- Unique collection of poems and ballads highlights the outrage, grief, defiance and resolution felt by labouring-class people in the immediate aftermath of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre
The book sheds new light on contemporary reactions to the death of 18 people, caused by the deployment of military forces against a peaceful political meeting in Manchester
The poems and songs were circulated in radical journals and performed at markets and in public houses to keep a true record of the day in the public consciousness and counter the official government narrative
The Peterloo Massacre has been described as ‘Manchester’s Tiananmen Square’ and is regarded as one of the most significant moments in English political history.
The authentic voice of radical England is captured in a new collection of poems and ballads written in the immediate aftermath of the 1819 Peterloo massacre and shared in defiance of Government censorship.
Dr Alison Morgan’s book, Ballads and Songs of Peterloo, is the first to gather more than 70 contemporary songs and poems about the massacre in a single collection.
Dr Morgan, Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Warwick’s Centre for Teacher Education, searched online and physical archives to bring the poems back to light after being inspired by Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famously passionate response to the massacre, The Masque of Anarchy – a poem so radical it remained unpublished until after his death.
Dr Morgan said: “Through these poems and ballads we hear the authentic voice of the people. They were written very quickly, in the immediate aftermath of Peterloo, and they capture a real sense of outrage, of grief – and of revolutionary zeal for change.”
The ballads and poems in Dr Morgan’s collection were shared across Manchester and beyond, printed in the radical journals of the day, and shared as broadside ballads – words set to popular contemporary tunes, printed cheaply and sold on street corners and at fairs, pasted up in taverns and sung in bars and public houses. They were an attempt to preserve the memory of the event against the official government narrative, and also to inspire activists and campaigners to continue the struggle for fair voting.
Dr Morgan added: “It’s still relevant today, when we see the ways in which political discourse is being changed and shaped, the ways in which people are protesting – this isn’t just about an event that happened 200 years ago, it’s about the continued fight for our democratic rights.”
The Peterloo massacre is widely regarded as one of the most significant events in English political history. On 16th August 1819 60,000 men, women and children gathered in St Peter’s Field in Central Manchester to hear the radical politician Henry Hunt speak about the need for parliamentary and electoral reform. At this time, Manchester didn’t have a single MP, despite its size and its industrial success.
As soon as Mr Hunt stood up to speak, Manchester’s magistrates sent the Yeomanry cavalry into the packed gathering so that he could be arrested. By twenty past two, 18 people were dead from sabre cuts or crush injuries, and more than 600 wounded. A quarter of all casualties at Peterloo were women, even though they made up only 12% of the crowd.
The event became known as the Peterloo Massacre, referencing the carnage of the Battle of Waterloo, just four years previously, though any journalist or newspaper criticising the authorities would be threatened with legal action and heavy fines after the magistrates and the cavalry were officially cleared of any wrongdoing.
Dr Morgan added: “Brought together in my book for the first time, these poems have a stronger power and a louder voice. The words echo down the centuries, speaking to us of the horrors of the time in texts that cannot be ignored.
“The shared images and themes across the collection give us a real understanding of how people reacted to the massacre.”
It is hoped that the book will appeal to students and lecturers of Romanticism and social history, and to anyone interested in learning more about one of the most seminal events in English history as the 2019 bicentennial approaches.
- Watch a short video featuring performances of two of the ballads by folk trio Thrup’nny Bits and Dr Morgan discussing her research.
- Ballads and songs of Peterloo by Dr Alison Morgan is published by Manchester University Press, ISBN: 978-1-7849-9312-2.
- The book is an edited collection of poems and songs written following the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Notes to support the reading of the texts are provided, but they also stand alone, conveying the original publications without diluting their authenticity.