At the Preston Martyrs’ Memorial

Saturday August 13th 1842 is the date of the Lune Street Riot. The Preston Martyrs’ Memorial was erected in 1992 to commemorate the deaths of four cotton workers who were shot by the military during the conflict. Sculpted by George Young it was inspired by Goya’s painting The Third of May 1808, which memorializes Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies.

The Preston Martyrs' MemorialIts concrete and brutal depiction of three men: one wide-eyed, gasping, mouth hollow, arms thrown behind his back; the second covering his groin looking beseechingly at the shooters; the third hands over eyes bowed backward whilst the soldiers stare down their guns (which are at the same time their faces) with identical and expressionless gazes, evokes mixed feelings for me.

On the one hand a space and perhaps a monument is needed to remind us of this tragedy and of the efforts of all who stood for the People’s Charter and a decent wage thus helping pave the way to a fairer more democratic society.

On the other hand it conveys little sense of the scene; crowds of demonstrators accompanied by operatives turned out from the mills charging up Lune Street to face local police and the guns of the 72nd Highlanders. The clout of stones as the rioters assaulted the military. Women and children bringing stones from the nearby canal.

The Mayor, Samuel Horrocks, reading the Riot Act which was knocked from his hand. The group of men who assaulted the troops from behind. The final thud of a stone hitting Horrocks’ leg and his command to open fire. The round of shots that followed and the horror of the crowd.

The fatal wounds of four men: John Mercer, a twenty seven year old handloom weaver, shot through the chest who died immediately. George Sowerbutts, a nineteen year old weaver, shot through the chest who died the following day. Bernard McNamara, a seventeen year old cotton stripper, shot in the stomach who died two days later. William Lancaster, aged twenty five who died six days after receiving a chest wound.

Three men seriously injured; Bryan Hodgson shot in the back, James Roberts shot through the arm and Lawrence Pilling shot in the leg resulting in amputation. No doubt there were unrecorded minor injuries along with the shock, upset and grief which plummeted the families of the dead and the town as a whole into a state of mourning.

The Preston Martyrs' MemorialNo names are recorded on the memorial. The lack of names, personal identity and distinctive clothing provide a bleak sense of the self-same event: the resistance facing their oppressors happening again and again across nations throughout time. Of the constant sacrifice which keeps repeating itself because true democracy is never achieved.

In the context of our current government reversing the rights local demonstrators helped accomplish this was a sobering thought as I stood at the memorial on a muggy August day.

Making my moments paying tribute less conspicuous by holding a camera I noticed shoppers going about their business as usual. A man sat alone with no drink outside the Corn Exchange. A mother scolded her son for climbing on the memorial because it was “disrespectful”. I had a brief conversation with a passing member of Preston Poets’ Society who couldn’t find a lead for her fridge. The only signs it was the date of commemoration were four bunches of flowers in plastic wrappers.

Lune Street has never been a place where I feel restful. It’s rare to see groups of people drinking outside the pub. Teenagers skate past but don’t stay. The homeless beg and move on. A sense of a happening remains as much in the air as is conveyed by the sculpture. A waiting to happen too. A memory and anticipation. A reminder the sacrifices and attainments of our ancestors are constantly under threat. That history repeats itself.

This thought returned as a ghost wind stirred the flowers; pink, yellow, purple and fragile in crinkly butterfly-decked cellophane against the brutal stone.


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