In anticipation of his performance of ‘The Battle of the Ballot’, as part of the Manchester Histories Festival, we asked the People’s History Museum’s songwriter in residence Matt Hill (Quiet Loner) to reflect on his experiences of working with franchise poems.
Peterloo banner, 1819
As newly appointed ‘songwriter-in-residence’ at the People’s History Museum my job is to interpret the museum’s collection through songs and in doing so increase public engagement with the collection. There are so many stories within the museum but I’ve started by looking at the history of ‘universal suffrage’ and how we all came to get a vote in 1928.
Writing songs is an unpredictable process, some come quickly in a matter of minutes, others need to be laboured on for weeks and months. Sometimes the ideas dry up and you’re left waiting for inspiration to strike. So in order to get my creative juices flowing, I’ve been reading as much as I can about the people and events, especially eye witness and first hand accounts. I’ve also fixated on objects within the collection and tried to unravel their stories.
One song called ‘Banners held high’ is about a group of reformers marching from Rochdale into Manchester to take part in a meeting that would tragically end in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. I read an eyewitness account by Samuel Bamford who led the march and he explained how important the banners were to them. The only surviving banner from this march is blue and gold and I took the slogans as my starting point. This became the chorus of the song –
“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”
I’ve since taken inspiration from an old desk that Thomas Paine wrote upon, from sabres belonging to the Manchester Yeomanry at Peterloo, from old prints of mass Chartist meetings and from satirical anti-Suffragette postcards.
The fight for the right to vote is such an epic story with so many twists and turns and I’ve just an hour to tell it. But I hope that the stories contained in the songs will inspire people to come to the People’s History Museum and explore the collection themselves. There is so much from our shared past that can inspire and lead us today.
You can find out more about the Museum songwriter residency at Matt’s blog https://museumsongwriter.wordpress.com
His performance of The Battle for the Ballot premières as part of Manchester Histories Festival on June 4th.