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Ebenezer
Elliott

1781 - 1849

Toledo Works
Statue of Ebeneezer Eliott In Sheffield's Weston Park, just across from the Children's Hospital, is a statue with the brief inscription

"E L L I O T T.".

When the statue was originally erected in Market Place, there was no need for a plaque explaining who this Elliott was, since he was a legend in Sheffield and beyond. In fact, the £600 cost of the statue was raised in tribute to Elliott by the working people of the town.

Elliott was born in an iron foundry at Masbrough, Rotherham in 1781. Twenty four years later, he was the owner of the foundry, but suffered the total disgrace of going bankrupt in 1816.

Sheffield soon drew Elliott and by 1821 he was living in Burgess Street where he had set up in business as an iron dealer. With a bankruptcy behind him, Elliott's approach was cautious enabling him to prosper, since he didn't overextend during good times; this helped him to ride the downturns in trade which sent others to the wall. In 1829 additional premises in Gibraltar Street were acquired, and trade directories now listed Elliott as an iron merchant and steel manufacturer.

In 1834 Elliott left his Burgess Street home and workshop to concentrate on his Gibraltar Street works and to set up home in a handsome villa in rural Upperthorpe.

Although Elliott was a steel maker and refiner, he was never a member of the Cutlers' Company - that wasn't his style. Elliott's sympathies lay not with the capitalist owners but with the working man, since he was one of them himself. When he was bankrupt, he had been homeless and out of work; he had faced starvation and contemplated suicide. He knew what it was like to be impoverished and desperate and, as a result, he always identified with the poor people of Sheffield.

As a steel maker with a conscience, Elliott was very unusual. He was interested in poetry and politics, believing that the Corn Laws had been responsible for his bankruptcy and campaigning forthrightly against them. He became well known in Sheffield for his strident views demanding changes which would improve conditions both for the manufacturer and the poor worker.

Elliott was ahead of his time in forming the first society in the whole country calling for reform of the Corn Laws: this was the Sheffield Mechanics' Anti-Bread Tax Society founded in 1830. Four years later, he was the prime mover in establishing the Sheffield Anti-Corn Law Society and he just about single-handedly set up the Sheffield Mechanics' Institute in Surrey Street. He was very active, too, in the Sheffield Political Union campaigning hard for the 1832 Reform Bill. Until the Chartist Movement advocated the use of violence, Elliott was a big wheel in the Sheffield organisation. He was the Sheffield delegate to the Great Public Meeting in Westminster in 1838 and he chaired the meeting in Sheffield when the Charter was introduced to local people.

Elliott had dabbled with poetry since he was sixteen and had even written to Robert Southey, the famous poet, for advice on composing poetry. Southey was willing to help out since he recognised that Elliott had a crude talent for writing verse. The correspondence was to last for many years.

In the 1830s Elliott made a breakthrough with his demands for changes in society: he published a volume of poems called the " Corn Law Rhymes " which brought him national fame and earned him the handle " the Corn Law Rhymer ". The poems thundered against the landowners in the government who stifled competition and kept high the price of bread; the poems were aggressive and sarcastic, attacking the status quo and demanding repeal of the Corn Laws. They also drew attention to the dreadful conditions endured by working people such as grinders and ruthlessly contrasted their lot with the sleek and complacent gentry.

The "Corn Law Rhymes" were initially thought to be written by an uneducated Sheffield mechanic who had rejected conventional Romantic ideals for a new style of working class poetry aimed at changing the system. Elliott was described as "a red son of the furnace " and called " the Yorkshire Burns" or " the Burns of the manufacturing city ". Thomas Carlyle, the eminent critic, was impressed by the poems which were also enthusiastically quoted by John Bright, the reformer, while William Wordsworth admitted:
" None of us have done better than he has in his best ".
James Montgomery, the Sheffield poet and hymn writer, claimed that in originality, power and beauty Elliott drew comparison with Byron, Crabbe and Coleridge " while in intensive sympathy with the poor ... he excelled them all ". Elliott was increasingly dubbed " The Poet Of The Poor ".

Not everyone appreciated Elliott's work - he faced much ridicule and hostility from the influential landowners he so boldly attacked. Some of them saw him (wrongly) as a ferocious revolutionary and asked the government to take steps against him. Even his literary friend, Robert Southey, described him as " the demon of anarchy " and found his tone " repulsive and even hateful ".

The Corn Law Rhymer retired from business in 1841 and shocked his admirers by moving to a remote home near Great Houghton in the Barnsley area. He died in 1849 and was buried in Darfield churchyard.

The significance of Elliott was that he dared to challenge the government; here was a humble working man who refused to accept the injustices of society and who clamoured for change through his political activities and through his original, vibrant poetry. He did much to awaken working class political confidence and he did much to end the Corn Laws. According to Professor Sparrow, Elliott's radical ideas helped pave the way to the formation of the Labour Party.

Keith Morris, Rotherham, October 2001.

 

"Ebenezer Elliott: Corn Law Rhymer & Poet of the Poor" by Keith Morris & Ray Hearne

Rotherwood Press, Oct 2002, price £7.50, ISBN 0903666 95 2

Click here for further information about Ebenezer Elliot and this publication.

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Page last updated on 20th April 2003