Manchester, 1919: The centenary of Peterloo and the unfulfilled promise

In August 1919, the centenary of the Peterloo massacre focussed thoughts on the defence of principles and on how the lot of the average Mancunian had changed over the past 100 years. Its commemoration was also a high-profile event, providing a platform on which current grievances could be voiced. And, in 1919, many returned ex-servicemen  had good reason to feel aggrieved.

The golden age of “Cottonopolis” had been coming to an end in 1914; changes were already then making Manchester’s confidence creak. The First World War would exaggerate and speed up both the internal and external forces of change – so that the Manchester demobbed soldiers returned to was not the city of their childhood.

Over the course of the war, factories and warehouses had been turned over to munitions production. By 1917 Manchester was producing 2,000 4.5-inch shells per week. Engineering works shifted to manufacturing aircraft parts and dye plants converted to produce explosives. By 1916 a commentator could write:

‘It has been said that the present war constitutes a definite fissure in the modern world’s continuity – a sort of geological ‘fault’ in the stratification of time. Already Manchester is becoming acclimatized to war and ‘twelve months ago’ begins to look antiquated, almost antediluvian.’[i]

That ‘fissure’ was definite and irreversible. In 1919 it wasn’t just the immediate challenge of converting manufacturing premises back to peacetime production lines that Manchester faced; the markets in which Manchester’s goods were traded had also changed fundamentally and forever.

The decline of Lancashire’s textile industry began during the war, as the supply of raw cotton was disrupted. At the end of the conflict the industry experienced a brief recovery; there was again the shipping capacity to bring raw cotton in and domestic demand was healthy. In 1920 textile manufacturers made good profits. It was a brief glimmer, though. 1921 was a terrible year for the cotton trade. And, though exports would start to pick up through the first half of the 1920s, they remained well below pre-war levels. Between 1920 and 1926 organized short-time would become the general rule in Lancashire cotton spinning. During this period most operations turned over at around just two-thirds of normal activity levels. And by 1928 export figures were heading down again. As the market share figures below show, Britain’s dominance was finished. Some of the markets that Lancashire had traditionally supplied contracted after the war, and other competitor countries (which had the advantage of cheaper labour costs and were closer to the supply of the raw materials) had carried on developing and servicing the demand of their domestic and export markets. By 1930 British exports would have waned to almost a third of what they had been in 1913. Lancashire’s position was slipping. British cotton exports went into a long-enduring decline.

The men who had been recruited to the Pals battalions had been promised that their jobs would be waiting for them when they got home – but, in so many cases, employers would prove unable, or unwilling, to honour that undertaking. In November 1918 around 1,000 people were registered with the Openshaw Employment Exchange as being unemployed. By January 1919 3,000 men were registered as unemployed in the district and 6,500 women. Around 50% of the unemployed women were former cotton operatives, who had become munition workers, and now found themselves without work. As the numbers of demobilised men increased, the severity of the problem would grow. [ii]

Various veterans associations were being formed by early 1919 to represent the interests of the jobless ex-servicemen. The National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers (N.F.D.D.S.S.) had been established in 1917 by London-based veterans groups.[iii] In 1919 its Manchester branch was articulating the grievances of local veterans. In February it convened a public meeting at the Co-operative Hall in Manchester. Several hundred men were reported to have attended. Mr Paley, vice president of the Manchester branch of the N.F.D.D.S.S., forecast ‘very grave trouble’ ahead, unless the needs of veterans were addressed.[iv]

The Manchester Guardian’s leader writer, C. E. Montague, took a keen interest in the welfare of ex-servicemen. From the time of his own demobilisation in 1919, until his retirement in 1925, his editorials for the Guardian give an insight into the difficulties being experienced by both returning ex-combatants and by the city that was taking them back. In March 1919 the Guardian’s editorial would be reflecting on a recent demonstration by the N.F.D.D.S.S.. ‘A disposition to chafe is showing itself among a growing body of unemployed ex-sailors and soldiers in Manchester,’ the paper’s leader article began. It was now estimated that there were around 11,000 unemployed ex-servicemen in the Manchester district, around 6,000 of them being in receipt of the Out of Work Donation.[v] In a meeting with the Lord Mayor, a deputation from the N.F.D.D.S.S. had articulated concern that employers were exploiting veterans’ need to find work:

