A guest post by Matt Hill (Quiet Loner), our Songwriter-in-Residence. The residency’s aim is to interpret the museum’s collection through songs and in doing so increase public engagement with the collection. The project has been supported by a grant from Arts Council England.
For the past few months I’ve been immersed in the museum’s collections researching the history of the vote. I’ve been writing songs inspired by this and on June 4th I’ll present them for the first time in a new show as part of Manchester Histories Festival.
The idea of Universal Suffrage has it’s roots far back in history but I’ve started with the democratic awakening of the late 1700s and moved through the various Reform Acts of the 19th century. It’s a story that takes in appalling events like the Peterloo Massacre, popular movements like Chartism and culminates in the law breaking tactics of the Women’s Suffrage movement that finally led to Universal Suffrage in 1928.
In order to write the best songs I can, I’ve tried to read as much as I can about the people and events, especially drawing from first hand accounts of people who were there at the time. I’ve also sought out objects from the collections that might trigger ideas or inspiration. One item in the collection which fascinates me is the desk on which Thomas Paine wrote the Rights of Man. This was the starting point for a song exploring the ideas of Paine and his contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft. But it was the desk itself that provided the first lines of a song called “Nothing less than revolution”. “It’s been seven days now since I sat down at this desk The darkened oak is stained with sweat, my hands they seem possessed
as I write about the Rights of Man, how everyone has worth,
and the wrongs of handing power down through lines of noble birth”
I’ve also taken inspiration from the shiny sabres belonging to the Manchester Yeomanry at Peterloo, from prints of mass Chartist meetings, from satirical cartoons of the Hyde Park disturbances in 1867, from anti-Suffragette propaganda postcards and from the kitchen of suffragist Hannah Mitchell which is recreated in Gallery One. In each case something has triggered a line, phrase or image that has become the building block of a new song.
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 within the songs will inspire people to come to the People’s History Museum and explore the collection themselves. There is so much worth seeking out.
The Battle for the Ballot premières as part of Manchester Histories festival on Sat 4 June. Reserve your place here.