Biography

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Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849)

Taken from Sir Lesley Stephen & Sir Sidney Lee (eds.), Dictionary of National Biography: from the earliest times to 1900 (London, Oxford University Press, 1949).


Ebenezer Elliott, the corn-law rhymer, was born at the New Foundry, Masborough, parish of Rotherham, Yorkshire, 17 March 1781. His father's ancestors were border raiders, ‘thieves, neither Scotch nor English, who lived on the cattle they stole from both.’ His father, known as ‘Devil Elliott,’ was engaged in the iron trade, was in politics an extreme radical, and in religion an ultra-Calvinist. His mother came from near Huddersfield, where from time immemorial her ancestors had lived on their lot of freehold ground. Her health was bad, and made her life ‘one long sigh.’ Elliott was one of a family of eleven, of whom eight reached mature life. Elliott was baptised by Tommy Wright, a tinker, of the same religious persuasion as the father. He was first educated at a dame's school, then under Joseph Ramsbotham at Hollis school, where he was ‘taught to write and little more.’ Various changes of school followed.

In his sixth year he had the small-pox, which left him ‘fearfully disfigured and six weeks blind.’ This increased a natural timidity of disposition and fondness for solitude. About fourteen he began to read extensively on his own account. He kept this up, though early engaged in business, and from sixteen to twenty-three working for his father without any other pecuniary reward than a little pocket-money. In his leisure hours he studied botany, collected plants and flowers, and was delighted at the appearance of ‘a beautiful green snake about a yard long, which on the fine Sabbath mornings about ten o'clock seemed to expect me at the top of Primrose Lane.’ His love of nature, he says, caused him ‘to desert both alehouse and chapel.’ When seventeen he wrote his first poem, the Vernal Walk, dedicated to Miss Austen. Other early pieces were Second Nuptials and Night, or the Legend of Wharncliffe, which last was described with some justice by the Monthly Review as the ‘Ne plus ultra of German horror and bombast.’ His Tales of the Night, including ‘The Exile’ and ‘Bothwell,’ were of more merit, and brought him high commendation from Southey. Then followed at various intervals Love, The Letter, They met again, Withered Wild Flowers, Spirits and Men. This last was an ‘epic poem’ of the world before the flood, dedicated, ‘as evidence of my presumption and my despair,’ to James Montgomery the poet. There are occasional passages of genuine inspiration in all these ambitious poems, but the turgid and pseudo-romantic also largely figure there. Imperfections of education and a want of humour fully account for the defects.

More practical and interesting, if more commonplace subjects, soon engaged Elliott's undivided attention. He had married at Rotherham. His wife brought him a small fortune. He invested it in the business, ‘already bankrupt beyond redemption,’ in which his father had a share. The father had been already unfortunate in trading. His difficulties hastened his wife's death, and he himself died soon after her. Elliott's efforts were unable to retrieve the fortunes of the firm. After some years of strenuous effort he lost every penny he had in the world, and was obliged to live for some time dependent on his wife's sisters. His own misfortunes, as well as those of his parents, he attributed to the operation of the corn laws. In 1821 his wife's relatives raised a little money, and with this as capital he started in business in the iron trade in Sheffield. On the whole he was very prosperous for a number of years. Some days he made as much as £20 without leaving his counting-house, or even seeing the goods from which he made the profits. His prosperity attained its highest point in 1837, when he ought, he says, to have retired. He lost heavily after that for some time, but was able notwithstanding to settle up his business and leave Sheffield in 1842 with about £6,000. His losses here were again, he thought, due to the manner in which the corn laws impeded his efforts.

At Sheffield Elliott was most active in literature and politics, as well as in commerce. The bust of Shakespeare in his counting-house, the casts of Achilles, Ajax, and Napoleon in his workshop typified the fact that he had other interests besides money-making. He engaged in the reform agitation, but was disappointed at what he thought the small results of the measure. He then engaged actively in the Chartist movement, and was present as delegate from Sheffield in the great public meeting held in Palace Yard, Westminster, in 1838. When O'Connor induced the Chartists to repudiate the corn law repeal agitation, he withdrew from the Chartist movement, for his hatred of the ‘bread tax’ was all through the deepest principle in his life. He believed it had caused his father's ruin, his own losses and disappointments, both as workman and capitalist; it was ruining the country, and would cause a terrible revolution. Thus all his efforts came to be directed to the repeal agitation. ‘Our labour, our skill, our profits, our hopes, our lives, our children's souls are bread taxed,’ he exclaims. He scarcely spoke or wrote of anything besides the corn laws. My heart, he writes,

once soft as woman's tears, is gnarled
In the gloating on the ills I cannot cure.

It was this state of mind that produced the ‘Corn-law Rhymes’ (1831), ‘Indignatio facit versus.’ They are couched in vigorous and direct language, and are full of graphic phrases. The bread tax has ‘its maw like the grave;’ the poacher ‘feeds on partridge because bread is dear;’ bad government is

The deadly will that takes
What labour ought to keep;
It is the deadly power that makes
Bread dear and labour cheap.

They are free from the straining after effect, and from the rhapsodies, commonplaces, and absurdities which disfigure much of Elliott's other poetry. Representing the feelings of the opposers of the corn laws, the rhymes give us a truer idea of the fierce passion of the time than even the speeches of Cobden and Bright. Animated by somewhat of the same feelings as the Corn-law Rhymes are The Ranter, The Village Patriarch (1829), and The Splendid Village, all vividly describing life among the poor in England. Elliott also wrote Keronah, a drama, a brief and somewhat curious piece on Napoleon Bonaparte, entitled Great Folks at Home, and a large number of miscellaneous poems, including Rhymed Rambles.

After his retirement from business in 1841 Elliott lived at Great Houghton, near Barnsley, where he was chiefly occupied in literary pursuits. He died there, having lived to see the hated ‘bread tax’ abolished, on 1 December 1849, and was buried at Darfield Church. Very shortly before his death his daughter was married to John Watkins, his biographer.

Elliott had a family of thirteen children, most of whom, together with his wife, survived him. Elliott was a small, meek-looking man. Though engaged in many almo