Coe, Peters & Smyth: The Road to Peterloo

A Hard Day’s Right

Listening Post 242. Events buried in history can shape society long after they have faded from view. Many Britons have recently become reacquainted with a seminal chapter in their national story—the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. Notwithstanding the victory over Napoleon four years earlier, Britain faced domestic turmoil, especially in the northern industrial towns; mechanization had slashed textile workers’ wages and protective tariffs drastically drove up food prices. Tensions boiled over at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester on August 16 when more than 60,000 men, women and children peacefully gathered to protest poverty, poor working conditions and restricted suffrage. As the pro-labor orator Henry Hunt addressed the crowd, mounted saber-wielding cavalry charged, killing 18 demonstrators and wounding more than 600. Amid the carnage one journalist, echoing the fresh memory of Waterloo, coined the defining term “Peterloo.” To mark the massacre’s 200th anniversary, Pete Coe, Brian Peters and Laura Smyth—all singer-musicians with ties to the Manchester area—mounted a traveling show and album built on period broadside ballads that set the historic stage for the event, deliver eyewitness accounts of the infamous day and outline the fallout. From the opening anthem The Triumph of Liberty (video 1), the album’s 16 songs ring out with the trio’s stunning vocals, lyric adaptations and newly composed music, doing as much to bring England’s early nineteenth-century working class to life as Jane Austen’s novels did for the era’s landed gentry. With Henry Hunt We’ll Go honors the orator jailed for daring to speak at the rally (video 2), and Rise, Britons, Rise cries defiance to oppression while invoking the Waterloo spirit (video 3). The title figure of John Stafford’s Song was a weaver-poet who penned his own testimony (video 4). The immediate response to Peterloo was a government crackdown on protest and the press. But the event’s long-term effects—including workers’ rights, parliamentary reform, an expanding franchise, vigorous dissent, and some extraordinary songs—are visible and audible today. (Backshift Music)

The Road to Peterloo
Pete Coe:  Vocals, bouzouki, melodeon, banjo, foot percussion 
Brian Peters: Vocals, melodeon, Anglo concertina, guitar, fiddle 
Laura Smyth: Vocals, cello, English concertina 

For more information on The Road to Peterloo or to order the album:

Note. The Road to Peterloo is one of numerous projects marking the bicentennial of the 1819 Manchester rally and massacre, including public events, a new monument, several books and the excellent feature film Peterloo, directed by Mike Leigh (Trailer, video 5).


The Triumph of Liberty
Lyrics: Traditional/Music: Laura Smyth

See, see freedom’s noblest champions stand/Shout, shout join the chorus of this land
Where countless millions in union voice do sing/And with shouts for freedom make the welkin ring
To fight corruption and the hellish crew/That see blood stained trophies on the field of Peterloo

Soon shall freedom some their rights regain/Soon shall Europe join the hallowed strain
For liberty freedom equal rights and laws/Together we stand to fight for this noble cause
And call for justice for the brave and the true/Who were slain for their rights on the field of Peterloo

Britons be fair and assert your rights be bold/Die like heroes and not like slaves be sold
Stand and unite and demand our freedom to see/Let our children receive their rightful liberty
While the cowards that innocents slew/Contemplate their deeds on the field of Peterloo


With Henry Hunt We’ll Go
Lyrics & Music: Traditional

Come listen to my story the truth to you I’ll tell/It happened up in Manchester a place that I know well
To redress our wants and woes Reformers came that way/A lawful meeting being called upon a certain day

With Henry Hunt we’ll go we’ll go with Henry Hunt we’ll go
We’ll mount the Cap of Liberty in spite of Nadine Joe*

On the sixteenth day of August Eighteen Hundred and Nineteen/There’s sixty thousand people on every road was seen
From Stockport, Oldham, Middleton, Ashton and Rochdale too/It was the biggest meeting Reformers ever knew

Brave Hunt he was elected that day to take the chair/At one o’clock he did arrive our greetings filled the air
But just as he began to speak about our wrongs and rights/The magistrates and yeomanry were spoiling for a fight

On that fatal ground they charged and thousands were knocked down/There’s many a harmless female lay bleeding on the ground
No time for flight was given us on every road we fled/Six hundred souls lay wounded and seventeen souls lay dead

Brave Hunt was then arrested and many others too/We paid the price of treachery that day at Peterloo
But soon Reform shall come around for sand the tide won’t stay/And may the tyrants in our land right soon be washed away.

