John Henry Bramwich - Chartist Poet
John Henry Bramwich
29 July 1803 – 12 March 1846
John was born in St. Leonard’s Parish, Shoreditch, London, England. He was christened in the Church of England 17 August 1803. He was the son of Thomas and Elizabeth Bromwich. (Their names are recorded as Broomwick in the records.) “His mother was a weaver and could barely sustain her two children. At the age of nine Bramwich began working in a factory.” At age seventeen, in 1820, he joined the British Army. John served for sixteen years as a private while the extensive British Empire was at its peak. He served ten of those years in the West Indies. He married a widow, Mary Salmon Stevenson, who had children from another marriage, at Demerara, British Guiana, South America. His daughter Eliza was born in Trinidad in 1834.
John became seriously ill with consumption and spent a year in the hospital in Trinidad. John was unable to continue in the army. When he was strong enough to travel, he took his family back to England. Consumption, or tuberculosis, thrives in damp climates. They lived on Pringle Lane at the time of the 1841 census. “Pringle Street still survives in Leicester, though today it is an industrial area. In the late 19th century it would have been in the heart of the City’s slums and probably was in 1846 too. It is close to the river Soar and canal, near to a place called Frog Island. I doubt whether a low lying damp area, as it was, would be very good for T.B.”
John worked in a textile factory as a stockinger. A stockinger was a weaver of stockings and mittens. Stockingers were hard hit by the industrial revolution. Their work had previously been done on small personal looms. The big factory machines could turn out a much higher volume per day, but the quality suffered.
In 1832, in England, all male citizens age twenty-one and older, who owned property, were given the right to vote. The poor, unlanded, working classes rose up with a roar and said, “Hey! What about us?” A group of men wrote the People’s Charter, in 1838, saying they wanted six things: that every male citizen be allowed to vote, a secret ballot, that Members of Parliament should be chosen by the electors without restrictions (like owning land), that Members of Parliament be paid a salary (so poor people could do it), that Parliament should meet each year on a regular schedule, and that the country should be divided into equal electoral districts. The Chartist Movement, named after that charter, involved more than 1,250,000 people. There were meetings, petitions, speeches, and riots. Many were arrested, jailed, and/or sent off to Australia charged with sedition and inciting riots against Her Majesty, Queen Victoria. Though some people say the movement failed, five of the six points were law by the 1880s.
If we had attended school in Great Britain we would have learned about the “Hungry Forties” in history class. The so-called Corn Laws put high tariffs on all imported grains, essentially choking off imports. In 1837, the grain crops in England failed. Crop failures continued through the 1840s but it wasn’t until 1846 that Parliament repealed the Corn Laws so food could get in to the starving people. The late 1830s were also a time of economic depression in the manufacturing industries. There were wide spread wage cuts and layoffs. Once the people had food to eat, the Chartist Movement began to fade.
Those of the working classes who learned how to read were mostly self taught. Books and magazines were available in the pubs. A few lending libraries were tried. Some estimates of working class literacy are as high as between 2/3 and 3/4 by 1830. Those who attained sufficient language skills to compose poetry were in the minority.
John Henry Bramwich was a member of the Leicester Chartists. The group’s leader was Thomas Cooper who was known as a “physical force” chartist. These were people willing to put their lives on the line for the right to vote. Thomas Cooper encouraged his followers to write hymns and poems about their cause. One historian called Cooper’s followers a “hymn school.”
His [Bramwich] first poems appeared in 1841 in the publication, The Extinguisher, and thereafter appeared regularly in other Chartist publications. Many of his verses express religious motifs, and his poetry is often similar to religious hymns. Poems of this sort were widespread among the Chartist poets, the rhythm resembling that of religious hymns. Examples of this sort of poetry include early works by Linton and Massey. The hymn ‘Great God Is this [the] Patriot’s Doom’ by Bramwich, was composed on the occasion of Samuel Holberry’s public funeral [who died in prison, 1840].
John contributed fourteen hymns to his friend Thomas Cooper’s Shakespearean Chartist Hymn Book, published in 1842. “His hymns were popular with the movement.” There is documentation of a chartist gathering in the summer of 1848 at which John’s hymn which ends, “God made man, man made the slave,” was sung. It is possible Charlotte Brontë attended. She lived ten miles away and is known to have sympathized with the cause. The same line was used as the title of an autobiography of an escaped Virginian slave who was elected to the Virginia state legislature after the Civil War. His words survived him.
