A guest post from author Carolyn O’Brien
Amongst the numerous, often dire, social consequences of early nineteenth century industrialisation in Manchester, was the altogether more hopeful growth of literacy amongst the new working class. Chiefly as a result of the Sunday school system, more and more working people were able to access education and thereby discover a new political consciousness which, in 1819, found its voice in the movement for Parliamentary reform. It was, however, a voice that the alarmed authorities tried to silence. On 16th August, reformers from across the north west gathered peacefully on St Peter’s Field to call for universal suffrage, but were attacked by troops on horseback sent in by the local magistrates. At least eighteen people were killed and hundreds more seriously injured in what became infamous as the Peterloo Massacre.
My novel, The Song of Peterloo was published by Legend Press this summer to coincide with the bicentenary of that terrible moment. It seemed especially appropriate that Manchester Histories Peterloo commemorations programme – including two of my own launch events – was based in Central Library, since at the heart of the reformers’ story was the power of the printed word. The Song of Peterloo’s main character, mill-worker Nancy Kay, herself goes on a reading journey. Intelligent and naturally curious, the novel opens with an incident which leaves her stinging with frustration at her own illiteracy, so that when she’s subsequently offered the opportunity to learn to read, she seizes it, seeking out radical newspapers and handbills and finding herself drawn into the political tumult.
Like her fellow reformers, Nancy understood from the depth of her soul that reading matters because reading has the power to change things. It is a message which is as crucial today as it was in 1819, with an imperative that resonates down the years to ensure access to reading remains open to all through our wonderful public libraries.