‘Many employers, it is said, welcome their former workmen back at the pre-war rate of wages “What is the use of 45s. a week to me?” asked a demobilised man yesterday. “It is not a living wage for a man with six children. I get 50s. out-of-work benefit for six months, and I will continue to draw it until something much better turns up.” That is a common attitude. The men have in mind the substantial wages earned by civilians during the war, and they have a feeling that theirs is the only labour which, apparently, has not gained in value.’[vi]

The pride of ex-servicemen was smarting. They clearly felt degraded and in some respects cheated by the country that they had fought for. This didn’t feel like being treated fairly.

By August the papers were reporting that ‘a grand route march’, from Manchester to London was being planned, ‘as a means of drawing attention to the lack of work.’ The Manchester Guardian lamented that it was a ‘depressing spectacle’ that men who had fought for their country had reason to complain that ‘they are not given a chance of earning a living in it.’[vii] 

“Peterloo, 1819: Labourloo, 1919”

In 1819 people had crowded onto St Peter’s Field, Manchester, to hear the famed orator Henry Hunt speak against the Corn Laws and in favour of political reform. The meeting had been progressing peaceably, but with so many people assembled (an estimated 60,000-80,000), the magistrates were afraid that there could be a disturbance. An arrest warrant was issued for Hunt and, in the panic that followed, the Yeomanry cavalry drew their swords and started to lash out at the surrounding crowds. 15 people were killed. Of the 654 recorded casualties , at least 168 were women. The “Peterloo Massacre” instantly became a sensation and it would cast a long shadow.

‘The battle still goes on,’ the Manchester Guardian recorded in August 1919. ‘Saturday’s demonstrators evidently see the situation to-day very clearly as a battle, and as nothing less. As much was said in a dozen speeches and written on no few banners.’ Among the slogans on those banners was: “Peterloo, 1819: Labourloo, 1919”.

A procession moved through the streets of the Manchester, en route to a public meeting on Platt Fields. The piquancy of this spectacle wasn’t lost on the watching journalists:

‘With bands playing and banners flying, on foot or in waggonettes, men, women and children moved southwards down Peter Street. The red bonnet carried on a long pole that came at the head of the procession stopped when the demonstrators were ranged along the Prince’s Theatre and the Free Trade Hall. Here, on the very ground where, a century before, the horror of Peterloo was at that moment being enacted, heads were bared and the “Marseillaise” was sung, and “We’ll wave the scarlet banner high” went up from a thousand throats.’

The day also saw a mass meeting in the Free Trade Hall, convened by Manchester and Salford Independent Labour Party. Philip Snowdon, of the I.L.P., told the crowd, “In 1914 your country needs you. In 1919 nobody wants you.”[viii]

 ‘The promise is not quite fulfilled’

In September 1920 there were estimated to still be at least 3,000 unemployed ex-servicemen in Manchester. The Guardian’s C. E. Montague took the opportunity to remind employers of their pre-war promises:

‘In the first months of the war we took it upon ourselves here to say things, in the name of all Manchester business men, which must have increased the assurance of many volunteers for the famous “Pals” battalions that after the war they would not be left to walk the streets. There was no word of complaint then that we promised too much. But till each of those three thousand men has got at least the offer of a decent job the promise is not quite fulfilled.’[ix]

The situation wasn’t to improve over the next year. With recession beginning to bite, the ‘Out of Work Donation’ scheme would be extended again for ex-servicemen to March 1921. In November 1921 Edwin Stockton, President of Manchester Chamber of Commerce and Chairman of the ‘Debt of Honour Committee’, wrote to the Manchester Guardian warning that, at the third anniversary of the Armistice, ‘vast numbers of the gallant men who achieved victory for us were in the most unhappy circumstances of employment and consequent deprivation’. And those unhappy circumstances seemed likely to develop into something challenging. Stockton went on:

‘The ex-service men feel they have very special claims upon the community, and in view of the services they have rendered to humanity they do not consider their present position to constitute even justice, nor to speak of gratitude. This feeling of soreness may be a source of grave danger to the social structure of our country.’[x]

