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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Wentworth Old Church and the Earl of Strafford

The ruins of Wentworth Old Church

The ruins of Wentworth Old Church

Wentworth Old Church, in the village of Wentworth near Barnsley, traces its origins back to the 13th century (the first mention being in 1235) and contains the tombs of many of the Wentworth family and the Earls of Strafford. The tower dates to the 14/15th century and in 1548 Thomas Wentworth bequeathed stonework for Monk Breton Priory that he had bought following the dissolution. The remainder of the current church was rebuilt in 1684 for William Wentworth. Although the majority of the church is now in ruins (the north chapel still intact), it is still clear to see what a magnificent building it must have been in it’s prime.  It was replaced by a new church, which stands immediately to the south in 1877 and the old church fell out of use. It now stands sentient over the churchyard, all faded glory and weathered stone.

Thomas Wentworth (1593-1641) was an advisor to Charles I, High Sheriff of Yorkshire, Lord Deputy of Ireland and the first Earl of Strafford. However, he seems to have fallen from favour and in 1641 was imprisoned in the Tower of London on a charge of treason. Charles I found himself under immense pressure from parliament to sign Wentworth’s death warrant, which he did on 10th May 1641. Wentworth was executed two days later and his body still lies under this church. When Charles I was himself executed eight years later, he seemed to be of the opinion that it was his punishment for allowing the execution of Thomas Wentworth.

Two views of the 14/15th century tower and 17th century doorway

Two views of the 14/15th century tower and 17th century doorway

The Rich Man and the Needle’s Eye

The Needle's Eye, from the north

The Needle’s Eye, from the north

Up on the ridge, overlooking the old stately home of Wentworth Woodhouse, in a clearing in Lee Wood, stands one of the four follies of the Wentworth estate. A curious, stone built gateway, known as the Needle’s Eye.

The pyramid measures approximately 38 feet in height, with a base of almost 20 feet on each side. The passageway is a little under nine feet wide and contains stone benches on each side, with wheel-stops inside each corner. It is topped by a stone carved funerary urn, rather than a pyramidion.

Surprisingly little is known of its construction date or purpose. Its design is attributed to architect, John Carr. Local legend tells that it was built by Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782), to win a wager that he could drive a coach and horses through the eye of a needle. Various dates are given for the date of construction, all of which fall within the life-span of the 2nd Marquess, ranging from mid-century to 1780. However, its English Heritage listing states that it is clearly visible on an engraving dating from circa 1730.

Charles Watson-Wentworth is an interesting character. Twice Whig Prime Minister (1765-66 and again from March 1782 until his death in July of that year), and a descendant of Thomas Wentworth, MP for Pontefract and the first Earl of Strafford, executed at the Tower of London by Charles I in 1641 to appease parliament*. At the age of fifteen Charles’ father made him Colonel in charge of a volunteer defense force, against the Jacobite uprising of 1745.  He rode from Wentworth to Carlisle, to join the Duke of Cumberland in his pursuit of Charles Stuart. The nearby Hoober Stand was constructed to celebrate the victory over the ‘Young Pretender’. Charles was responsible for much of the building at the great house and among the grounds. He was buried in the Earl of Strafford’s vault in York Minster and a mausoleum built in Wentworth’s grounds to commemorate him.

There has been a house at Wentworth since Saxon times, the wealth of the subsequent landowners being built on the coal measures of the estate. The pyramid stands at the crossroads of two old (now disused) coaching roads, on the boundary between Wentworth and Rainborough. Near the gate that leads from Coley Lane onto the track, is an ancient stone that looks a little like a miniature cross base. Local lore supposes that it was used as a vinegar stone (in which coins were left in exchange for food by those infected with the plague) and although it looks too small to have once held a wayside cross, due to its position, it could have held a boundary marker of some description. It is possible that the Needle’s Eye was also constructed as a boundary marker, in a grander style befitting the status of the Wentworth Woodhouse estate.

The Needle's Eye, from the south east

The Needle’s Eye, from the south east

The fact that the structure is topped by an urn, rather than the more accustomary pyramidion, could possibly indicate that it was built as a memorial. If the pyramid dates from before 1730, it could be a memorial to Lewis Watson (1655-1724), the MP for Canterbury and confusingly, the third Baron and first Earl of Rockingham.

One other odd feature, which could possibly reveal some of the pyramid’s history, is that on the eastern side there are what appear to be a number of musket ball holes. It has been suggested that these could be the result of an incident of execution by firing squad (possibly of Jacobite rebels). How much truth there is in this I am not sure, as some of the holes look too big to have been caused by musket shot, while others are way above where you would expect fire concentrated on the heart to be. A few similar marks can also be seen on the western face too.

Although the past of this wonderful folly is rather murky, on a stormy evening, with the wind whisking the tree branches, it is easy to imagine the sound of approaching hooves and the rattle of a coach along the ridge. And if another folk tale is to be believed, the possibility of coming face to face with the local padfoot that inhabits the quiet lanes around here, adds a further air of apprehension to this lonely hillside.

 

*Another story for another day!