One hundred and fifty years after Peterloo, in the Manchester of 1969, there are few memories of the day. Until recently there was no official recognition, successive generations of city councillors, Tory, Liberal and Labour, shying away from-the political implications. However, the Free Trade Hail, that bastion of Manchester’s reforming Victorians, was blitzed in 1940. When it was finally rebuilt in 1951, a mural commemorating Peterloo was commissioned. But as the attendant who first showed it- to me said, ‘It’s nowt mooch to look at.’ And, as it has no inscription, you need to be well-versed in Manchester’s history to know immediately what scene it depicts. Apart from this- belated, unsung acknowledgement of one of the most memorable of Mancunian days, the only other time you will hear the name mentioned officially is when you are unable to obtain a Manchester number on the telephone. Then you are connected to the Peterloo exchange.

The site of what was Saint Peter’s Field extends from Central Station to the Free Trade Hall, from the Friends’ Meeting House (the only building on the original site) to beyond the BBC’s administrative offices, incorporating the YMCA, the Midland Hotel, the Central Library and the whole of Saint Peter’s Square. It is appropriate that the Central Library should stand in what was the field, for it is one of the best libraries in England. The Radicals would have appreciated its presence; although such an edifice, with so many thousands of books free to each and every member of the public, was beyond the wildest dreams of the members of the Union Societies who hoped to open libraries in their dingy rooms, funds permitting.

Of the rural miles the Peterloo marchers trod so hopefully on the inward journey, so wearily on the outward one, few glimpses remain. From Manchester to Stockport is a jumble of terraced houses, semi-detached suburbia, mills and warehouses. From Manchester to Oldham is tarmac and cobble, streets of back-to-back Victorian houses, then modern council estates thinning to red-brick semi-detached, then detached, with the sight of trees and fields, and thickening to the Victorian rows again, with the mill chimneys and many windowed factories, many lying desolate. Only in Boggart Hole Clough and upon Tandle Hill is it possible to visualize what the countryside looked like in 1819.

Boggart Hole Clough is now a public park lying half way between Middleton and Manchester. It was one of Bamford’s favourite spots. The deserted Boggart House, or Ho, lay in a silent, shaded kloof and Bamford often fancied he heard the spirits or boggarts. The sounds you hear today are the buses and cars changing gear on the hill outside the park’s main entrance. But if the flowers are cultivated, if the wild honeysuckle and roses have long since gone, there is grass and there are trees. Tandle Hill, where the weavers and spinners drilled so assiduously and ill-advisedly in the summer hours after work, is a perpetual open space. It was presented to the citizens of Royton after the First World War. On the top of the hill there is a memorial to those who fell in the years between 1914 and 1918, but they probably would not mind sharing it with their Peterloo ancestors. Tandle is only a small hill, and it is surrounded by the smoke and houses of Middleton and Royton, Oldham and Rochdale. But there is one spot on the track up from Slattocks where you can see neither smoke nor mill chimney nor factory nor house, only the grey-green grass, a clump of stumpy, wind-blown trees and the sky. That was how it was in 1819.

In Middleton churchyard, up the hill from the square, lies Bamford’s grave. In the churchyard there is also a monument to her most famous citizen, ‘Erected by Public Subscription in his native town in 1877’, with John Bright’s epigraph, ‘Bamford was a Reformer when to be so was unsafe, and he suffered for his faith’. But her most famous citizen’s house was pulled down only a few years ago in a clearance scheme. All that remains is a neat blue and white plaque which states that ‘Samuel Bamford Reformer Resided and was arrested in this house August 26th, 1819, 61 Union Street, Cheapside’. However, it is in Middleton’s public library, a snug mock-Tudor building, that the surviving Peterloo relics have come to rest. In the librarian’s office are the red plume from a Hussar’s helmet; the remains of a flagpole that carried a Cap of Liberty and which bears the faint inscription Hunt and Liberty; and a heavy black constable’s baton, in excellent condition, with the gold leaf of the royal insignia clearly stamped. In the children’s section, Middleton’s green Peterloo banner with its gold inscriptions, Unity and Strength and Liberty and Fraternity, hangs in a glass case, the silk tattered, the colours faded.

Unity and Strength in the sense the Radicals meant have taken large steps forward since 1819, so large that nobody is sure where the unified strength should go next. Some of the Liberty and Fraternity the Radicals wanted has been achieved, but generally they are in as parlous and as delicate a state as they were in 1819. For human nature has not noticeably or radically changed, and the problems confronting the radically minded are as noticeably great as they were 150 years-ago.