Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote The Masque of Anarchy as an immediate response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. Sometimes described today as the greatest political poem in the English language, it makes a powerful case for non-violent resistance, and has long been part of labour movement culture.
It would not appear in print until 1832, however – a decade after Shelley’s death. And so it would have been unknown in the immediate wake of the events in St Peter’s Fields. Rather, the cultural aftermath, especially in Manchester and in the towns from which the crowd that day had come, would have consisted of ballads, sung in public houses and in other meeting places by those with first-hand experience.
On Sunday, 1 August, listeners to Radio 3 were able to hear the noted Manchester actress Maxine Peake read The Masque of Anarchy in a performance that made the poem resonate for a contemporary audience.
The programme included eyewitness accounts from Samuel Bamford the radical reformer who led the group from Middleton and his wife Jemima Bamford performed by Jason Done and Christine Bottomley. And Jennifer Reid sang contemporary ballads written in the aftermath of Peterloo.
Described as “the pre-eminent broadside balladress of the Manchester region”, Jennifer has build a well-deserved reputation as a brilliant performer of the form. She is also a member of the Society for the Study of Labour History’s executive committee. If you have not yet heard her, you must!