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Portrait of Peterloo yeomanry captain to go on display at People’s History Museum

26 February 2019

A portrait of one of the leading figures in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester (16 August 1819) has been donated to People’s History Museum.

Left to right: People’s History Museum Conservators with Hugh Hornby Birley portrait, Hugh Hornby Birley portrait, oil paint on canvas, date unknown, and Axel Void, Peterloo. mural, 2018 © People's History Museum

A portrait of one of the leading figures in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester (16 August 1819) has been donated to People’s History Museum (PHM) and will go on display in its upcoming exhibition Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest, which is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.  Passed through generations of the Birley family, the oil painting depicts Hugh Hornby Birley a 19th century Manchester mill owner, who as captain of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, played a central role in the events that unfolded 200 years ago.

It is believed that the portrait was painted some time after the Peterloo Massacre and for many years hung on the walls of the Birley family home of Broome House in Weaste, Pendleton, north west Manchester .  As generations of the family have moved around the country, so too has the portrait, its vast size meaning that it’s sometimes been on display and sometimes been in storage.

As the national museum of democracy, People’s History Museum has one of the leading collections of Peterloo artefacts, including sabres from the massacre, commemorative medals, ceramics and a handkerchief.  Many of these items were produced in the aftermath of what had begun as a peaceful protest for representation and rights, and ended with the death of 18 and the injury of around 700 men, women and children.  The portrait is the first piece in the museum’s collection that focuses on one of the individuals present at Peterloo, and tells a very different story.

Birley’s wealth came from the plantations of America, from where raw cotton was shipped to Liverpool and then transported through the canals to his factories, one of which stood on Oxford Road in the centre of Manchester.  He was a man known for his conservative political allegiances and his harsh treatment of his workers.  He took on the role of captain of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry (the local government force) at the age of 41.

On 16 August 1819, it was reported by observers that it was Birley who gave the orders for the local government forces to attack the crowds.  He was said to be the first of the cavalry to arrive at the hustings in an attempt to arrest the radical speaker Henry Hunt, attacking anybody in his way.  The eyewitness reports also indicate that it was Birley himself who was responsible for many of the deaths and injuries of the men, women and children present.

Birley was eventually brought to trial, with three others from the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, three years after the Peterloo Massacre.  Despite shocking witness statements, they were all acquitted.  Their violent actions, it was held, were justified in dispersing an illegal gathering.

Birley’s legal costs were covered by the government of the time, and his career would continue to flourish; eventually he became a magistrate and the Deputy Lieutenant for Lancashire.

Jenny Mabbott, Head of Collections & Engagement at People’s History Museum, says, “Having the portrait of Hugh Hornby Birley as part of our collection, and as one of the key objects in our upcoming exhibition, Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest, helps us to explore and understand what happened on 16 August 1819 and how we can continue to learn from this watershed moment in British democracy.”

Dr Rick Birley, who has donated the portrait to People’s History Museum, recalls the legacy of his great great great grandfather and has childhood memories of the portrait.  Unlike previous generations of his family who alluded to the massacre as being the result of errors of judgement that produced unintended consequences, he has a less forgiving view, saying, “The failure of leadership, total lack of judgement, and a complete lack of experience, set against a basic class division and the need to uphold the establishment, led to the inexcusable violence.  At a time when the masses relied upon the benevolence of the businessmen, the treatment they endured makes it little wonder that the cry of social reform and justice was becoming so loud during the 19th century.”

Rick has donated the portrait to People’s History Museum because he believes this is where it belongs.  “Through this portrait and my connection to it I have come to understand much about class divisions, inequality, the processes of change, the power of the state and the politics of revolution.”

The portrait of Hugh Hornby Birley will take its place as one of a number of key Peterloo artefacts that are being brought together for the first time for the exhibition Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest, which opens to the public on Saturday 23 March 2019 (running until Sunday 23 February 2020).  Like the Birley portrait, a number of these have not previously been on public display.  Several items have been acquired by PHM thanks to The National Lottery Heritage Fund’s (NLHF) Collecting Cultures programme that supports museums, libraries and archives to develop their collections through acquisition projects, which also funded the transport and conservation of the Birley portrait.

Throughout 2019 People’s History Museum is exploring the Past, Present and Future of Protest throughout its galleries, exhibitions and events programme.  This includes its current display of banners, with each of the 26 that went on display in January 2019 reflecting other significant moments of protest.

People’s History Museum is open seven days a week from 10.00am to 5.00pm, Radical Lates are on the second Thursday each month, open until 8.00pm.  The museum is free to enter with a suggested donation of £5.  To find out about visiting the museum, its full exhibition and events programme visit


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A selection of images can be found here:

Notes to editors:

About People’s History Museum (PHM)

People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester is the national museum of democracy, telling the story of its development in Britain: past, present, and future.  The museum provides opportunities for people of all ages to learn about, be inspired by and get involved in ideas worth fighting for; ideas such as equality, social justice, co-operation, and a fair world for all.  PHM offers a powerful programme with annual themes; 2018 looked at representation and commemorated 100 years since the first women and all men won the right to vote in Britain, 2019 sees a year of activities around protest movements to mark the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, and the programme for 2020 will be on the theme of migration and identity.  Recent winner of Kids in Museums Family Friendly Museum Award.


About Arts Council England (ACE)

PHM is an Arts Council England (ACE) National Portfolio Organisation (NPO).  The work of PHM is supported using public funding by ACE, the national development body for arts and culture across England, working to enrich people’s lives.  ACE support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to visual art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections.  Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us.  In short, it makes life better.  Between 2018 and 2022, ACE will invest £1.45 billion of public money from government and an estimated £860 million from The National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country.

The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF)

Thanks to National Lottery players, The National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about – from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife.  Follow NLHF on TwitterFacebook and Instagram and use #NationalLotteryHeritageFund


Jenny Mabbott, Head of Collections & Engagement: 

As Head of Collections & Engagement, Jenny is responsible for overseeing the way that PHM commemorates the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre.  In addition to talking about PHM’s approach and collections, she can provide both the historical and contemporary context to Peterloo.

Michael Powell, Programme & Learning Officer:

Michael has been working with historians and communities to plan PHM’s programme of activity for 2019.  He has also been responsible for developing learning resources for Greater Manchester schools in partnership with Manchester Histories.  In addition to talking about the 2019 bicentenary, he can share his insight into the museum’s rich collections and archives.

Dr Shirin Hirsch, Researcher:

Shirin is a historian in residence at PHM.  She specialises in the history of modern Britain with a particular focus on the labour movement, as well as questions of race and Empire.  Shirin is currently undertaking research on Peterloo and the global context of the early 1800s democracy movement in Manchester.  She can talk about the history of Peterloo as well as PHM’s objects and archive material from this period.

Kloe Rumsey, Conservator:

Kloe specialises in object conservation and cares for PHM’s whole collection, including banners, furniture, ceramics and posters.  Kloe has conserved the artefacts that will be on display in 2019’s Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest exhibition and can talk about these objects and their stories.

Sam Jenkins, Collections Officer:

Sam manages PHM’s whole collection, as well as arranging to borrow loans from other institutions as needed.  She has worked with various museums to arrange loans of objects within 2019’s Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest exhibition, and has worked on collecting new items relating to the Peterloo Massacre.  Sam can discuss each of the objects within the exhibition, as well as the wider museum collection.

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