The Northern Star was a chartist newspaper published in Leicester. Some of John’s poems, and his obituary written by Cooper, were published in it. “In 1839 The Northern Star recorded a weekly circulation of 36,000 to 42,000 copies with an occasional peak of 60,000”
John’s daughter Eliza recalled going to the pub where he drank, especially on pay days, to coax him to come home. She was sent because he was unwilling to come with his wife. At least this is how Eliza remembered it. She was only twelve years old when he died. He had been sick and unable to work for some amount of time before his death. She never mentioned his poetry or his political activities to her descendants. Did she even know? Was she ashamed her father was a rabble-rouser? We don’t know.
Bedridden, he began to write verses, realizing he had little time to live. In a letter shortly before his death he wrote: ‘A slave without lungs is worth nothing on the British slave market. I assure you you have to be Sampson and Goliath together to work with contemporary knitting [stocking] machines. I regard myself as a person killed by the system. I am not alone: thousands share my fate. Millions have already died without understanding anything.’
John and Mary met missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, possibly introduced by Mary’s son Thomas who was the first to be baptized. John accepted the gospel and was baptized 17 March 1844 at Leicester, and they became members of the Leicester Branch. John was ordained an Elder. John Henry Bramwich died at Pringle Street, St. Margaret’s Parish in Leicester at the age of forty-two. “Bramwich was buried in a pauper’s grave at St Martin’s Church. Later on this church became Leicester Cathedral.”
MEMOIR OF JOHN HENRY BRAMWICH, THE CHARTIST POET OF LEICESTER
By Thomas Cooper
[The Northern Star 4 April 1846]
The death of such a man as the author of the immortal hymn “Britannia’s sons, though slaves ye be,” should not go unregistered in the journal which the suffering working classes most peculiarly regard as their own. The great ones of the earth knew nothing of him, and they will desire to hear nothing of him. For his own class he thought, wrote, and struggled; with his own class he starved and suffered: and among his own class, and cleaving to their cause to the last, he died–a victim to the system of murder which is at present being enacted, by wholesale, in the manufacturing districts of once “Merrie England.”
John Henry Bramwich was born in Shoreditch, London in the year 1804. His father was a soldier of the Tower Hamlets, deserted, and left his wife and two children, at the time John was but three months old. The mother made her way to Bedworth, in Warwickshire, and there supported herself and little ones by ribbon-weaving. John was bound apprentice, at the early age of nine years, in Rangard And Geary’s factory, at Leicester. He was thus, from his very cradle days, inured to witness the wants and sufferings of, perhaps, the most ill-paid classes of working men and women in England—the ribbon-weavers and stockingers.
Disgusted with the monotony of his existence, as well as discontented with his privations, and having a soul that thirsted to see something of the world and of his fellow-man, but lacking a judicious guide and counsellor, he enlisted, at the age of seventeen, in the 19th regiment of foot. He served sixteen years in the army, and passed ten years in the West Indies. He married the present Mrs. Bramwich at Demerera. She was the widow of a comrade, by whom she had one son; and the fruit of this, her second marriage, was a daughter. Both the children are living, and are now the only comfort of their sorrowing mother, who has remained in a dangerous state of affliction since her husband’s death.
Tired of the service, Bramwich got his discharge, came “home”—as he esteemed Leicester to be, in spite of his early suffering in it—and worked at his former trade, as a stockinger, until it killed him. Sore eyes, weakness, sickness, want, pain, were his lot, in common with thousands, until he sank into a consumption of the lungs, and after thirty-three weeks continued illness, seventeen of which he kept his bed, he expired on the 12th of March, at the age of forty-two. He was interred in the church-yard of St. Martin, Leicester, and I am pleased to record, on the testimony of a friend who followed him to the grave, that “though he had a pauper’s funeral it was a decent one: no ‘gentleman’ could be put into the ground with greater ceremony, nor into a neater-made grave; it was not a hole, such as they make in some other parishes in Leicester, but there was everything in order.”
