Power to the people

English protest songs have inspired generations of people to unite together and change history.

They have stirred movements, from suffragettes to strikers, giving a collective voice to the voiceless. Here are 6 protest songs that help us to explore some of the evocative moments in English history in the past 80 years:

1. The Manchester Rambler, Ewan MacColl (1932)

He said “All this land is my master’s”
At that I stood shaking my head
No man has the right to own mountains
Any more than the deep ocean bed

Kinder Scout Plateau  [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

In 1932, folk singer Ewan MacColl wrote The Manchester Rambler for his part in the mass trespass of Kinder Scout, a moorland plateau in the Peak District of Derbyshire.

The protest was in response to walkers not being allowed access to the open countryside and ended in fighting between protesters and gamekeepers. The mass trespass was considered a successful act of civil disobedience and paved the way for the National Parks legislation in 1949 when long-distance footpaths were established.

McColl’s song presents a struggle between the working class on one side fighting for the right to roam, and the wealthy on the other, wanting exclusive use of moorlands to shoot grouse.

2. The H-Bomb’s Thunder, John Brunner (1958)

Don’t you hear the H-bomb’s thunder
Echo like the crack of doom?
While they rend the skies asunder
Fall-out makes the earth a tomb

CND March Aldermaston to London via flickr
CND March Aldermaston to London via flickr

During Easter 1958, demonstrators marched from London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston, Berkshire, to protest against nuclear weapons. The journey of 52 miles lasted four days. The ‘Aldermaston marches’ became an annual event throughout the 1950s and 60s and many thousands joined the protest. Music played a big role in the marches and John Brunner’s song, The H-bomb’s Thunder, became the unofficial anthem of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

3. Greenham Lullaby, the women of Greenham Common (1980s)

Go to sleep you weary women
Let the squaddies go shouting by
Can’t you hear those launchers rumbling
That’s a peace camp lullaby.
Well I know you’re tired and weary
That your hair is turning blue
Never mind, we’ve stopped the convoy
And we’ll get the muncher too.

Greenham - Embracing_the_base,_Greenham_Common_December_1982_-_geograph.org.uk_-_759090
Embracing the base, Greenham Common December 1982 © Copyright ceridwen , licenced under Creative Commons

Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was established in September 1981 to protest against nuclear weapons being sited at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire. On 1 April 1983 70,000 protesters formed a 14-mile human chain from Greenham to Aldermaston. The camp was active for 19 years and disbanded in 2000. A memorial sculpture now marks the old camp site engraved with the words, “You can’t kill the Spirit”.

4. Shipbuilding – Elvis Costello (1982)

It’s just a rumor that was spread around town
A telegram or a picture postcard
Within weeks, they’ll be re-opening the shipyards
And notifying the next of kin, once again

World_Unicorn,_built_by_Swan_Hunter_1973 via wikipedia
World Unicorn, built by Swan Hunter shipbuilders Tyneside 1973 TWAM – Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums @ Flickr Commons

Shipbuilding was written by Elvis Costello in 1982 in response to the Falklands War. The song poignantly highlights the impact of war on the depressed shipbuilding communities of the north of England: orders for new warships bring prosperity, but the ships themselves could carry the sons of those communities to their deaths. The song became a hit a year later after being covered by singer Robert Wyatt.

5. Women of the Working Class – Mal Finch (1984)

We don’t need government approval for anything we do
We don’t need their permission to have a point of view
We don’t need anyone to tell us what to think or say
We’ve strength enough and wisdom of our own, to go our own way

Miners' Strike rally, 1984 via Wikimedia Commons
Miners’ Strike rally,  London 1984 via Wikimedia Commons

During the 1984-5 miners’ strike a group of women from Barnsley set up Women Against Pit Closures to support striking miners and their families. The women inspired a movement of local groups across the country to campaign against pit closures and raise funds for the cause. Many women were empowered to take up public roles for the first time. Written by Mal Finch, Women of the Working Class was adopted as the anthem of the WAPC campaign.

6. Glad to Be Gay, Tom Robinson Band (1986)

I had a friend who was gentle and short
He was lonely one evening and went for a walk
Queerbashers caught him, kicked in his teeth
He was only hospitalised for a week

Marchers, banners and police at the first official gay pride march held in London, 1st July 1972. By LSE Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Tom Robinson wrote Glad to be Gay for the London gay pride parade in 1976. The song criticises British society’s attitudes towards gay people, in particular, their treatment by the police and the media. The song became a rallying call for solidarity from people, irrespective of their orientation.


What are the places that have witnessed the struggle for equality, strikes for our rights and the development of power?

100 Places logoThis month, in our quest to create a list of 100 places that tell England’s story, we’re talking about Power, Protest and Progress. Nominate now

Join in the conversation on twitter using #100Places

Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by specialist insurer, Ecclesiastical.

3 responses to Power to the people

  1. John Crane says:

    Where are the earlier songs of previous centuries, many that were suppressed, of much harsher and greater inequality issues. South Downs Folk Singers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Irish history, folklore and all that and commented:
    English protest songs have inspired generations of people to unite together and change history.

    They have stirred movements, from suffragettes to strikers, giving a collective voice to the voiceless. Here are 6 protest songs that help us to explore some of the evocative moments in English history in the past 80 years:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kath Shawcross says:

    As 2019 is the 200th anniversary of Peterloo it would be nice to see/hear songs relating to that event.


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