The Songs of Joseph Mather

This first Proletics blog is about a figure who has come to symbolize, for me, the birth of Sheffield’s working-class culture and the emergence of working-class writing. I first encountered Joseph Mather whilst ferreting around in the Local Studies collection at Sheffield Central Library. It was one of those rare and thrilling occasions in archival research where you get the feeling you’ve stumbled across something unseen for years and potentially of great significance. I rattled through The Songs of Joseph Mather in a single sitting and set out to discover as much as possible about this fascinating figure. I didn’t have to look too far to establish that the book wasn’t quite the undiscovered literary gem I’d initially thought: in fact, the whole document in all its Northern glory was hiding in plain site on the internet, just here, and the first play ever performed in the Crucible Studio – Man on a Donkey – was about the eccentric balladeer (I’m very keen to find out more about this play, please get in touch if you know who it was by). I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard about this incredible character who, to my mind, should be celebrated as a folk hero in Sheffield and honoured and remembered alongside its more straight-faced radicals like James Montgomery and Samuel Holberry. Like them, Mather risked his freedom by speaking his mind to power and privilege and he passionately promoted and defended The Rights of Man, composing a Jacobin national anthem – ‘God Save Great Thomas Paine’ – in reaction to the government’s draconian ban on ‘seditious writings’ following its publication in 1791. But unlike progressive men of letters like Joseph Gales and James Montgomery, Joseph Mather was working-class – a file-cutter by trade – and his songs convey the texture of working-class life in the town (as it was then) and address power and corruption with the irreverent invective of working-class speech.

The bare facts of Joseph Mather’s early life are as follows: he was born in 1737 in Chelmorton, near Buxton, and came to Sheffield – probably aged ten or eleven – to take up an apprenticeship as a file-hewer (better known now as file-cutters).* He lived in Cack Alley – ‘vulgar people called it by a more expressive adjective’, according to his biographer – just off Westbar Green and was a Methodist as a young man, acquiring a detailed knowledge of the Bible that is often evident in his songs: on having his use of the word ‘pate’ declared vulgar whilst singing ‘Frank Fearne’, Mather apparently directed his critic to the 16th verse of the 7th Psalm for a Biblical precedent. He began to use his facility for language to compose songs about local big-wigs whilst he was working in Shemeld Croft (roughly where Ponds Forge is now). Grinders at the neighbouring Park wheel persuaded him to perform his songs in the pubs frequented by the employers and ‘other persons deemed obnoxious’ that were Mather’s satirical targets. He obviously enjoyed the thrill and earned the admiration of local workers to the extent that he began to supplement his meagre earnings as a file-hewer by selling his songs in the streets, often from the back of a donkey, which he mounted back-to-front.**

This striking image of Mather peddling his wares is also an image of a crucial development in the making of the working class. Broadsides – ballads or tales printed on flimsy paper and sold for a penny or ha’penny – ‘were the most widely available reading matter among the urban poor’ until the 1820s. Julie MacDonald writes that ‘ballads, broadsheets and newspapers […] helped both to educate people about the machinery of government and to shape popular ideas about how government policies impacted upon individuals and their local communities’.^ In a time of limited literacy, the performance of these texts was vital. They would have been read aloud at home, in ale-houses and at the political societies that were beginning to appear in industrial centres: the performance of these texts was an integral component of the grass-roots burgeoning of literacy at the end of the eighteenth century that was intimately bound up with dissenting demagoguery, democratic ideals and radical re-imaginings of the body politic.

One reason that Mather is such a powerful symbol of the emergence of working-class writing is that, despite his intimate knowledge of the Bible and his ability to read, he was unable to write. His songs were transcribed by friends for publication and weren’t collected until after his death when they were pieced together from the oral tradition, first by his friend Arthur Jewitt Jr and later by a cutler called John Wilson. The latter published The Songs of Joseph Mather in 1862 in a triumph of amateur scholarship every bit as impressive as Fred Ball’s recovery of the full text of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists almost a century later. Wilson meticulously researched the contexts of Mather’s songs and the introduction and footnotes provide fascinating historical sketches of the Sheffield he inhabited. Wilson’s footnotes often evoke the long-forgotten history of places familiar to the local reader: ‘Pitsmoor firs, the name yet retained in “Firs Hill”, was the Sunday resort of numbers who preferred games at foot-ball and knurr and spell to attending the church’. I went to Firs Hill school, where assembly hymns were stripped of religion-specific lyrics in recognition of the student body’s diversity of beliefs, and it’s amazing to think that two centuries previously Mather and his mates were dodging God and playing games on exactly the same site. In a moving ‘Preface to the Reader’, Wilson writes that the only apology he can offer for any ‘defects’ is that ‘the work has been completed in hours stolen from [his] slumbers’: the songs survive because of Wilson’s passionate commitment to his own history and culture and are perhaps most fruitfully approached as documents of an oral tradition, traceable to an originating individual in Joseph Mather but co-authored and kept alive by a vibrant oral culture.

