Radical hymns throw light on Victorian rebels

A TINY 165-year-old pamphlet of Victorian-era rebel songs has been discovered in a box at a Yorkshire public library.

The book of 16 radical hymns was produced by the Chartist movement which campaigned for social justice and workers' rights in Victorian times.

It is so rare that even the British Library does not have a copy.

The National Chartist Hymn Book was identified by Dr Mike Sanders, an English lecturer at Manchester University, after he heard stories of it in a collection of papers at Todmorden public library in West Yorkshire.

"I was first told about it by Linda Croft, a local historian working for the Workers Educational Association.

"After speaking to Linda, I asked for the pamphlet at the library. They could not find it on the shelves, but gave me three boxes of uncatalogued material.

"I was about to give up hope until I got to the second to last item in the last box and found the pamphlet with a cigar box glued onto it for a cover – it was very fragile. At first I put it on one side as I was sure there would be no place in Chartism for cigar-smoking, but then I noticed the pages inside."

He believes the Todmorden booklet is the only known example of the group's hymnal to survive. "It originally sold for one penny (less than 1/2p) so was obviously pitched at a mass market," he said.

He also had three clues which helped him confirm its origins. All were brief mentions in a 1845 editions of the Chartist newspaper Northern Star.

Dr Sanders, who lives near Hebden Bridge, once a hotbed of Chartism, said the hymn book was designed as an attempt to produce a standard hymn book for the movement as a Chartist forerunner of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

Chartist historians know of two earlier attempts to produce a hymn book for the whole movement – Cooper's Shakespearean Chartist Hymn Book and Hobson's Hymns for Worship, but until now, there had been no references to the Todmorden collection.

"There is no music in the booklet; that came much later in hymn books, but the singers would have fitted the words to tunes they already knew well. Each one is marked with the metre of the hymn, so they would know how the words went with the rhythm.

"The first one in the booklet, Great God! Is this the Patriot's Doom?, was composed for the funeral of Samuel Holberry, a Chartist leader from Sheffield who died in prison and was considered a martyr."

Heavily influenced by dissenting Christians, the hymns are about social justice, "striking down evil doers" and blessing Chartist enterprises, rather than the conventional themes of crucifixion, heaven and family.

Some of the hymns protested against the exploitation of child labour and slavery. Another of the hymns proclaimed: 'Men of wealth and men of power/Like locusts all thy gifts devour'.

One hymn honours three Chartists transported to Australia after a riot in Newport, South Wales, which left at least 24 dead.

The Chartists produced the People's Charter of 1838 which demanded including universal male suffrage, secret ballots and annual parliaments.

Although the Chartist movement petered out towards the end of the 1840s, its aims were taken on by others and all the but the last demand for annual Parliaments were subsequently adopted.

Dr Sanders believes the book came from the private papers of John Fielden, a Todmorden mill owner and Chartist supporter.

"This fragile pamphlet is an amazing find and opens up a whole new understanding of Chartism – which as a movement in many ways shaped the Britain we know today."

Dr Sanders, author of The Poetry of Chartism, is hopeful that some of the hymns will be sung next year by an amateur choir, Corista, based in Hebden Bridge.

Hymn sheet from annals of history

One of the hymns reads: Men of England, ye are slaves, Bought by tyrants, sold by knave; Your's the toil, the sweat, the pain, Their's the profit, ease, and gain.

Men of England, ye are slaves; Beaten by policemen's staves; if their force ye dare repel, Yours will be the felon's cell.

Men of England, ye are slaves, Hark! the stormy tempest raves - 'Tis the nation's voice I hear, Shouting, 'Liberty is near!'.

Another begins: How long shall babes of tender years. Be doomed to toil for lazy Peers -

The locusts of our land?

Make bare thine arm, O Lord! defend The helpless, and, be thou their friend,

And shield them with thine hand!

One hymn in honour of three Welsh Chartists reads: A time for working bees

To drive forth idle drones!

And then - a time for the release. Of WILLIAMS, FROST and JONES!