Working class histories threaten the ideology of the ‘good old days.’ To tell a story that is unafraid of discussing the realities of poverty is to rebel against the narrative of the ‘good old days’ which is used to romanticise oppression using false nostalgia. 

Through reading Peterloo People, a compilation of autobiographies from residents of Peterloo Court put together in the early 2000s, stories are revealed in ways that preserve essential perspectives for historical pursuits while maintaining the dignity of those involved. The stories foreground residents who detail their hardships and are appreciative that young people within their community have the rights to a National Health Service, Social Services and better working conditions. They celebrate the achievements of both unions and collective social action. A few of the pieces contain experiences of domestic abuse, and one recounts the involvement of the ‘Cruelty Officer.’ 

Additionally, to rebel against this narrative is to prioritise the stories of people with disabilities. Accidents at work were frequent yet there was no compensation and no sick pay, meaning bringing home money would cease. One individual, Rose, retold how her father lost his arm in the first world war, and “you got no dole in those days,” so the family were plunged into poverty. Lynn became deaf during the bombing of Salford and was forbidden from learning sign language at residential school as it was actively discouraged. Betty was born with one leg shorter than the other, was called “delicate” and “spastic,” and expressed that “It’s good that they don’t use such cruel words now.” At the Open-Air School for Delicate Children “we never played with toys, and we weren’t allowed outside […] you didn’t get taught how to do anything and it didn’t seem to matter as long as we were out of the way.” 

Preserving working class histories is an intersectional rebellion against the normative ways of telling local history, which prioritises white, middle and upper-class records. Les, who was born in British Guyana, met his wife in Manchester, and despite serving in the Air Force during the Second World War, could not find work due to racial prejudices with signs in the Labour Exchange reading: “Wanted, twenty men – no coloureds, no Irish.” 

The courageous residents talked about their experiences which were seen as shameful. Peterloo People was an intergenerational project, resisting the divisions sown between generations in pursuit of education and collaboration. A history textbook can describe what living and working conditions may have been like but hearing a testimony brings it to life in an intersectional way. To prioritise working class histories is to resist the normative ways of researching, instead presenting the past without the false nostalgia of ‘the good old days.’ 

By Niamh Hardman