OFS reviewer and volunteer usher Lucy saw Three Acres And A Cow, May 2022.
The 20th of May 2022. A sold out show at the Old Fire Station. 7pm.
A couple minutes to spare and I’m shoved in the front – the emptiest and scariest row – on the kiddy sized seats, notebook conspicuously in hand and face to face with the artists: a kind of anxiety-provoking start. Somehow I’d skipped over the bit that alluded to group folk singing. It was now sinking in.
A chilling start to a stirring evening. I was humming protest songs by the time I made it home.
The Washing Line of History thronged along the back. A timeline, it reflected English history as taught in English schools. There was a bit about Ye Goode Olde Days, preceding The Norman Invasion: 1066. Then Henry VIII and the fates of his wives: Divorced, Beheaded, Divorced, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived. Then a massive gap, within which nestles the Industrial Revolution, leading to WW1 and 2. After this came our times now… England’s still ‘Great’? Isn’t it?
Starting with the Norman invasion, Three Acres & a Cow reveals a millennia of oppression, rape and greed. As untold in school. The oft-recited 1066, where William invaded England because he’d invaded everywhere else and it was the logical step for a land-hungry bully. Understandably the English were not too happy about this. So William squashed rebellions in the north like this: he had every building burnt and every animal killed between York and Durham, then had the land salted so nothing could grow. He also introduced feudalism. 90% of the country were now technically slaves (termed serfs). Land became less about living and instead completely about appeasing the rich.
As history progressed, the washing line was filled. The 1300’s saw the bubonic plague devastate both rich and poor alike, thus messing with ideologies that deemed our lots in life were divine and deserved. So many people died that the worth of peasants sharply increased. Furthermore, they’d just gone through a plague. They were at their wits end. They weren’t taking it anymore, they weren’t paying taxes for a ridiculous, protracted war that had nothing to do with them (100 years, against France) and the peasants revolted.
Three Acres & a Cow reconnects us to history through songs and stories. Sydney Carter’s John Ball introduces us to a priest who believed in equality and a strong and independent woman who marched on up to London following the introduction of a poll tax. Much blood was shed and the barely teenaged king Richard relented, agreeing to the abolition of feudalism. He reneged on this soon after and ordered the executions of many brave men and women. This then led to the exclusion of women from guilds and professions.
As the centuries go on, more horror and abuse ensues. The power and greed of the church decreed the pillage and destruction of those from other religions, thus begetting the oxymoronic ‘Holy War’. Wealth and money become inherently evil and blood-stained. Henry VIII denies catholicism in order to obtain that fifth of the country’s wealth and power.
The country-side is sold off and enclosed by hedges, ditches and walls designed to pen people and cattle in. The land is the playing ground of the rich, it is illegal to live off the land. This leads to people moving into towns and cities and the beginning of the industrial revolution.
Despite its expense, coal is used as power instead of water. Mainly because using water involves cooperation with other mill owners. In this way, there is a strong link between environmental abuse and capitalistic structures.
The oppressed become the oppressors. Colonialism sees the raping, pillaging and enslaving of millions.
In this maelstrom of malignancy, there shines some faded rays of hope. These come in the form of protest songs, stories and poems. Our stories shape us, they breed resistance. Sometimes, if we fight enough, they even get through.
The eponymous song, Three Acres and a Cow, refers to an idea in the 1800s. If the country (why not the whole world?) was divided up equally, we’d all be entitled to three acres and a cow each. But, ‘… if they mean to give it us why don’t they give it now?’
We’re still waiting.
The show mainly focused on English history, but also paid some attention to Scotland in the First World War and the remarkable, heartening tale of Mrs Barbour’s Army. In 1915, work at the factories was rife, but wages were driven down to subsidise the war. At this moment, in the midst of all this struggle, the landlords decided to put the rent up.
But Mrs Barbour wouldn’t have it, she organised an army of angry women, who got their point across to the ministers. When the government then had her arrested and released on bail, she organised an even bigger army: one of angry women backed by the men working in the factories. Alistair Hulett’s song ‘Mrs Barbour’s Army’ is an encouraging and rousing tune, which champions the methods of ‘diversity of tactics’.
As the 20th Century progressed, some rights were gained. But many rights of tenants were taken back in the 1980s. Three Acres and a Cow is an important and informative show: a whistle-stop tour of hidden history. The stories we need to know.
I found it inspiring, with a tendency to bring out the teacher, the fighter, the reformer, the preacher, the rebel in everyone.
It is a terrifying history, but there is always light. The threat to land is both critical and continuous. It is a threat made by those who wish to make money at the expense and interest of all life on this planet. Those who wish to destroy it, and us.
The land is our future.
(And we must fight.)