February 6, 2017 by Matt Hill : Quiet Loner
“We’ve half a dozen demands. Written here. Stated clear.”
This song is about the Chartist movement which rose during the late 1830s to dominate political life through the 1840s. Named after a piece of paper – the People’s Charter – the Chartists had six demands for change to the voting system. With those demands they really captured the popular imagination. At Peterloo in 1819 there had been 60,000 people calling for reform. By the 1840s some of the big Chartist rallies attracted numbers estimated to be close to 300,000. The petition they carried to Parliament in 1842 had an estimated 3.3 million signatures.
Chartism was the first working class populist campaign movement. In the six demands of the charter, they had clear and focused campaign goals. The movement used songs, printing, huge mass meetings and rallies, marches, petitions, local organising. In many ways the Chartists defined a model of campaigning for change that continued through the 20th century.
But despite this huge swell of support the Chartist’s demands were not met. Instead they faced fierce opposition from government. Following the so-called Newport Rising of 1839 in which Chartist marchers were fired on and killed by soldiers, many Chartist leaders faced harsh prison sentences and transportation.
I briefly reference this in the song –
“Our blood was shed in Newport by the brutal force of law. They put our leaders into prison but we’ve got plenty more.”
However I have tried not to dwell on the ultimate defeat of Chartism, but instead to capture that sense of sheer determination and righteous joy. The song is celebratory in feel but it’s rhythm is insistent. The lyrics try to capture the sense of righteousness. I employ some religious language in the song to try and get over that for some, the Charter was an article of faith.
“One by one they will be met, our prayers will be heard. Because God favours the righteous, on that you have my word. This charter may be paper but we hold it like it’s stone. Until every single word of it is hung in every home”
Although the Chartist’s demands were not met instantly they created an unstoppable momentum. Their legacy is perhaps best celebrated in their methods of campaigning, and it was prominent former Chartists who led the push for the 1867 Reform Act. In due course 5 of their 6 demands would become law.
Half a dozen demands (lyrics)
We have half a dozen, half a dozen, half a dozen demands
They are written here. They are stated clear. These are the rights of man
One by one they will be met, our prayers they will be heard
’cause God favours the righteous, on that you have my word
This charter may be paper, but we’ll hold it like it’s stone
’til every single word of it is hung in every home
We want a vote for every man who’s over 21
And to send the boroughmongers back where they belong
We want to vote in secret so no man can take a bribe
We want members of OUR parliament from every walk of life
We’ve powerful enemies who do the serpent’s deeds
They say the people’s ransom brings Britannia to her knees
But idle threats from wealthy men, just whistle in the wind
You cannot stop , you will not stop, this song the people sing
Our blood was shed in Newport by the brutal force of law
They put our leaders into prison, but we’ve got plenty more
From Kennington Common to New Hall Hill
Five Hundred Thousand voices come to do the People’s will