Songs from 1700s are ready, set, Joe

Mather's men: Night Organisers Paul Davenport, Mike Wild and Jim McDonald.
Mather's men: Night Organisers Paul Davenport, Mike Wild and Jim McDonald.
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HE was in many ways a typical 18th century working-class Sheffielder: a file cutter who liked a drink and a revel but was rather less enamoured by the boss and his pittance of pay.

Yet Joseph Mather, born 1737 in the apparently appropriately named Cack Alley, had a somewhat untypical ability.

He became famous across the city for penning and performing ditties charting the pains, pleasures and political agitations of South Yorkshire’s working men. He would play his songs – such as The File Hewer’s Lamentation – in ale houses and street corners for adoring onlookers. Lyrics tended to be anti-boss, pro-brothel and with a sprinkling of Biblical references for respectability.

Now, six Sheffield musicians are to recreate his fiddling fame by replaying the pieces during a one-off night celebrating his life. More on that life, shortly. For now, the gig?

“As best we know,” says co-organiser Mike Wild, “this will be the first time for years these songs have been performed to an audience.

“But what’s funny is they still strike a chord. There’s a sense of mischief perhaps – they refer to drinking sprees and can be crude – but they come with a serious point about inequalities in society. In 2013 that’s more relevant than ever.”

The sextet – Mike along with Simon Haywood, Mike Lydiat, Nancy Kerr, Pete Smith and Geoff Beynon – decided to put the show on after discovering their shared love of the under-known agitator. Together they dusted down the 1862 book The Songs Of Joseph Mather, and started practising their renditions.

“Mather didn’t actually write the music himself,” says Mike, of Kestrel Green, Skye Edge. “Rather he wrote his words to established tunes. So there’s one called God Save Great Thomas Paine to the music of the National Anthem which we’ll certainly be playing.”

They will do so as part of this weekend’s Sheffield Sessions Folk Festival, running Friday to Sunday at seven city venues including Fagan’s, in Broad Lane, and The Grapes, in Trippet Lane.

The Mather night takes place Saturday at Shakespeares, in Gibraltar Street – “which is perfect,” explains Mike, 73, “as it’s near where he lived.”

That was in the West Bar area after being born in the aforementioned Cack Lane. “Vulgar people called it by a more expressive adjective,” noted biographer John Wilson in 1862.

As a file cutter Mather earned barely enough to support his wife and five dependents, and so took to playing his fiddle at fairs and feasts to make a little extra.

“At first these were quite personal and jovial songs,” says Mike “But over time they became satirical and political in response to loss of jobs and liberties.”

Notably, he would lampoon bosses who refused to offer a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. Cutlery manufacturer Jonathan Watkinson, of Silver Street, was a notable victim. The song Watkinson’s Thirteens, reproduced here, attacked his practice of insisting workers produce 13 pieces of cutlery to be paid for just 12.

It is said it became so common, Watkinson would have it sung at him whenever he left his house.

Mather himself would remain relatively poor despite his fame. He grew old in Sheffield and passed away, aged 67, while living in Pond Street, in 1804.

“Will this be a fitting tribute to his life?” ponders co-organiser Paul Davenport, 62, of Thompson Close, Maltby. “He was a working-class hero. I think a fitting tribute would actually be a statue. But this is a good start.”

Information on festival at www.hallamtrads.co.uk

Watkinson’s Thirteens (abridged) by Joseph Mather

This monster oppression behold how he stalks,

Keeps picking the bones of the poor as he walks,

There’s not a mechanic throughout this whole land,

But more or less feels the weight of his hand.

That offspring of tyranny, baseness and pride,

Our rights both invaded and almost destroyed,

May that man be banished to Villainy screens,

Or sides with big Watkinson and his thirteens.

We claim as true Yorkshire men leave to speak twice,

That no man should work for him at any price,

Since he has attempted our lives to enthral,

And mingle our liquor with wormwood and gall.

Beelzebub take him with his ill-got pelf,

He’s equally bad if not worse than thyself,

So shall every cutler that honestly means,

Cry ‘take Watkinson and his thirteens’.