There was clearly a very real sense that this ‘soreness’ could break out in dangerous directions. The government feared civil disorder. Between 1919 and 1921 Home Office correspondents monitored the major industrial centres and delivered secret ‘Reports on Revolutionary Organizations’. Fear of the radicalisation of ex-servicemen was evidently prominent in the thinking of those tasked with assisting to find them employment in Manchester. In March 1922 a representative of the Labour Ministry’s Appointments Department advised Manchester employers that every man given a job ‘became a contented worker, and the nation could not afford to drive anyone into the Bolshevik ranks.’[xi]

Other agencies were working to address and appease veterans’ resentments too. In July 1921 the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilized Sailors and Soldiers merged with its rival National Association of Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, plus the more conservative Comrades of the Great War and the Officers’ Association, forming the British Legion. While still energetically representing ex-servicemen’s interests, with a particular focus on employment and pensions, and addressing their welfare issues, in this new guise the voice of veterans would lose its radical edge. The British Legion’s first-stated principle was that it was ‘democratic, non-sectarian, and non-Party politically’. The Legion was created to ‘inaugurate and maintain comradeship’ and to ‘inculcate a sense of loyalty and service’.[xii] Coinciding with Armistice Day 1921, a letter from the British Legion was published in the Manchester papers. It stated the organisation’s aim: ‘The British Legion exists as the league of brotherhood of all ex-servicemen, and we are pledged to make every sacrifice in our power to aid our less fortunate comrades.’ In the winter of 1921 it was the immediate objective of the Legion to set up two feeding centres in Manchester. To that end, street collections were to be organised following Armistice Day and an appeal for gifts of food, clothing and boots was issued. But, as well as emergency assistance for the destitute, the British Legion sought to offer comradeship and companionship. ‘Our centres are in effect poor men’s clubs,’ it explained, ‘for last winter dozens of voluntary concerts were arranged in the dining halls in the cold evenings. It was a great benefit for men down and out to bring their wives to such cheery surroundings.’[xiii]

The first-stated objective of the British Legion, though, was to ‘perpetuate the memory of those who died in the service of their country’.[xiv] With the British Legion as the veterans’ mouthpiece, there would also now be more focus on remembrance and commemoration.

[i] H. M. McKechnie, Manchester in 1915: Being the Handbook for the Eighty-Fifth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Held in Manchester, September Seven to Ten, 1915 (1916).

[ii] Manchester Guardian, 30th January, 1919.

[iii] The N.F.D.D.S.S. was founded in January 1917, initially with the aim of articulating opposition to the Review of Exceptions Act, which made it possible for men who had formerly been discharged from the army on medical grounds to be re-conscripted.

[iv] Manchester Guardian, 25th and 26th February, 1919.

[v] The ‘Out of Work Donation’ scheme had been introduced in November 1918, offering emergency financial assistance to both unemployed ex-servicemen and civilians. It originally provided men with a weekly ‘dole’ of 24s, and 20s for women. Ex-service personnel could claim it for a maximum of 26 weeks, during the 12 months following demobilization, and civilians could receive it for 13 weeks, during the six months following the scheme’s inception. The number of ex-servicemen claiming state assistance peaked in May 1919. In Lancashire and Cheshire 73,732 men were claiming at this time. Manchester Guardian, 22nd November, 1919, 21st September 1920.

[vi] Manchester Guardian, 19th and 20th March, 1919.

[vii] Manchester Guardian, 14th August, 1919.

[viii] Philip Snowden, formerly the I.L.P. MP for Blackburn, had campaigned against conscription during the war. He had lost his seat in the 1918 General Election, but would be re-elected in 1922 (to represent Colne Valley). Manchester Guardian, 18th August, 1919.

[ix] Manchester Guardian, 21st September, 1920.

[x] Manchester Guardian, 8th November, 1921

[xi] Manchester Guardian, 17th March, 1922

[xii] As stated in the British Legion Pilgrimage Handbook (1928).

[xiii] Manchester Guardian, 11th and 12th November, 1921.

[xiv] As stated in the British Legion Pilgrimage Handbook (1928).


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