* The red “Cap of Liberty,” adopted by French Revolutionaries and then the Peterloo protesters who took inspiration from them, was styled on the Phrygian cap, the mark of a freed slave in ancient Rome. Joseph Nadin was the deputy constable and, according to radicals, the real ruler of Manchester, who ran a regime of corruption and brutality.


Rise, Britons, Rise
Lyrics: Traditional/Music: Laura Smyth

Rise Britons rise now from your slumber rise and hail the glorious day/Come and be counted with the number with true friends of liberty
Can’t you see those heroes bleeding lying on the crimson floor/Britons sons who died for freedom alas who fell to rise no more

So come me lads let’s all be true and never, never for to rue/Come me lads let’s all be free with shouts of Hunt and Wolsely*

It was on the sixteenth day of August that we met on Peterloo Plain/Where we arrived of fear regardless little knew their dreadful schemes
But we spied them near advancing with their swords drawn in their hand/Through the crowds of people charging but for liberty we stand

But Henry Hunt that valiant hero his name shall recorded be/Said my friends I’ll never leave you though death shall be my destiny
To New Bailey then they brought him in a dungeon close confined/But speaking words of truth and justice Oh pity were these very hard times

Britannia’s sons so famed for bravery who fought so bold at Waterloo/Now you’re condemned to cruel slavery oppressed by laws of the few
So let us all no longer greet them but endeavour to be free/And let the air resound and echo with shouts of Hunt and Wolsley

*Sir Charles Wolseley was elected at a radical meeting in Birmingham as a “legislatorial attorney” to represent the electors before the House of Commons, but was arrested a week before Peterloo.


John Stafford’s Song
Lyrics: John Stafford/Music: Brian Peters

On the sixteenth day of August, it was held at Peterloo/A just and lawful meeting we all knew it to be true
With flags and caps of liberty we did assemble there/In peace and in good order, the reformers did appear

From Smedley Cottage to the stage was crowded all the way/The patriots joined hand in hand, the band did sweetly play
No thoughts of death and murder had occurred to any man/Until that cruel action on Peter’s Fields began

Our champion, Henry Hunt, he climbed the stage and took the stand/It filled us all with joy, to see that valiant man
To see that gallant hero, with courage bold and fair/He won the heart of every working man and woman there

The tyrants and the vampires they came to cut us down/Your flags and caps of liberty we’ll scatter all around
We know you are unarmed, and we will murder all we can/Women, men and children, and damn your ‘Rights of Man’

They formed themselves four deep, and three times over made the charge/With glittering swords and carbines their foul duty to discharge
The reformers they stood firm but the horsemen rode them down/They murdered their own neighbours, trampled them upon the ground

The flags and caps of liberty, these ruffians did destroy/But still one valiant female the colours she did fly
Her babe lay her arms, but still the butchers cut them through/And left her with her infant bleeding there at Peterloo

Through the crowd right to the hustings those ruffians cut their way/I’ve a charge against you Mr Hunt one of that crew did say
I am ready now says Henry Hunt I’m here at your command/So they took him to New Bailey Gaol according to their plan

One woman seeking for her son, a trooper there did meet/She knew him well, for many years they’d lived in the same street
I know you will not hurt me, Thomas Shelmerdine she said/But he cut her down that instant and left her lying with the dead*

So come all you brave patriots wherever that you be/You must unite together to gain your liberty
Don’t forget those murderers, with justice them pursue/And all those cruel tyrants on that day at Peterloo

*The verse refers to Margaret Goodwin, a 60-year-old widow severely injured by her neighbor, Yeoman Shelmerdine; she filed a civil suit against the soldier but it was thrown out of court


Peterloo film trailer.

Leave a Reply