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.

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