One of the important features of Poole’s account is to put place back at the centre of the story. His analysis is especially strong in exploring the specific local economies, cultures and employment of the areas around Manchester, home to so many of the casualties at Peterloo. He is acute in discussing the world of the magistrates, the constables, the yeomanry and the military, and paints a devastating picture of the corruption and other deficiencies of local government in Manchester. Striking characters emerge: Joseph Nadin, deputy constable, thief-taker and suspected orchestrator of various protection rackets around the pubs and businesses of Manchester; Captain William Chippendale of the Oldham Militia, who ran a network of spies monitoring the local face of radicalism, reporting on such dangerous developments as working people renting rooms “for the Purpose of reading Cobbett in”; Major-General John Byng, commander of the northern forces, who might have exerted a more disciplined control over the troops on August 16, if he hadn’t chosen to go to the races at York instead, leaving his less experienced deputy in charge.
Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane
"as Karen Jones sets out dismayingly early in her book, the only things that the real-life ‘Calamity Jane’ can with confidence be said to have in common with her legend is that she wore trousers, swore like a navvy and was pissed all the time..."
— The Spectator
Riding’s version, however, is quite simply magnificent: splendidly researched, thoroughly well written, and very difficult to put down. Among other things, it emphasises the importance of the contribution of the women of Lancashire (the “Lancashire Witches”, to whom the book is dedicated) to the events of 16 August 1819, which becomes an important theme of Leigh’s film. With the encouragement of Bamford, female reform societies were founded in Lancashire, and their members participated fully in the meetings of male reformers, something that seems to have happened nowhere else in the early 19th-century reform movement.
...a cool and even-handed indictment of the authorities and the soldiers at St Peter’s Field that is far more devastating than any emotional rant... The book is cleverly structured... to imply that all were under the influence is going too far... This is a shame because the sequence of events that Riding lays out in forensic detail is shocking enough... The Peterloo story, however, is one that deserves to be remembered as a less than glorious chapter in our island history. No one has told it better than Riding.
Riding was the historical adviser for Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo, which opens next month; Leigh has supplied a foreword for this book. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the government clamped down with repressive laws restricting the press and banning meetings. What impact did Peterloo have beyond the immediate outpourings of disgust and the draconian legislation? A disappointment of this otherwise engaging book is that the legacy of Peterloo and its significance (or otherwise) is left hanging... Rather than demonstrate the strength of the state, Peterloo exposed its weakness. Repression was counterproductive. The public got more truculent, not less; the press noisier and sharper. In response to the weight of public opinion, the government began to reform in the 1820s. Never again has the army been called upon to silence free expression as it did in Manchester in 1819. Perhaps that it is the true significance of the tragedy and its greatest lesson.
Still, Peterloo is a fascinating and moving story. Although plenty of historians have written about it, Riding, the former Palace of Westminster curator who served as a historical adviser on Leigh’s film, does a fine job of putting the event into context, showing how the passions of the day drew on years of unrest in industrial England, which was blighted by high unemployment and falling prices...If Peterloo mattered at all, it was purely as a symbol of state oppression. But even this is easily exaggerated, especially by comparison with Britain’s neighbours. Fifteen people died in Manchester; by contrast, hundreds of thousands died in the French Revolution.
In her final lines, Riding wonders why “this significant regional and national event” is not better known, but her own book provides the answer. Peterloo was indeed a tragically bloodstained page in Manchester’s history. In the grand scheme of things, however, it was barely a pinprick.