The Peterloo Handkerchief

Teaching ideas

The resource pack from the People’s History Museum – see For the classroom - contains several activities that will engage students with the handkerchief.

The resources from the National Archives in For the classroom are useful to establish the basic narrative of what happened at Peterloo.

The concept of a cotton handkerchief might be quite alien to many students so show a handkerchief (preferably a clean one!) to the class. Give students a strict time limit of three minutes and ask them to work in groups to think of as many uses for the handkerchief as they can. One person in the group should write down all the responses on a large piece of paper. You might suggest that students whisper so that they don’t give away ideas to a neighbouring group. When the three minutes are up, ask one student from each group to read out their list to the class. Which group thought of most uses? Which group thought of the most unusual use? Did any group include: ‘as a form of political protest’, ‘to remember an important event’ ‘to show membership of a particular group? Probably not! You can then show students an image of the Peterloo Handkerchief and explain why it was produced.

A good way to engage students with an historical picture – particularly one which contains lots of interesting detail like the Peterloo Handkerchief – is to set them the ‘team drawing challenge’. Stand at the front of the class holding a large image of the Peterloo Handkerchief in front of you. The picture should face towards the front of the classroom so that it can be seen by you, but not by the students. Divide the class into teams of 4-5 students and explain that one student from each team will take it in turns to come to the front of the class, stand behind you and to look at the painting for ten seconds only. They will then go back to their group and describe the picture to their team-mates who will try to draw a version of the picture as accurately as possible based on what the viewer had said. Advise students that as they take it in turns to look at the picture, they should identify the parts of the picture where their drawing lacks detail, and where the next viewer should therefore look for further information. When all students have had a ten-second look at the picture, and have reported back to their team-mates, the teams can show their pictures to the whole class. On your whiteboard, reveal the Peterloo Handkerchief image to the class and decide which team has produced the most accurate picture. Then ask students to find interesting of the details in the picture and provide the context for the picture by telling them what happened at Peterloo.

An alternative way to engage students with the image on the handkerchief is to show them a photograph of the Free Trade Hall in Manchester - use the link in For the classroom (Peterloo Red Plaque and the Free Trade Hall). Explain to students that on the 16 August 1819 something terrible happened at this site, then tell them the story of the background to Peterloo and the events of 16 August. You could base your story on an imagined or a real individual caught up in the events. It may be helpful to reinforce your story by showing students the film on the Peterloo Massacre in For the classroom. Students will then be ready to analyse the Peterloo Handkerchief. Explain that the handkerchief was produced for someone to support the radical cause following the Peterloo Massacre. Ask students to suggest what details in the picture its owner might have been particularly pleased with?

The extract from the official report of the massacre in For the classroom provides some vivid details. Ask students to look at the occupations of those wounded – notice how many were weavers - their ages, where they were from and what their families were. Ask students if any of them have ever encountered a horseman close-up and to consider the impact of a charge of horses into a crowd. Look at the sabre in For the classroom in relation to the injuries suffered by the wounded. Use some of the remarks in the report to create mini re-enactments or first-person statements by the injured or by eye-witnesses.

These activities could lead into one of the following enquiries on the Peterloo Massacre and the wider history of political protest in Britain.

How should we remember the Peterloo Massacre?

This enquiry engages students with the idea of memorialisation and encourages them to think about the ways in which historical events are interpreted and remembered in the places where they occurred. Show the red plaque which was made in 2007 to commemorate the Peterloo Massacre and the blue plaque which it replaced – see For the classroom (Peterloo Blue and Red Plaques). Ask students to comment on the differences between the plaques. Based on their knowledge of the Peterloo Massacre which one do they think is most appropriate? Then ask them to look at the Peterloo Memorial Campaign website in For the classroom using this question: Why were the creators of this website motivated to campaign in this way? Ask students to work in groups to design a memorial that they think would please the campaigners.

An alternative outcome for this enquiry could be to ask students to plan an exhibition for the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre in 2019. The pictures and objects in A bigger picture can all feature in the exhibition. Ask students to write text panels for these exhibits and to select an object as the lead exhibit, explaining their choice. Ask them to do some online research and to select one more document and one more artefact for the exhibition.

How close was Britain to revolution between 1815 and 1832?

Peterloo was one of a series of events between 1815 and 1832 which challenged the government and created a fear of revolution. You could begin by explaining the main features of the French Revolution and then ask students to consider the extent to which the British government faced a serious threat of revolution in the years between 1815 and 1832. Start by outlining the underlying changes that occurred in Britain during the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: industrialisation and the growth of factory work, urbanisation, the development of a new industrial elite, Enlightenment ideas and the increasingly outdated parliamentary system. Students can then research the different threats to the government from 1815 to 1832: the Spa Field Riot, the Blanketeers, the Luddites, the Derbyshire Rising, Peterloo, the Cato Street Conspiracy and the Bristol Riots. The enquiry could culminate in a debate or an essay to answer the enquiry question.

Why do historians argue about the Peterloo Massacre?

The Peterloo Massacre has been open to different interpretations from historians. In 1957, Donald Read in his book Peterloo: the ‘Massacre’ and its Background argued that the massacre was the result of panic and a lack of foresight on the part of the Manchester magistrates. E.P. Thompson in his famous book of 1963, The Making of the English Working Class suspected that the central government planned a showdown with the demonstrators from the outset. Both Read and Thompson agreed that the demonstrators at Peterloo were generally peaceful, but Robert Walmsley in his book Peterloo: the Case Reopened (1969) argued that the magistrates and soldiers could not be blamed for what happened because a significant minority of the crowd became violent. You could give students extracts from the work of these historians and ask them to explain exactly how and why they differ. How far do students agree with Walmsley’s interpretation? Compare their conclusions with those of Robert Poole in his Return to Peterloo (2012).

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The Peterloo Handkerchief