This is the first song in the book:

opening song

This opening song, with the missing line added by the volume’s former owner, the clergyman and mathematician Rev. Samuel Earnshaw, carries within it many themes recognisable in working-class writing right up to the present day: the physical effort and pain of work, poverty and debt, starvation and preoccupation with the belly, comparisons with slavery and revolutionary calls-to-arms. Fittingly for a metal worker, the song uses chain-rhyme, making it robust, straightforward and easily memorable. It’s anchored in everyday speech, constituting the kind of verse in the language ‘really used by men’ that Wordsworth was trying, and largely failing, to achieve at the same time. Wielding the ‘six-pound hammer’ makes Mather ’round-back’d’ but earns so little that his family are constantly hungry (‘clam’ means ‘starve’). It is autobiographical in that Mather was in and out of debtor’s prison. Matter-of-fact declarations of poverty sit alongside the sermonically inflected political rhetoric that would develop in Mather’s later work, and in working-class radicalism more generally. Mather correctly predicts that he must ‘a pauper die when old’ and in the final stanza calls for a ‘hanging day’ for ‘rich knaves’ to ‘swing for their unjust extortion’.

But as well as depicting the grinding poverty of early industrial Sheffield, Mather’s songs record the carnivalesque hedonism of the time: in songs like ‘Timber-legged Harry’ and ‘The Sheffield Races’ a colourful cast of characters – many named for their physical deformities caused by work and deprivation – enjoy raucous festivities, ‘loosening their hides’ with huge quantities of ale and gin. Mather’s song describing Crook’d Jenny and Timber-legged Harry’s wedding ends with the lines, ‘Then those who were able retired to the stable / And slept with their nose in each other’s backside’. In ‘Nell and the Journeyman Hatter’ and ‘The Face-Card’ Mather conveys something of the scatological humour that appealed to the working classes at the time. The latter uses face-cards – the royals in a pack of playing cards – as a metaphor for shit, in a humorously absurd extension of Mather’s republicanism that also allows for related puns on flushes and trumps (I believe this usage is unique – Mather is cited in the OED’s entry for ‘face-card’ but only in its literal sense). In these more light-hearted songs, Mather represents the leisure, attitudes and sense of humour of ordinary working-class people and in doing so contributes to their cultural self-image and the beginnings of a complex working-class culture that would develop through the nineteenth century.

These songs convey something of the rites, customs and lived experience of Sheffielders in Mather’s day: others respond to specific historical events, catching – and no doubt helping to construct – the popular mood in relation to political crises, enclosure, miscarriages of justice, events in revolutionary France and even town planning controversies (‘The Black Resurrection’ is about the widening of Church Lane in 1785, which caused uproar because it required the removal of a number of graves). They are all well worth reading and give a valuable street’s-eye view of many important events during Mather’s turbulent lifetime. Here, though, I want briefly to discuss two of them because they are compelling stories about Sheffield and Sheffielders that link into historical events of national and international significance and demonstrate the power and importance of working-class writing.

On a Saturday night in August 1789, John Wharton was drinking with John Stevens, Thomas Lastley, Michael Bingham and John Booth in The White Hart on Waingate – one of 395 ale houses in Sheffield at the time. John Wharton declared that he was ‘off home’ and left. Stopping at a urinal on Lady’s Bridge, he put his basket on the pavement outside, emerging to find his pals had followed to get him to stay out and had got hold of his basket: a scuffle ensued and they made off with it, getting a landlady to cook the shoulder of mutton it contained in the expectation that Wharton would track them down and join them in the feast.

