The Corn Law Rhymer

Ebenezer Elliott (17 March 1781 – 1 December 1849)

Ebenezer Elliott's grave in All Saints Churchyard, Darfied

Ebenezer Elliott’s grave in All Saints Churchyard, Darfied (behind railings).

There is one grave that stands out a little from the others in the peaceful churchyard of All Saints in Darfield. It seems slightly better tended with a fresh coat of paint on its iron railings. This is the grave of Ebenezer Elliott.

Known as the Corn Law Rhymer, Elliott was a vociferous champion of the industrial poor and critic of the Corn Laws (or Bread Tax) at a time of great political upheaval. Internationally famous during his own lifetime, he struck an odd figure in that he was a radical of the factory owning class. He was also something of an early exponent of the right to roam, taking to the countryside on a Sunday, freed of the weekday chains of the factory.

Footpaths(excerpt)

The poor man’s walk they take away,
The solace of his only day,
Where now, unseen, the flowers are blowing,
And, all unheard, the stream is flowing

Elliott was born in Masbrough, Rotherham, the son of a foundry owner known as ‘Devil Elliott’, on account of his fiery Calvinist sermons. A rather solitary child, the young Ebenezer preferred to play truant from school and spend his time exploring the countryside around Rotherham. It was his love of nature that influenced his early poetry.

At the age of sixteen he was set to work in his father’s foundry, where he remained until 1816 until the firm failed after his father’s death and he was declared bankrupt. With funds from his wife’s sister, he moved to Sheffield in 1819 to set up as an iron merchant and steel manufacturer.

Throughout this time he continued to write poetry, but his experience of impoverishment forged an affinity with the poor. He could see the effect that the hated Corn Laws (which he named the Bread Tax) had on the poor and blamed them for his own downfall.

The Corn Laws were introduced in 1815 and imposed restrictions and tariffs on imported grain, designed to keep prices high and favour domestic producers. The effect of this was to raise food prices and ensure that shortages left people hungry.

Becoming increasingly politically active, Elliot’s views demanding change to benefit both manufacturers and workers were well  known in Sheffield, where he was often disliked by other business owners. He set up the Sheffield Mechanics’ Anti-Bread Tax Society,  campaigned for the 1832 Reform Act and became active in the Chartist movement.

He earned the name of ‘The Corn Law Rhymer’ following a burst of published poems, The Village Patriarch (1829), The Ranter (1830) and the Corn Law Rhymes (1831). These were followed by the even more incendiary Corn Law Hymns in 1835.

His poems gained him international fame and his most celebrated poem, The People’s Anthem was even sung in schools.

When wilt thou save the people?
Oh, God of mercy! when?
Not kings and lords, but nations!
Not thrones and crowns, but men!

Upon the advice of his doctor, who considered that he may drop dead during one of his furious tirades against the Bread Tax, Elliot retired in 1841 to a house at Hargate Hill near Great Houghton, on the outskirts of Barnsley. Here he lived a quiet life, following his literary interests. He lived to see the Corn Law repealed in 1846, before his death in 1849 after an attempt at self-surgery.

He was buried in the churchyard of nearby All Saints Church at Darfield, where his tomb can still be seen. A monument to Elliott was erected in 1854 outside the post office in Sheffield market place, later moved to its current position in Weston Park on 1874. The statue depicts Elliott sat on his favourite rock in Rivelin Valley. The rock bearing his name can still be seen at the top of Black Brook waterfall.

Celebrated during his lifetime, Ebenezer Elliott has been largely forgotten in the century and a half since his death. He struck an odd figure as a bourgeois factory owning exponent of free trade, yet was ferocious in his defence of the rights and struggles of the working class. His poetry should be remembered for not only casting light upon the conditions that working people were forced to endure, but for his love of nature too. He wrote many poems about the beauty of the Peak District and his beloved Rivelin Valley.

from Win-Hill, or, the Curse of God

High on the topmost jewel of thy crown,
Win-Hill! I sit bareheaded, ankle-deep
In tufts of rose-cupp’d bilberries; and look down
On towns that smoke below, and homes that creep
Into the silvery clouds, which far-off keep
Their sultry state! and many a mountain stream,
And many a mountain vale, “and ridgy steep;”
The Peak, and all his mountains, where they gleam
Or frown, remote or near, more distant than they seem!

