Home » Amateur performance » Songs and recitations in the workhouse – ‘A Fine Old English Gentleman’


Songs and recitations in the workhouse – ‘A Fine Old English Gentleman’


Post by Jenny Hughes

As noted in ‘The only way is Rochdale 3’ (blog post below) – the Orpheus Glee club performed at the opening of Dearnley workhouse in Rochdale and at the Christmas treat for paupers that followed a week or so later, and their repertoire may have included a famous Old English air, ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’, credited to Henry Russell in 1831. There are two things of interest here – first, the lyrics and second, their recycling via various ‘parody’ versions over time. If you want to hear the song before reading further have a listen to Harry Dearth sing it here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyUF04Yt1cw&feature=youtu.be

The lyrics hark back to an idyllic past of fraternity between classes, telling of an English gentleman of ‘the olden time’ who, whilst living in the midst of plenty ‘kept up his old mansion at a bountiful old rate, with a good old porter to relieve the old poor at his gate’ and who, ‘when winter’s cold brought frost and snow … open’d house to all’. This fine old English gentleman gave a ball each year, and ‘nor was the homeless wanderer e’er driven from his hall … for while he feasted all the great, he ne’er forgot the small’. The final verse of the song concludes that this approach is more economical than today’s ‘parade of theatre and fancy balls’ (full lyrics below). Given that I now know that the Orpheus were principally ‘working men’ (see ‘The only way is Rochdale 3’ post below), could it be that the ‘irony’ implicit in these lyrics was doubled by the choir’s interesting class position, between the upper and middle class Guardians of the poor, and the paupers in the audience? As such, might they be performing a reminder to the Guardians of their age-old obligation to the poor, whilst also carrying a critique of the thinness of a generosity to the poor that is exhibited only once a year?

This Old English air is one that has been much parodied, with its recycled versions perhaps known to listeners, and so also performing a kind of acknowledgement from the working men in the choir to the listening paupers, of the broader performances of inequity that all were participating in. Charles Dickens’ ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman: New Version’ in 1841 (full lyrics below) drew on the irony implicit in the lyrics to satirise the recently elected Tory government, with Dickens’ version later reproduced as part of socialist traditions of song – see for example its inclusion in Paul Hillier and Andrew Lawrence-King’s ‘Bitter ballads’ album. There is also a version in Lancashire dialect, sung by the Oldham Tinkers, which, as the Tinkers say, substitutes the fine old English gentleman with ‘a lower class hero, firmly non-conforming in habits’. The lyrics and explanation of this version are here – http://www.oldhamtinkers.com/a-fine-old-english-gentleman.html

So, inside the ‘respectable’ performance of the Orpheus at the workhouse, might there have been a momentary acknowledgement of the inequities and oppressions of the surroundings, and openness to the possibility of equality with the other? If so, this was carefully controlled – any critique is only expressed in the elusive significances of the lyrics. Here, the Guardians are hosts, and under cover provided by the custom of Christmas, a performance that draws attention to inequity is momentarily permitted.

The Fine Old English Gentleman – Henry Russell (1831)

I’ll sing you a good old song,
That was made by a good old pate,
Of a fine old English gentleman,
Who had an old estate;
And who kept up his old mansion,
At a bountiful old rate;
With a good old porter to relieve
The old poor at his gate.
Like a fine old English gentleman,
One of the olden time.

His hall, so old, was hung around
With pikes and guns and bows,
And swords and good old bucklers,
Which had stood against old foes;
And ’twas there ‘ his worship’ held his state,
In doublet and trunk hose;
And quatf’d his cup of good old sack,
To warm his good old nose. Like a fine, &c.

When Winter old brought frost and snow,
He open’d house to all,
And though three score and ten his years,
He featly led the ball.
Nor was the homeless wanderer
E’er driven from his hall,
For while he feasted all the great,
He ne’er forgot the small. Like a fine, &c.

But time, though sweet, is strong in flight,
And years roll swiftly by,
And autumn’s falling leaf proclaimed
The old man—he must die!
He laid him down right tranquilly,
Gave uphis latest sigh;
A mournful stillness reign’d around,
And tears bedew’d each eye.
For this good, &c.

Now surely this is better far
Than all the new parade
Of theatre and fancy balls,
‘At home,’ and masquerade:
And much more economical,
For all his bills were paid.
Then leave you new vagaries quite,
And take up the old trade
Of a fine, &c.

(from Orlando Hodgson (1845) Hodgson’s National Songster; or, Encyclopedia of Harmony, London: Orlando Hodgson)

A Fine Old English Gentleman: New Version (to be said or sung at all Conservative dinners) – Charles Dickens (1841)

I’ll sing you a new ballad, and I’ll warrant it first-rate,
Of the days of that old gentleman who had that old estate;
When they spent the public money at a bountiful old rate
On ev’ry mistress, pimp, and scamp, at ev’ry noble gate,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old laws were garnished well with gibbets, whips, and chains,
With fine old English penalties, and fine old English pains,
With rebel heads, and seas of blood once hot in rebel veins;
For all these things were requisite to guard the rich old gains
Of the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

This brave old code, like Argus, had a hundred watchful eyes,
And ev’ry English peasant had his good old English spies,
To tempt his starving discontent with fine old English lies,
Then call the good old Yeomanry to stop his peevish cries,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

The good old times for cutting throats that cried out in their need,
The good old times for hunting men who held their fathers’ creed,
The good old times when William Pitt as all good men agreed,
Came down direct from Paradise at more than railroad speed.
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
When will they come again!

In those rare days, the press was seldom known to snarl or bark,
But sweetly sang of men in pow’r, like any tuneful lark;
Grave judges, too, to all their evil deeds were in the dark;
And not a man in twenty score knew how to make his mark.
Oh the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

Those were the days for taxes, and for war’s infernal din;
For scarcity of bread, that fine old dowagers might win;
For shutting men of letters up, through iron bars to grin,
Because they didn’t think the Prince was altogether thin,
In the fine old English Tory times;
Soon may they come again!

But Tolerance, though slow in flight, is strong-wing’d in the main;
That night must come on these fine days, in course of time was plain;
The pure old spirit struggled, but Its struggles were in vain;
A nation’s grip was on it, and it died in choking pain,
With the fine old English Tory days,
All of the olden time.

The bright old day now dawns again; the cry runs through the land,
In England there shall be dear bread — in Ireland, sword and brand;
And poverty, and ignorance, shall swell the rich and grand,
So, rally round the rulers with the gentle iron hand,
Of the fine old English Tory days;
Hail to the coming time!

(from http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva352.html)

P.S. I have not found much more about the repertoire of the Orpheus Glee club than this, which of course is based on speculation! They sang ‘Gently sighs the evening breeze’ by Yarwood and Child of the sun’ by Battye at a competition concert in Manchester in 1883 (as reported in the Manchester Guardian, 13th January 1883) – two songs which Dave Russell reports as regularly performed by choral associations at this time (in Popular music in England, 1840-1914, p268), Also, at their ‘seventh annual concert’ the Orpheus Glee club performed a selection of glees and trios from Martin, Bishop and Ware (Musical Times, Nov 1st 1882), but I’ve not been able to locate the lyrics or score sheets as yet.

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed

Sorry, but you cannot leave a comment for this post.