Ebenezer Elliott: The poet of the poor
Ebenezer Elliott liked to call himself “the poet of the poor” and was publicly known as “the Corn Law rhymer” for his leading role in the fight to repeal the Corn Laws (1815-1848/9) that by restricting imported grain raised food prices and boosted the profits of the landowners. In turn this also restricted the growth of other economic sectors including manufacturing. When the Corn Laws were repealed during the first years of the Irish famine it was viewed as a decisive shift towards free trade in Britain.
Elliott was born at the New Foundry, Masborough, Rotherham on 17 March 1781. He contracted smallpox at an early age and this left his health permanently affected. Hating school he spent much of his time exploring the countryside around Rotherham. He began studying botany and reading extensively on his own. He wrote his first poem at aged 17.
The woman he married, Frances Gartside, was wealthy and Elliott invested her fortune in his father’s share of an iron foundry only to lose everything. In 1816 he was declared bankrupt. Over the following three years he was impoverished and desperate and this sorry state of affairs appears to have made Elliott identify with the poor from then till the end of his life on 1 December 1849.
In 1819, Elliott obtained funds from his wife’s sister and with which he began business as an iron dealer. He became a successful iron merchant and steel manufacturer. He became strident in demanding improved conditions for the manufacturer and the worker.
He called for the end of the Corn Laws, was active in the Sheffield Political Union and he chaired the Sheffield meeting when the Chartist 6 points – see http://www.unitetheunion.org/growing-our-union/education/rebelroad/murals/
to extend universal suffrage were placed before local people. The poet later withdrew from the Chartist movement when some in it began to advocate violence,
After publishing a single poem The Ranter in 1830, Elliott published in 1831 the Corn Law Rhymes, which contrasted the dreadful conditions of working people compared to the gentry. He proceeded to write a considerable number of poems along similar lines. His poems were later published in Europe and in the USA. One of his final poems was The People’s Anthem and this was later retitled Save the People and was included as a musical score in the 1971 rock musical Godspell.
When Ebenezer Elliott died he was buried in All Saints Church, Darfield, where the churchyard also contains a monument to the 1857 Lundhill explosion that killed 189 men and boys.
In 1854 a monument, which is not believed to be a great likeness of him, was erected and now stands in Weston Park, Sheffield.
Elliott’s birthplace of Rotherham was slower to honour him. In 2009 artwork by Martin Heron was erected at Rhymer’s Roundabout. It is titled ‘Harvest’ and depicts ears of corn as an illusion to the Corn Law Rhymes. The same year saw Wetherspoons open a new pub in Rotherham that is called The Corn Law Rhymer.
In 2013 a blue plaque commemorating the poet was unveiled at the town’s medical centre, which rests on the site of the iron foundry where he was born.
Many thanks to Gerard Dempsey for his work on this article. Gerard is the former Unite Father-of-the-Chapel at Polestar in Sheffield and a member of the GPMU & IT sector of the union.