In March the following year Wharton reputedly fled in women’s clothing as an angry mob attacked his house. Mather composed ‘Steven’s and Lastley’s Execution’:

quote 1

Why had two of his friends been hanged over harmless drunken horseplay? Wharton, full of ale and worried what his wife would say, had asked Constable Eyre to give the others a fright and ensure he got his basket back – it contained the shoulder of mutton, a pound of tobacco, half a stone of soap, seven pounds of butter and 4d in money. All four were arrested but despite witnesses confirming their version of events – that it was nothing more than a joke and that they’d set money aside for the mutton – the local Magistrate, Vicar Wilkinson, sent all four to trial at York for highway robbery. The reasons for this wildly disproportionate reaction take us from a shopping list and the fug of ale and clay pipes in the White Hart to the other end of the class spectrum. MacDonald argues that ‘it can be no coincidence that [Wilkinson] took this decision on the same day as the Prince of Wales and his party, including the Duke of Norfolk, was expected to arrive at nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, the home of Earl Fitzwilliam’ (p. 222). The Earl paid close attention to events in the town and was concerned about the spread of radical ideas since Joseph Gales had started the radical Sheffield Register in 1787. The Earl, through or with Wilkinson, might have encouraged Eyre to intimidate known radicals or certain groups in the town; the fact that he and Wharton would split a statutory £160 reward if all four were convicted – the ‘Soul sinking gold’ – would only have made the constable all the more willing. As soon as word of the verdict reached Sheffield a petition was signed by hundreds in the town and urgently dispatched to the Home Office: the injustice was so flagrant that pardons were immediately sent back north, but flooding near Lincoln held up the messenger and he arrived at York in time to save only Michael Bingham.

‘Stevens and Lastely’s Execution’ marks a turning point in class relations in Sheffield. A bitter industrial dispute had riven the Town through the 1780s, culminating in the Freemen of the Cutler’s Company – those who had served apprenticeships – demanding the right to elect its Officers, who were a self-perpetuating oligarchy. The Freemen elected Enoch Trickett as their leader and he demanded the freedom of election in terms that – in the context of events in France and rising radicalism at home – were seen by the establishment to be revolutionary.

Things came to a head in 1790 when scissor-grinders went on strike over pay – five of them being imprisoned for it – and master scissorsmith, Jonathan Watkinson, unilaterally demanded 13 blades to the dozen from his workers. This incident prompted Mather’s most well-known song, and the only one of which a an original copy still survives (this is a scan of a photocopy but it shows how Mather’s songs would have appeared):

Watkinson's Thirteens

This is the opening verse and the chorus:

quote 2Mather spotted Watkinson at the theatre one night and struck up the song: those around him in the cheap seats joined in for the chorus. Repeated harassment of this kind led Watkinson to a breakdown and he died a year later. There are few more striking and immediate examples of working-class writing as a weapon in class warfare. As Tony Harrison has written, ‘articulation is the tongue-tied’s fighting’: Joseph Mather’s songs helped Sheffield’s emerging working classes to articulate their anger at exploitative bosses and to declare their right to a greater share of the profits of their labour. But they also fostered a positive sense of class identity, reflecting the joyful side of working-class life and the warmth and camaraderie of an emerging urban, communal culture. E. P. Thompson famously wrote that the ‘working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time’ and that it ‘was present at its own making’: Mather was one of those makers of the working class and his songs are powerful documents that speak to us directly from its emergence.

*Joan Unwin has written a great piece about file-cutters here.

**I’m very grateful to Sarah Jane Palmer for her illustration of Mather on his donkey.

^ These two sentences quote Martha Vicinus, The Industrial Muse, p. 9 and Julie MacDonald, The Freedom of Election (University of Sheffield Thesis, 2006), p. 9.

A shorter version of this post appeared in the April 2014 edition of Now Then Magazine.

6 thoughts on “The Songs of Joseph Mather

  1. Pingback: The Life and Adventures of Harvey Teasdale | proletics

  2. Very interested to read this…I did research for man on a Donkey..seems years ago. Mike Haywood who was WEA tutor organiser wrote it. Alex Glasgow wrote music and it was performed at Rotherham theatre in early 70s. It was almost surreal like an opera..critics a bit iffy. Mike died…great guy who really helped me when my writing was in doldrus. Mather is very interesting. I wrote a piece in Dictionary of Labour Biography and used him in my thesis- copy in central library- J.L. Baxter – Origins of the Social War- my work e mail is

  3. Pingback: Ray Hearne’s Songs of South Yorkshire – ‘the language of ordinary people’ | proletics

  4. Pingback: The Purging of Spence Broughton, A Highwayman | proletics

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