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Bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre

Archives play a hugely important role in maintaining our history and keeping records of our most important events. In Cornwall this is something particularly relevant this year as we look forward to the opening of Kresen Kernow, the new archive centre, in September.

Today marks 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester where 18 people were killed while peacefully protesting for the right to vote.

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The ‘Peterloo Massacre’ was a defining event in British politics, and was recognised by inclusion of one of the event’s key surviving documents in the UNESCO UK Memory of the World Register. This register is part of a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) programme to support and raise awareness of the importance of archives.

On 16 August 1819, processions of men, women and children dressed in their Sunday best, and led by brass bands and radical societies carrying their local banners, travelled into Manchester from all the surrounding towns and villages. An estimated 60,000 people turned out to attend a peaceful reform meeting in St Peter’s Fields on the edge of Manchester, to demand adult male suffrage and abolition of the Corn Laws.

The local magistrates ordered the yeomanry to arrest the speakers on the hustings. Cutting through the crowd with sabres and bayonets, the soldiers caused up to 18 deaths and 650 severe injuries.

Support for the Peterloo victims was immediate. The impact of Peterloo rapidly became a factor unifying disparate reform groups across the country and galvanising support for parliamentary reform.

Peterloo is a pivotal event in British history because it changed public opinion on extending of the right to vote, which ultimately led to a series of Parliamentary and electoral reforms over the next century, culminating in the Representation of the People Act 1928, extending the vote to women on the same terms as men. These are the bedrock of the democracy we enjoy today.

The account book of the relief fund for the victims and families of the massacre is in the John Rylands Library, Manchester, and can be seen via the UNESCO UK Memory of the World register.

Our own Kresen Kernow opens for research visits on 11 September 2019 and it’s archives contain a wealth of Cornwall’s records which open a window to our world changing history.

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