s first free public library since 1655) to co-author The Communist Manifesto (1848). Manchester later became the first local authority to provide a free public lending and reference library service after the passing of the Public Libraries Act two year later in 1850.

Around this same time, the release of Knutsford author Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton (1848) also focused on relations between employers and working class of Manchester from the perspective of the poor. Her story was set between 1839 and 1842, and was subtitled “A Tale of Manchester Life”. Gaskell’s later book North and South (1854) later used a protagonist from southern England to also present and comment on the regional perspectives of mill owners and workers in an industrialising northern city.

Add to this despair from poverty, the unfortunate confluence of the Great Famine of  mid-nineteenth century Ireland: The resulting mass migration of desperate Irish refugees to the north of England following the potato blight simply compounded the social pressures on the lowest working classes there further. With the increasing Irish Catholic populations of Manchester and Salford, two cities not normally associated with sectarianism, were to endure a short period when anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiments became more commonplace.

The then Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel attempted to introduce many social reforms, most notably for the mills in The Factory Act (1844) that limited working hours there for children and women. As well as this, being generally unable to send sufficient food to Ireland to stem the famine there, he also proposed that the controversial Corn Laws finally be repealed out of pure humanity. However, his party would not support him on this, and the debate lasted for 5 months. When eventually the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846, Peel was defeated on another bill and resigned. The Tory party then broke apart and fell, and William Gladstone followed Peel as a new more Liberal-Conservative Leader of the Opposition, believing strongly in free trade.

So it was that Manchester’s Free Trade Hall, built on Peter Street from 1853–56 adjacent to St Peter’s Fields itself, commemorated the repeal of these hated Corn Laws. As well as this, and in terms of supporting the working man and woman, Manchester continued to pull its weight politically on many other socialist fronts: The first Trades Union Congress was held in Manchester (at the Mechanics’ Institute) in 1868 and the city also became an important cradle of both the Labour Party and the further development of Manchester’s Female Reform Society and the Suffragette Movement – marked with the birth of Emmeline Pankhurst in Moss Side in 1858.

However, by this time, the trade route to and from Manchester as provided by the Mersey & Irwell Navigation was already becoming obsolete 50 years after its establishment. Only boats of moderate size were ever able to make the journey from quays near Water Street to the Irish Sea anyway. The completion in 1776 of the Runcorn extension to the Bridgewater Canal had only helped supplement this weakness briefly, as did the 1830 opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Pressure was mounting with the intensified competition for the carriage of goods and this with deteriorating economic conditions by the 1870s. This period coincided the start of a global downturn and what became known later as the ‘Long Depression’. Affecting the global economy, it was the most pronounced in Europe and the United States.

What happened next came out of pure entrepreneurial reaction to this recession and helped forge the real start to and the burgeoning growth of the so-called ‘port’ of Manchester. It also ominously marked the beginnings of Liverpool’s economic decline compared to Manchester. Countering excessive dues charged by the Port of Liverpool and the railway charges from there to Manchester, a 36-mile long ship canal was proposed via a bill to Parliament in 1882 as a way to literally bypass the competition. Faced with stiff opposition from Liverpool, the ship canal’s supporters were unable to gain the necessary Act of Parliament to allow it to go ahead initially, but permission to construct was eventually granted and started in 1887. It was to take just six years and a cost £15 million before the ship canal was officially opened by Queen Victoria at the Mode Wheel Locks in 1894.

Manchester’s golden age is arguably these last few decades of the 19th century. Many of the great public buildings (including Manchester Town Hall) also date from then. Thereafter the prime importance of cotton to Manchester slowly diminished. However, this period of decline also coincided with the rise of the city as the financial centre of the region. The die of Manchester’s social and economic future was finally cast, although the social and political debt to Peterloo, was to remain somewhat forgotten until more recent times.










Categories: Writing

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