By Roo Bramley
“The first step in resistance is a history lesson; not a lesson written for us but one we write ourselves” Simon Critchley
Three Acres and a Cow: A History of Land Rights and Protest in Folk Song and Story is just that: a history lesson that we have written ourselves. Connecting the Norman Conquest and the Peasants Revolt with fracking, the housing crisis and Brexit, via the Enclosures and the industrial revolution, the show draws a compelling narrative through the people’s history of England. Part TED talk, part folk club singalong, part storytelling session, we share these tales as they have been shared for generations.
We will be performing in Manchester tomorrow as part of a series of events to mark the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre. The show has been organised by Whalley Range for Peace and Justice.
2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, when a group of around 100,000 unarmed protesters were attacked in St Peter’s Square, Manchester. They had gathered to hear speeches about electoral reform from Chartist leaders. The Chartists had six demands for reformation of the parliamentary system, giving greater rights to working people. At this point, only people who owned land could stand as MPs or vote, and areas of the country where lots of wealthy people lived were massively overrepresented in parliament (the “rotten boroughs”), whereas the industrial cities of Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham had no MPs. The yeomanry charged the crowd on horseback, attacking them with sabres and batons, killed 18 people and injured 100s more.
In the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre, there was widespread horror and outcry about the way that the protestors had been treated. The ruling classes realised that they had to make some concession for these organised workers in order to avoid a revolution (news of the French revolution had spread, and English workers were drilling in the fields and hills at night in preparation for revolution here). So they conceded and repealed the Combination Act, which meant that it was now legal for people to “combine” or unionise. Thus the trade union movement was able to grow massively, and has spent the last 200 years fighting for the rights that we now enjoy, through both non-violent protesting and direct action of rioting and property destruction. The birth of the co-op movement followed, and Chartist campaigning continued, leading to huge electoral reforms that give us the democratic freedoms we enjoy today (although there is still much more to be done!)
The Peterloo Massacre, like many other important events that we talk about in Three Acres and a Cow, is not taught about in schools. But its impact has been huge and it is a history lesson that we need to hear.
What does all of this have to do with housing action though?
The housing crisis in the UK is being driven by our extremely unequal distribution of land. Housing prices are directly affected by land prices, far more so, in fact, than the cost of houses themselves. The high cost of land in the UK is driven by many factors, including unequal distribution and a lack of taxation. This lack of taxation leads to both land and housing being seen as investment opportunities, rather than as places to live, grow food and enjoy the countryside.
This does not need to be the case. Understanding how we got into this situation and the ways that people have fought against it in the past are a first step in our fight for change.
One of my favourite stories in Three Acres and a Cow is of Mary Barbour and the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. In 1915, 20,000 women living in tenements in Glasgow went on a rent strike in protest against rents that had been tripled to take advantage of people moving into cities to work in factories to support the Great War. The rent strikes went on for six weeks, in which people refused to pay rent, staged mass demonstrations against evictions, and clashed violently with the police and landlords. The rent strikers in Govan were shown huge solidarity by tenants in other area of Glasgow who usually wouldn’t have interacted, and workers united across geographical and religious sectarianism. Factory workers threatened trade union strikes. By the end of the year, the strikers had won, and the government passed the Glasgow Rent act of 1915, which froze all rents to pre-war levels and gave tenants much greater protection against eviction.
Join us tomorrow to hear our songs about Mary Barbour and the Chartists, for top quality storytelling from Tim Ralphs and for a whistle stop tour of the most important events in the last 1000 years of people’s history of land rights, housing rights and protest.
“Informative, rousing and bloody good fun!”
“Probably the most important live theatre you could ever see”
“This should be a national staple, a great antidote to history written by the victors. It will teach you to see the past and present of England in a whole new light.”
20 May 2019