April 18, 2016 by Matt Hill : Quiet Loner
For the past few weeks I’ve been immersed in reading about the Peterloo Massacre. In August 1819 a reform rally at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester was broken up by military force resulting in several deaths and hundreds of casualties. Later on, Shelley immortalised the events in his poem ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ and ‘Peterloo’ came to be seen as pivotal event in the history of British democracy.
Writing a song about Peterloo has proved difficult. There is so much detail to absorb and so many different perspectives it’s hard to know where to start. I also felt a huge weight of responsibility. This was an event where people died. I was worried I would end up trivialising something that was so important.
To help me feel more confident in my writing, I spent some time at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford. They have a lot of books, articles and papers about Peterloo and the staff and volunteers there are both knowledgeable and helpful. I also looked at this fantastic Peterloo witness project which is transcribing and collating as many witness reports as possible. After much reading and writing scores of pages of notes, I finally ended up with two songs about Peterloo. Although I have a feeling they won’t be the last.
Life of a radical
Like all history, definitive truth is elusive. Many of the witness accounts I read were from prosecution evidence. The establishment crackdown after Peterloo was so brutal many witnesses and victims were feared into silence and so their testimony lost forever. In the end I settled on the accounts of Samuel Bamford and his recollections of the day as included in his autobiography ‘The Life of a Radical’. Bamford was a weaver and on the day of Peterloo he led a group of several thousand from Middleton and was later found guilty of inciting a riot and sentenced to a year in prison. His account is of course very subjective, it was written years after the fact and no doubt with a great degree of hindsight and some element of myth making had begun. However I found it utterly compelling.
Writing the first song
The first song is drawn mainly from Bamford and is about the procession setting off from Middleton with hope in their hearts. I’ve tried to capture the family carnival that Bamford describes, by making the melody quite jolly and jaunty. One verse draws almost word from word from the speech Bamford says he gave on the day and his assertion of their peaceful intent-
“We carry no weapons just a conscience approved and the hope that our fortunes will soon be improved
Give no provocation not by word or by deed and if they come to arrest us let them do it in peace”
For the chorus of the songs I have drawn from the only surviving banner from Peterloo which is in Middleton Library. This Blue and Gold banner uses words like Liberty and Unity.
“Liberty, Unity, Suffrage for all
These are our colours as wide as they’re tall
Gold of the sun and the blue of the sky
Sewn on our silks with our banners held high”
Writing about the massacre
The second song is much darker and describes the charge from the Yeomanry and the subsequent chaos. I’ve tried to make the rhythm and meter of this song quite steady and militaristic in feel, to reflect that. The Yeoman who led the charge were local volunteers and not full time soldiers. Some historians say they held personal grudges with some of the leaders and that they were drunk and ill-disciplined.
“A vicious, pernicious, malicious militia, of shopkeepers, millowners, a voluntary force.
A respectable rabble, strapped to the saddle, neck-oiled landlords with unsettled scores.”
I read in several accounts that women were disproportionately injured compared to men. There were different theories on this, one of which was that women were deliberately targeted. I decided to focus on a couple of the women’s stories. One was a 23 year old woman called Elizabeth Farren who was injured carrying her child to safety. She was injured by an Yeoman who she actually knew as he was a former neighbour.
“Mrs Elizabeth Farren carries her child desperate to find an escape
She recognises her neighbour Mr Tebbet the soldier, but by then it’s simply too late
His sabre held upright as it catches the sunlight then swooshes and swings, down into the dust
Casually cutting her best sunday clothes, down through the skin and finally to bone”
In actual fact Mrs Farren was not cut to through her clothes, but suffered a cut to her forehead. But I have decided to allow myself ‘artistic license’ in creating composite characters and sketches that are representative rather than literal descriptions.
The Museum has two sabres in it’s collection that were possibly used at Peterloo and I wanted to create a strong image of these sabres, hence the line about them catching the sunlight. This was a sunny August day.
The chorus of this song paraphrases a biblical quote –
“The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright conversation” Psalm 37:14
This quote was later adopted and put onto medals in remembrance of Peterloo. This one is from the British Museum
Working on these two Peterloo songs has been the hardest challenge so far but perhaps the most fascinating and interesting. I now have the task of remembering all the words and delivering them as part of the performance I’m doing at the museum on June 4th. If you want to see it you can reserve your place here.
I’d also urge everyone to support the campaign for a proper memorial to Peterloo. You can find out more at www.peterloomassacre.org