What happened at Peterloo…

Earlier this year, I was preparing to help my Y11s study the Peterloo incident for their January module. Since it was a source-based paper they were sitting, I spent quite a long time online in an effort to provide them with the broadest spread of sources I could. After a while, though, I noticed that everything I was getting was very one-sided, and that it didn’t quite add up. The protestors were innocents while the local magistrates were heartless, vicious and trigger-happy; yet in a crowd of 60,000, 11-15 (depending on what you read) died. Yes, 15 is a lot and even one would have been a tragedy but it seemed like a small fraction of a crowd charged by a company of horsemen armed with sabres.

It was impossible to find an alternative point of view online. It might be there somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. This didn’t sit very well with me, so I got some books from the library.

An aside here – this is a much easier process than it was when I was a kid; and it wasn’t too difficult even then. I’d go and look it up on a terminal at the central library and if it was out on loan or in the stack I’d make a request and address a post card to myself, and after a period of time the post card would arrive and I would go and collect the book. What I did this time was, I went to my library’s online catalogue (if you live in the south west then this is your library’s online catalogue too because Libraries West is awesome) and I did a search, and I reserved the books, one of which was in the Bath stack and the other of which was in a library in Somerset, and two days later I got an email as I happened to be walking past my local library – five minutes away – and I was able to go in and collect them. This service is AMAZING. Use it.

The books I got – published in 1969 and 1989 – were both able to give me a more sympathetic view of the magistrates. Setting the scene for this meeting is really quite important and after reading, I could put myself in their shoes and imagine REALLY not wanting to be the person who didn’t send in the troops and watched Britain fall to revolutionaries*. The books were very helpful and I started to make plans to use them in class.

However, I had to stop at that point. I started to worry that my students might take on board some of the evidence from the books and write about it in the exam. The examiner, pressed in the deepest, darkest depths of a February night to complete 20 scripts before bed, might turn to the internet to verify the answer. They would not find anything, as I had not; and they would certainly not set the script aside and go to their library’s online catalogue….etc. So, I left it out. I made a real point of setting the scene, but I left out excerpts from the books and didn’t try and create a balanced view of this. Perhaps somebody who knows a great deal about Peterloo will come along and leave me a comment explaining why there shouldn’t be a balanced view of this anyway, but I felt quite disappointed in myself. I wanted to teach them all the facts and let them make their own judgments, but this might have put them at a disadvantage in the exam.

The problem is, that things like Peterloo are taught in schools, and then the same facts from the same books are reproduced endlessly on dozens of school websites, and the unavoidably narrow view of the original author becomes gospel. I found this to be the case with depressing regularity during the process of writing the revision guide published by Hodder earlier this year. History is being horribly watered down by the people who love it the most: its teachers. One of the reasons this article made me gnash my teeth (and there were several others) is because the author complained that his students were only getting one side of the story in their GCSE studies, because of the text book. I wonder why, if he has a problem with this, he hasn’t gone out and found alternative views to offer them.

Time, I expect. It’s always time.

I know I’m not the only History BA who, as an undergrad, delighted in coming out of the library with a stack of books so high it was difficult to see the steps and including references to 90% of them in a 2000 word essay. I’m not the only one who delayed concluding such an essay until the last book I felt I needed on the topic came back off loan. I’m not the only one who waited four weeks to buy a book unavailable in the UK which one bookshop in London was stocking because the owner had brought four copies back from a book fair in Florida – three of my classmates had the other three copies. I’m not the only one who, when set an essay on the Jesuits, made an effort to travel across London to the library in the Jesuit college to get a real in-depth understanding…well, maybe I am the only one for that specific case, but, yknow.

The majority of my classmates were book geeks and I bet the majority of history teachers were, too. It’s quite important to remember that, even when it’s the busiest time of the year (aka, any time of the year), and try and give our students the most facts we can find. Relying solely on the textbooks and what one can find on the internet really isn’t good enough.

* Do not mistake me: I’m not on the side of the magistrates. I’m a history teacher. I consider it my job to see both sides.

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