There flows the Ashop, yonder bounds the Wye,
And Derwent here towards princely Chatsworth trends;
But, while the Nough steals purple from the sky,
Lo! northward far, what giant’s shadow bends?
A voice of torrents, hark! its wailing sends;
Who drives yon tortured cloud through stone-still air?
A rush! a roar! a wing! a whirlwind rends
The stooping larch! The moorlands cry “Prepare!
It comes! ye gore-gorged foes of want and toil, beware!”
It comes! Behold! – Black Blakelow hoists on high
His signals to the blast from Gledhill’s brow.
Them, slowly glooming on the lessening sky,
The bread-tax’d exile sees, (in speechless woe,
Wandering the melancholy main below,
Where round the shores of Man the dark surge heaves,)
And while his children’s tears in silence flow,
Thinks of sweet scenes to which his soul still cleaves,
That home on Etherow’s side, which he for ever leaves.
Now expectation listens, mute and pale,
While, ridged with sudden foam, the Derwent brawls;
Arrow-like comes the rain, like fire the hail;
And, hark! Mam-Tor on shuddering Stanage calls!
See, what a frown o’er castled Winnat falls!
Down drops the death-black sky! and Kinderscout,
Conscious of glory, laughs at intervals;
Then lifts his helmet, throws his thunders out,
Bathes all the hills in flame, and hails their stormy shout.
High on the topmost jewel of thy crown,
Win-Hill! I sit bareheaded, ankle-deep
In tufts of rose-cupp’d bilberries; and look down
On towns that smoke below, and homes that creep
Into the silvery clouds, which far-off keep
Their sultry state! and many a mountain stream,
And many a mountain vale, “and ridgy steep;”
The Peak, and all his mountains, where they gleam
Or frown, remote or near, more distant than they seem!
There flows the Ashop, yonder bounds the Wye,
And Derwent here towards princely Chatsworth trends;
But, while the Nough steals purple from the sky,
Lo! northward far, what giant’s shadow bends?
A voice of torrents, hark! its wailing sends;
Who drives yon tortured cloud through stone-still air?
A rush! a roar! a wing! a whirlwind rends
The stooping larch! The moorlands cry “Prepare!
It comes! ye gore-gorged foes of want and toil, beware!”
It comes! Behold!—Black Blakelow hoists on high
His signals to the blast from Gledhill’s brow.
Them, slowly glooming on the lessening sky,
The bread-tax’d exile sees, (in speechless woe,
Wandering the melancholy main below,
Where round the shores of Man the dark surge heaves,)
And while his children’s tears in silence flow,
Thinks of sweet scenes to which his soul still cleaves,
That home on Etherow’s side, which he for ever leaves.
Now expectation listens, mute and pale,
While, ridged with sudden foam, the Derwent brawls;
Arrow-like comes the rain, like fire the hail;
And, hark! Mam-Tor on shuddering Stanage calls!
See, what a frown o’er castled Winnat falls!
Down drops the death-black sky! and Kinderscout,
Conscious of glory, laughs at intervals;
Then lifts his helmet, throws his thunders out,
Bathes all the hills in flame, and hails their stormy shout.

The Lost World of Wardsend Cemetery

7389937988_724f00b70f_oOn the overgrown hillside overlooking Hillsborough in Sheffield, known in the 11th century as ‘Wereldesend’, lies the now near forgotten Wardsend Cemetery. Victorian monumental headstones loom out of woodland and dense ivy undergrowth. Rusted wrought iron railings and the tombs to which they are attached, tumble back into the earth to join those that lie beneath.

The land on which the cemetery now stands, was bought in 1857 by Rev. John Livesey when the churchyard of St. Philip’s Church on Infirmary Road (since demolished) closed for burials. It was consecrated by the Archbishop of York, Thomas Musgrave, on the 5th of July 1859. The first burial being a two year old girl, named Ann Marie Marsden. She is, in keeping with tradition, the ‘Guardian of the Cemetery.’ A small chapel and Sexton’s house were included, only the ruined footings of which remain today.

The cemetery has a close association with the nearby Hillsborough Barracks and an obelisk commemorates the soldiers of 6th, 19th, 24th, 33rd, 51st, 55th Regiments of Foot, Victorian Army, who died whilst at Hillsborough Barracks during the period 1866 – 1869. There are graves of several soldiers, killed during both World Wars as well as some of the 240 victims of the Great Sheffield Flood of the night of 11th/12 March 1864, when the Dale Dyke reservoir at Bradfield collapsed.

