Protest Music and Political Life – part 1

As well as digitising and cataloguing audio collections from across the North West our hub aims to increase access to and the use of sound archives. Our first engagement project, ‘Demo Tapes’, is all about protest music.

UOSH NW Hub office and studio, overlooking Library Walk

Why protest music? Firstly, many of the collections we have been working with have a political element, from songs to life stories describing injustice and oppression. Secondly, location. Our hub office and studio is in Manchester Central Library, overlooking St. Peter’s Square; this is home to the Emmeline Pankhurst bronze sculpture by Hazel Reeves, and the Cenotaph and Peace Garden. The area around St. Peter’s Square was the site of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. Not surprisingly, the area is also a focus for protests and marches today. In 2019, while we were working on the collections we could hear the Anti-Brexit protests during the Conservative Party Conference, the Extinction Rebellion (XR) action and the weekly demonstrations about climate change by young people.

Surrounded and inspired by all this history how could we not have a project offering young musicians the chance to creatively engage with our audio collections?

For many months I have been working on the Manchester Studies oral history collection. One of the strands of this is Women’s Political interviews. Here women from different backgrounds were interviewed in the 1970s about their growing political and social awareness as they grew up in the 1930s.

The interviews show the varied reasons for women becoming more politically active and getting involved with different campaigns.

Textiles, Cotton Mill, group of women in cotton factory, Manchester, 1935 (m59215)


For some this started in the workplace:

Mrs. Booth worked in a mill where the conditions were poor, and targets were set (MSOH/756(1)_1 download)

She became involved with the union to change the working environment for her and the other mill girls, many of whom were unwilling to get involved (MSOH/756(1)_2 download)

There was also a physical danger to the women who worked there, in the shape of the overlooker’s son. Mrs. Booth details how she dealt with him (MSOH/756(1)_4 download)

Mrs. Sheldon secured a job, but with low wages, she recalls how this soon changed (MSOH/757_1 download)

Mrs. Coughlin recalls the camaraderie she felt of women working together joining the dispute (MSOH/762_1 download)


For others joining groups and going to meetings was more of a social activity:

Mrs. Frayman joined a Jewish Working Men’s Club for the social life (MSOH/758(1)_2 download)

Mrs. Bobker got interested in Youth Front Against World Fascism when aged about 15 (MSOH/763(1)_1 download)


However, interviewees were also aware of what was going on in their neighbourhoods:

Mrs. Booth remembers going to a Blackshirts meeting to heckle with her sister (MSOH/756(1)_6 download)

Mrs. Jenkins talks about seeing the Blackshirts and how everyone was political then, they had to be… (MSOH/761_1 download)

Mrs. Finlay shares anecdotes about attending an anti-fascist demonstration and about a confrontation with the Blackshirts (MSOH/759(2)_1 download)


Demonstration against Sir Oswald Mosley, 1962 (m80000)

This image above is taken from a demonstration at Belle Vue in 1962. In July that year Sir Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement party organised a march. Almost thirty years before, Mosley and his British Union of Fascists campaigned across Manchester, where he met opposition at the Free Trade Hall and at a rally held at Belle Vue. The interviewees have vivid recollections of these events in the 1930s and the scene depicted in the photograph would be familiar to them.


Vicki Caren, Cataloguing Manager, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage North West Hub, based in Archives+, Manchester Central Library.

The Manchester Studies oral history collection is held by Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre. Digital copies of the full-length interviews digitised by Unlocking Our Sound Heritage will be available at Tameside in due course.

You can find out more about the national Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at the British Library’s website. Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

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