What bitter consolation that, after starving and working him to death, the pauper-poet—a noble by nature is interred in a decent grave. Such is your lot, my brothers–but do not despair–we will strive together yet to mend the world. Poor Bramwich has not lived in vain. The thousands with whom I was accustomed to sing his noble hymn in Leicester market-place, on Nottingham forest, and in the Staffordshire Potteries, will not forget such thrilling poetry. It will live in their hearts, and they will teach it to their children. It was not until the “Extinguisher” (one of our little periodicals)
was commenced in Leicester, in 1841, that I discovered the fact of Bramwich being a poet. His very first contribution to it, if I remember aright, was the grand hymn I have already mentioned. From the fact of its being openly read before Judge Erskine, on my second trial at Stafford, as well as from its great excellence, I think it desirable to insert it here, in order that every Chartist in Britain may learn it by heart. I only premise that all who possess the Shakespearean Chartist Hymn-book (sold by Cleave) may find it at the seventh page. It is a long-metre hymn, and may be sung to the Old Hundredth, (William) Arnold’s Job, or any other long-metre tune.
I think every Chartist will agree with me when I say that poetry like that was not written to be forgotten; it has the true principle of life in it, and will only perish with our language. I forbear to quote any other of the fourteen hymns by Bramwich, which will be found in the little threepenny volume I have just mentioned. They are all beautiful and forcible.
From a regard to space (which I know the Star can ill spare), I shall curtail any remark of my own, and proceed to give to my brother Chartists some of the contents of the letters I received from poor Bramwich while on his death-bed. I feel it right to lay these before the world, that it may be seen, from the dying testimony of a working-man, what is his own conviction of the wrongs he has endured. The first letter from which I shall quote is dated November 16th, 1845:
MY DEAR FRIEND, -You wish me “not to die yet, if I can help it.” If I could muster a will to live, it would be to see you now triumph over your adversities. Ah! my dear friend, could you but see my skeleton-like carcass, my emaciated and pale visage (except when flushed with fever), my fleshless limbs, long, lank, thin, and weak, and almost sinewless, and then hear my harsh sepulchral voice, with my almost incessant and phlegm-ridden cough (almost as hollow as the heart of a Whig!), you would say that I had suffered enough, and would willingly let me go. Besides, you know, a lungless slave is good for nothing now-a-days in the British slave-market. I can assure you, it requires Samsons and Goliaths to work the stocking-frames they are making at this time. I look upon myself as a system murdered man. I stand not alone, thousands are sharing the same fate, and millions have quitted life without making the woeful fact known; and others, alas! have died for want of bread, and have thought that it was pleasing to God that it should be so–when Nature gives the lie to such a Deity-libeling idea. My constitution is completely broken, and worn thread-bare. The doctor said, four months ago, that part of my lungs was gone. He sounded me fourteen day ago, shook his head, and signified that I had very little left. His only surprise is that I am so tough. You need not be afraid of my “letting down my pluck,” as you say, while I have a bit left. I have had none of those charity-mongers to visit me, who only administer relief on condition that you will acknowledge, as truth, all they say. They know that their money would not buy me over from principle; so they keep away. As regards my death, it does not fill me with dread or alarm. In fact, I fear it not. But the idea of traveling the ground over again, that has caused me so much weariness and pain, I think would quite unman me. I have suffered a great deal; but, thank God, although I feel my body weaken daily, my faculties remain as strong as ever. My love of right, and abhorrence of wrong, death itself will not be able to destroy. And I shall be able to say to the whole tyrannic band, “Though you have laid my body low, my spirit shall mingle with happy intelligencies in the eternal world.” With our love to yourself and Mrs Cooper,
