Hymns played a role in envoicing the politics of protest in England long before their integration in the established Church – and do so to this day. Yet it was nineteenth-century radical movements that embraced the hymn as in many ways the ideal musical form. From the bloody field of Peterloo to the secularising South Place Society, from the mass meetings of Chartists to the top-down productions of the Fabian socialists, the century resounded with this increasingly familiar music.

Many writers laid claim to the rhetoric of the hymn to advance causes from abolitionism to solidarity with Poles exiled to Siberia, and compositions that might more realistically be described as marches, odes, or even ballads all insisted upon the legitimating, respectable language of the hymn. As the century progressed, however, those recognisable musicological and lyrical features that have come to epitomise the hymn proper, became indispensable to political activism in spaces beyond the congregation. This article concentrates on the work of three writers in particular – Samuel Bamford, Eliza Flower, and Ebenezer Elliott – in order to explore the aspects of the hymn that lent themselves to political performance in public space. Through the efforts of these and other writers, the tropes and techniques of congregational singing fundamentally altered both the shape of nineteenth-century struggles over class and the franchise, and the sound and rhetoric of political song-writing in the longue durée.

Author Biography

Oskar is a NUAcT Fellow in Music at Newcastle University. He is the author of Vagabonds: Life on the Streets of Nineteenth-Century London (Duckworth, 2022); The Ballad-Singer in Georgian and Victorian London (Cambridge, 2021); and Napoleon and British Song, 1797–1822 (Palgrave, 2015); and co-editor of Charles Dibdin and Late Georgian Culture (Oxford, 2018) and a special forum of Journal of British Studies: “Music and Politics in Britain” (2021). Most recently he was part of the AHRC-funded project Our Subversive Voice, based at the University of East Anglia.

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