Chartist hymns recorded for first time

Published 04 October 2013  |  
Dr Mike Sanders with the National Chartist Hymn Book that he discovered in a public library

A rebel hymn book from the 1800s has been turned into a CD by veteran protest singer Garth Hewitt.

The recording was made after University of Manchester academic Dr Mike Sanders discovered what is believed to be the only surviving copy of a Chartist hymn book in Todmorden public library.

The Chartist movement was made up of workers who pressed for political reform between 1839 and 1848, with an emphasis on peaceful persuasion.

Their primary concern was with democracy and workers' rights and their six-point charter demanded: equal electoral districts, abolition of the property qualifications for MPs, universal manhood suffrage, vote by secret ballot, the payment of MPs, and annual parliaments. Only the last demand was not adopted.

Garth Hewitt

The Chartists were heavily influenced by dissenting Christianity and Dr Sanders recalls a 1839 Whitsuntide mass-meeting, when the Chartist Abrams Henson criticised those priests who "preached Christ and a crust, passive obedience and non-resistance. Let the people keep from those churches and chapels. Let them go to those men who preached Christ and a full belly, Christ and a well-clothed back - Christ and a good house to live in - Christ and Universal Suffrage."

Chartist meetings were held across the nation and according to Dr Sanders, the hymn books were designed in an attempt to produce a standard hymn book for the movement, as a Chartist forerunner of 'Hymns Ancient and Modern'.

While 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' - there had been no references to the Todmorden collection.

Dr Sanders published his findings from two years of research into the hymn book in the Victorian Studies journal earlier this year. He said the South Lancashire Delegate Meeting almost certainly compiled the tiny 165-year-old pamphlet.

The Chartist hymns differed from the traditional church hymns of the time in their focus on ending injustice in the world and liberating people from the bondages of child labour and slavery.

Now Hewitt has brought the Todmorden hymns to life in a new 12-track recording called Liberty is Near!.

Two of the tracks borrow the tunes from popular hymns, Amazing Grace and Rock of Ages, while the other 10 are original compositions.

Hewitt said: "When Mike Sanders sent me the words of the songbook I was struck by how passionate the hymns are and how poetic, and I wanted to put some tunes to them, as we only had the words, so they could be sung again and hopefully brought alive in a new way and for a new generation.

"I think they are interesting politically and I think they are also interesting for the church community to see the way that social justice and a theology come together in these songs with great power.

"I felt we could learn something from them that might help us include songs of justice in our own hymns today. As I recorded these songs from 1845 they came alive to me and I kept seeing a remarkable relevance to our own society.

"Mike Sanders has described Chartist theology as a forerunner of liberation theology – I can sense that even as I sing them."

Dr Sanders said: "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.

"It's very rare – even the British Library doesn't have a copy. And now it's been transformed into an album.

"I can't imagine many pieces of research ending up as a CD of contemporary songs,so I was surprised and delighted when Garth approached me.

"What is so fascinating is that hymn-singing was not the best known feature of Chartism. This is why this attempt to produce an equivalent to Hymns Ancient and Modern is significant.

"It's a great album. And as it seems a concern for social justice is being recovered by many Christian Churches, I would have thought these hymns would resonate with those communities."

Liberty is Near! is available from www.garthhewitt.org or www.kevinmayhew.com

Here Garth talk about his new album here:

 

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