Joseph Mather is a name that all Sheffielders should know. He was a file cutter in the late eighteenth century who supplemented his meagre earnings by selling ballads. Remarkably, Mather couldn’t write but his friends transcribed his songs and published them on handbills that he flogged around town, often from the back of a grinder’s […]

Joseph Mather is a name that all Sheffielders should know. He was a file cutter in the late eighteenth century who supplemented his meagre earnings by selling ballads. Remarkably, Mather couldn’t write but his friends transcribed his songs and published them on handbills that he flogged around town, often from the back of a grinder’s donkey that he mounted backwards. They were about all manner of subjects. There are songs about his work and poverty, about the Norfolk Street riots, the Sheffield races, the controversy about widening Church Street in 1785, about drinking binges, marital infidelity and, most bizarrely, about faeces (‘The Face-Card’ uses royal cards as a metaphor, with related puns on ‘flushes’ and ‘trumps’).

The story of one of Mather’s songs conveys something of the cultural and political atmosphere of the time. On a Saturday night in August 1789, John Wharton was drinking with John Stevens, Thomas Lastley, Michael Bingham and John Booth in The White Hart on Waingate. Wharton declared that he was off home and left, stopping at a urinal on Lady’s Bridge. He left his basket outside, emerging to find his pals had followed to get him to stay out and had taken the basket. A scuffle ensued and they made off with it, getting a landlady to cook the shoulder of mutton it contained in the expectation that Wharton would join them for the feast.

In March the following year Wharton fled in women’s clothing as an angry mob attacked his house. Mather composed ‘Steven’s and Lastley’s Execution’:

O Wharton, thou villain, most base
Thy name must eternally rot;
Poor Stevens and Lastley’s sad case
Forever thy conscience will blot.

Why had two of his friends been hanged over harmless drunken buffoonery? Wharton, full of ale and worried what his wife would say, had asked Constable Eyre to give the others a fright and get his basket back. It contained the shoulder of mutton, a pound of tobacco, half a stone of soap, seven pounds of butter and four pence. All four were arrested but despite witnesses confirming their account – that it was simply a joke and they’d set money aside for the mutton – the local Magistrate, Vicar Wilkinson, sent all four to trial in York for highway robbery.

The reasons for this wildly disproportionate reaction take us from a shopping list and the fug of ale and clay pipes in the White Hart to the other end of the class spectrum. Sheffield historian Julie MacDonald argues that it is “no coincidence that Wilkinson took this decision on the same day as the Prince of Wales and his party, including the Duke of Norfolk, was expected to arrive at nearby Wentworth Woodhouse, the home of Earl Fitzwilliam”. The Earl followed events in the town and was concerned about the spread of radical ideas since Joseph Gales had started the radical Sheffield Register in 1787. It’s likely the Earl encouraged Eyre to stamp his authority on the town. The fact that he and Wharton would split a statutory £40 reward per conviction would only have made him more willing. As soon as word of the verdict reached Sheffield a petition was signed by hundreds and urgently dispatched to the Home Office. The injustice was so flagrant that pardons were immediately sent back north, but flooding near Lincoln held up the messenger and he arrived in York in time to save only Bingham.

Mather’s most famous song came shortly afterwards. Manufacturers expected twelve blades back for every fourteen they sent to grinders because many were defective. In 1790 master scissorsmith Jonathan Watkinson unilaterally demanded thirteen. Mather spotted Wilkinson at the theatre one night and began to sing ‘Watkinson’s Thirteens’ and those around him in the cheap seats joined in for the chorus:

And may the odd knife his great carcase dissect,
Lay open his vitals for men to inspect
A heart full as black as the infernal gulph,
In that greedy, blood-sucking, bone-scraping wolf.

Repeated harassment of this kind led Watkinson to a breakdown and he died a year later. There are few more striking examples of working class writing as a weapon in class warfare. Mather’s songs helped Sheffield’s emerging working classes to articulate their anger at exploitative bosses but they also fostered a positive sense of class identity, reflecting the joyful side of working class life and the warmth and camaraderie of an emerging urban, communal culture. E. P. Thompson famously wrote that the “working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time” and that it “was present at its own making”. Mather was one of those makers of the working class and his songs are powerful documents that speak to us directly from its emergence.

The Songs of Joseph Mather
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Illustration by Sarah Jane Palmer

Jack Windle.