Local legend has it that of the four clock faces on the old St. Philip’s Church tower, one was never lit at night. This, it was said, was to allow the bodysnatchers at the nearby Wardsend Cemetery to carry out their grisly work, unable to see when the witching hour had come.

7389936400_f6df3f8372_oNefarious deeds came to light in 1862, when a labourer named Robert Dixon accused the sexton, Isaac Howard of disinterring newly buried bodies and selling them for dissection.

Dixon had moved into the sexton’s house in the cemetery and in his own words, “I observed a curious smell in the room above the stable. I thrust some knots out of the deal boards, and looked down into the stable. We had then been there two or three weeks. I saw about 20 coffins – some of persons about 15 and 16 and 10 years old – others were those of stillborn children. None of them appeared to be the coffins of grown-up persons. I had seen Howard lock and unlock this door, and knew he had the key. The coffins were not covered over with anything, and were lying on the ground, piled in heaps on the top of each other. I saw some broken-up coffins piled in a corner by themselves – the wood appeared to be new. Those pieces are there now. The day I flitted (last Monday) I and several other men saw in the stone shelf near the house four or five sides and lids of coffins.”

The suspicion was that Isaac Howard was supplying the Sheffield Medical School with corpses for dissection. Also that money supplied by the medical school for the ‘decent burial’ of remains legally obtained from the workhouse, was being kept by Howard and the bodies disposed of in a less than respectful manner.

As the news broke, it caused revulsion amongst the occupants of Sheffield, many of who would have had family members buried at Wardsend. On the evening of June 3rd, what became known as the Sheffield Cemetery Riots of 1862 took place when a crowd gathered at the cemetery to find a large hole containing coffins, with and without bodies, one of which had clearly been dissected. Underneath the coffins was said to be several feet of human remains. Many of the crowd began to disinter the coffins of their relatives and a number of graves were found to be empty.

The crowd forced their way into the sexton’s house demolishing the windows and doors, before marching to Howard’s home half a mile away in Burrowlee. Howard learned a mob was on the way, fled and went into hiding, eventually being found in Bakewell, Derbyshire. The crowd set fire to his house, which was completely destroyed.

7389939922_63439c5149_oIt emerged that the law had been breached by both the medical school and the town’s workhouse. The workhouse had sent bodies to the school in sacks and the school, after dissecting them, had allowed Howard to convey them to Wardsend in plain wooden boxes. The law required that coffins should be used.

It appears that the medical school, nervous of its reputation as a school for bodysnatchers, were trying to hush up its activities.

Now the grim tale took a sensational twist as suspicion began to focus on the Rev. John Livesey. It was revealed that he had made a false entry in the burial register, having failed to check that the body of a boy named James Greatorex had been interred.

On June 11th, a public meeting of parishioners at the Peacock Inn, Hoyle Street, severely criticised Livesey. The next night a crowd of 3,000 Sheffielders gathered in the Temperance Hall, Townhead Street, and demanded Livesey should be suspended until he had either been cleared or condemned.

On June 23rd, Livesey was committed to York Assizes, charged with making a false entry in the burial register. Isaac Howard made a statement implicating Livesey. He said that he had removed bodies from their graves, but only on the instructions of the Vicar. Howard was committed to York Assizes, charged with unlawfully disinterring the bodies of two children, William Henry Johnson and Charley Hinchliffe.

Although there was little evidence against Livesey, the jury found him guilty. The judge showed what he thought of the verdict and sentenced the clergyman to one week imprisonment. Howard, also found guilty, was also treated leniently and was given a three month sentence. Livesey was later pardoned, after Howard came clean about his crimes.

By the turn of the century over 20,000 interments had taken place and in 1901, a further two acres of land on the other side of the railway were added. Wardsend Cemetery remains the only cemetery in England with a railway running through it!

The final burial took place in 1977 and the cemetery was officially closed in 1988. Since then it has been virtually abandoned by the church and despite efforts by the council and the Friends of Wardsend Cemetery, it remains one of the few truly lost romantic spaces in South Yorkshire.

7389934618_5fd80119f3_o