I remain, your obliged and affectionate friend,
J. H. BRAMWICH.
Experience proves that human beings who really belong to the tribe of genius, are the most likely to exhibit striking religious changes. The prevalence of the imaginative faculty (Ideality, as the phrenologists term it,) in their mental constitution, while it renders them capable of creations and enjoyment utterly beyond the power or conception of matter-of-fact men, undoubtedly lays them open to the potency of every high and dazzling enthusiasm. Bramwich, for several months prior to his decease, was an instance of this truism. He joined the religionists; termed “The Latter-Day Saints” during my imprisonment; and I must confess. notwithstanding the sentiment I have just enunciated, that until I had had time to reflect on the circumstance, I was much surprised with the news when it first reached me. Often, while listening to his sensible relations of West-India life, his description of the negroes and his revelations of the iniquitous oppression practised in the army, have I been struck with the bold and blunt frankness with which he expressed his scorn of ‘parsons’ the word by which he usually characterised preachers of all religions. It seemed to be a settled maxim with him that a priest was to be avoided as a man’s enemy; and he frequently concluded his narratives of the wrong he had witnessed in foreign climes, as well as in his own, by avowing, his conviction that ‘parsons’ were the root of the evil.
To judge from his manly hardihood of bearing, he was the least likely man in Leicester to become a subject of strong religious impressions. His conscientiousness, however, was as largely developed as his ideality; and he, like the rest of us, must obey the law of his nature. My friends inform me that the change in him was remarkable. He frequently ‘exercised’ in public prayer, with loudness of voice, and extraordinary fervour; and I can conceive the possibility of it all, from knowledge of his deep sincerity of character, and vivid poetical temperament. Owing to this direction of his mind, the Poet’s last literary efforts were almost entirely of a deeply religious cast. Yet the following extract from one of the Hymns which he composed expressly for his own funeral, will show that poor Bramwich never ceased to remember the wrongs of his own class:
He’d bid adieu to brethren dear,
And all he loved while travelling here,
Where sickness, sorrow, pain and woe
His daily cup did overflow;
Till, drooping, he resigned his breath,
To seek a resting-place in death.
For here the toiler wields his rod,
Regardless of the laws of God,
Hoards up his wealth, while pining slaves
Droop, die, and fill untimely graves;
But there no care assails the breast,
For there the weary are at rest.
The prince, the beggar, tyrant, slave,
Know no distinction in the grave:
Death equalises all mankind;
All are of earth, and are consigned
To earth again, to wait the hour
When God will bring them forth with power.
In another verse of this Hymn there seems to be an allusion to some peculiar doctrine, relative to the employment, of spirits, in a future life. I happen to know nothing about the particular tenets of the ‘Latter Day’ people; but have no doubt some of the readers in the Star will perceive the Poet’s meaning:
From worlds above our brother came,
Ordained to preach in Jesus’ name:
His work, though short, is finished here;
And he is gone to regions where
He must the glorious work renew,
To gain that crown he had in view!
There are three verses in another of these Hymns, written by him to be sung at his own burial, so full of pathos, so deeply filled with feeling, and so gracefully clothed with poetic beauty, that I cannot forbear to quote them:
Oh, ye saints, forget your mourning!
Sing, in anthems loud and clear:
He has finished his sojourning,
And his toils and troubles here:
Now his spirit
Lives upon some brighter sphere.
Brethren, sisters, cease your weeping,
He has gone to worlds of bliss:
Though his shattered frame lies sleeping
In a paupers grave in this,
Where no tablet
Shall tell where his body is.
He is gone where neither sorrow,
Grief, nor pain, can enter in;
Where no wrinkled, tear-worn furrow
Tells the agony within:
All is joyous–
Free alike from grief and sin!
Serious, and yet elevated in expression as these exquisitely written verses are, my honest and beloved brother bard’s mind was too truly free to be bondaged entirely even to religious enthusiasm. On the 24th of last November he concludes his letter to me thus: “I feel that I have nearly done writing. This, probably, is my last. Death, I believe, has been by my bedside, and watching me, while writing this.” Yet the contents of this epistle were two poetical pieces, of which the following light-hearted and pithy sketch is one:
SOME MEN THAT I LIKE
I like a man whose virtuous mind
Is such that he dare tell it;
But who, if worlds were gold refined,
For worlds would never sell it.
I like a man who scorns to be
A slave to fellows mortal;
Whose spirit pants for liberty,
While passing through death’s portal.
I like a man that will not run
To meet half-way his troubles;
But boldly meets them, when they come,
As fickle fortune’s bubbles.
I like a man of noble mind
And independent spirit;
Who willing is to raise mankind
But by exalted merit.
I like a man whose generous soul
Can pity feel for others,
Who looks around, surveys the whole,
And calls mankind his brothers.
I like a man whose thankful heart
Can feel a favour given,
Who, ere the crystal teardrops start,
Reports the same to heaven!
In numerous letters did the poor suffering man unfold to me his indignation at the vile oppressions of the monied classes. The following extract from one dated the 9th of January is worth quoting for more reason than one:
I understand you are making me a present of your ‘Christmas Rhyme’ but it has not arrived as yet. May God bless you, and strengthen you, so that you may live to write for many Christmases yet to come, and be an instrument for overturning the cruel system that causes such heart-rending scenes in our beautiful country, whose inhabitants are proverbial for industry. Leicester is in a state of great excitement. The men seem determined to avail themselves of the recent Ticket Act: the hosiers are mad, mad, mad; were you in Leicester, at this crisis you would make Bedlamites of one-half of them. They have tried every scheme to evade, the law. Would you believe that men pretending to common sense would think to break through an Act of Parliament by compelling poor men to sign a paper saying they did not want the Act? Such has been the case, I assure you; and, to save such a respectable set of villains from transportation, the lawyers told them it was conspiracy against government. A party of the turn-outs met the county and borough chief constables on Monday, and asked them for assistance. They both relieved them, told them they had the law on their side this time, and if they were determined they must conquer. More than one thousand of them passed the Board of Guardians on Tuesday. The hosiers and middlemen are at their wits end.
“And as for poor Winters,
They’d blow him to splinters,
And send the committee to France;
Or, ere the assizes,
They’d seize them as prizes,
And teach them on nothing to dance.”
I forbear to quote further, fearing I shall trespass on space that will be wanted. I trust the friends at Leicester will take care to report the funeral sermon preached for poor Bramwich, in Leicester market- place, last Sunday, by Mr. Geo. Buckby, a sincere and talented working man. Had circumstances permitted, I would have gone over and assisted.
THOMAS COOPER THE CHARTIST
134, Blackfriars’ road.
Northern Star April 18th 1846
Northern Star, April 18, 1846
On Sunday last the good people assembled in the Market Place, (as they were formerly wont to do,) to hear an address from Mr. G. Buckby, on behalf of the widow of poor Bramwich and to pay the last tribute of respect to one of nature’s brightest ornaments—a man, whose whole soul was concentrated on the grand object,—to relieve the poor from social and political bondage: man who aided in the furtherance of “The People’s Charter,” and one who was universally beloved and respected by his class. In the loss of Bramwich people have lost a sincere friend, and consistent supporter of their rights. The claims of Bramwich to universal sympathy are great, he was a man after God’s own heart—just, merciful, and no respecter of persons on account of their wealth; “they were all equal in his sight—the bond, the free, the black, the white.”
Mr. Buckby delivered a very impressive and suitable address, from the lst chapter of Genesis, 28th verse; showing that the great dispenser of Divine Providence gave “enough for all,” but the wickedness of man had controverted by human laws what the Author of the Universe gave for all. After the Sermon the following Hymn was sung, which had been composed for the purpose, by the deceased fellow-labourer Mr. William Jones, of Leicester.
On the death of Bramwich, the Poet.
Mourn for the dead! poor Bramwich mourn!
Strew sweet flowers around his urn!
Tho’ system murdered, in each breast
His name’s embalmed, his memory blest!
A gentler harp was never strung,
A bolder baud was never flung
O’er freedom’s cords, to cheer the slave–
But tyranny has closed his grave!
His tuneful thoughts in anguish penn’d,
Shall soothe our hearts, our morals mend,
Freedom with joy shall own his fame,
When tyranny is but a name!
’Twas not God’s hand that laid him low,
’Twas dire oppression dealt the blow,
Pointed the pang of lingering smart,
The fatal pang that rived his heart!
What shall we do to be avenged!
Brothers, –no more by strife estrang’d–
Let us unite to overthrow
The power that laid poor Bramwich low!
A letter was read from Mr. Cooper, which, appeared to bring back the times when the great Chartist Bard raised his voice (on the spot where we stood) against oppression, and from all external appearances had its desired effect. A collection was made for the poor widow, when 13s. 4d. was collected and immediately conveyed to the afflicted woman; the expenses of printing, &c., being defrayed by a few friends.