I am the Great-great-great-grandson of Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, who was in command of the Manchester Yeomanry in August 1819. His portrait has been in my family's possession all my life. For the past 35 years it has hung in the stairwell of our house (it is a large painting, so this was the only wall space big enough). As I discovered more information about his involvement in the massacre at Peterloo, I came to realise that his actions on that day were directly responsible for the deaths and hundreds of injuries inflicted upon the large and peaceful crowd gathered to listen to "Orator" Hunt on the 16th.
Captain Birley was not, as I had been brought up to believe, merely the administrative commander whose leadership happened to occur in 1819. He was in charge on that day and led his ill-disciplined (and possibly slightly drunk) soldiers of the Yeomanry in a poorly planned attempt to arrest Hunt. There was a crowd of at least 60,000 - probably more like 80,000 - and Hunt was on a raised platform deep within the masses. Even before the panic that led to the indiscriminate slaughter and violence, the advancing troops knocked over a mother and toddler, killing the child, and also knocked over and killed a special constable (one appointed for crowd control just for this event). The ensuing attempt to arrest Hunt and others, and retreat through the multitude was clumsy and disorganised. Whilst no violence was initiated by the crowd, the individual troops felt hemmed in, and drew their sabres to hack their way out of the constricted space. There were several deaths and hundreds of injuries.
The history is clear to read about in accounts written at the time. I have read these and feel great shame. I gifted my portrait of Captain Birley to the People's History Museum, where it now forms part of the commemorative Peterloo exhibition.
Of course I am not accountable for the behaviour of an ancestor in events that occurred 135 years before I was born. However, on the wrong side of this important historical event, I have made it my business to learn about what happened, and the reasons for it. I also felt a strong creative urge to express myself in regards to the Peterloo massacre in the form of a large-scale symphonic poem. This I composed in April 2019, over a three week period of intense writing.
The work is descriptive, and does not require further written explanation. This 'performance' is generated by the usual combination of Sibelius software and the EastWest sound libraries: