Ebenezer Elliott - The Corn Law Rhymer

Ebenezer Elliott (17 March 1781 – 1 December 1849) was an English poet, known as the Corn Law rhymer for his leading the fight to repeal the Corn Laws which were causing hardship and starvation among the poor. Though a factory owner himself, his single-minded devotion to the welfare of the labouring classes won him a sympathetic reputation long after his poetry ceased to be read.

Elliott was born at the New Foundry, Masbrough, in the Parish of Rotherham, Yorkshire. In 1798, aged seventeen, he wrote his first poem Vernal Walk in imitation of James Thompson. He was also influenced by George Crabbe, Lord Byron and the Romantic poets and Robert Southey, who later became Poet Laureate. Elliott had married Frances (Fanny) Gartside in 1806 and they eventually had thirteen children. He invested his wife’s fortune in his father’s share of the iron foundry, but the affairs of the family firm were then in a desperate condition and money difficulties hastened his father’s death. Elliott lost everything and in 1816 he was declared bankrupt. In 1819 he obtained funds from his wife’s sisters and began another business as an iron dealer in Sheffield. This prospered and by 1829 he had become a successful iron merchant and steel manufacturer.

When he was made bankrupt, Elliott had been homeless and out of work; he had faced starvation and contemplated suicide. Knowing what it was like to be impoverished and desperate, he always identified with the poor. He remained bitter about his earlier failure, attributing his father’s pecuniary losses and his own to the operation of the Corn Laws. As a result, the demand to repeal them became the greatest issue in his life. The strength of his political convictions was reflected in the style and tenor of his verse, earning him the nickname ” the Corn Law Rhymer”, and making him internationally famous. The Corn Law Rhymes, first published in 1831, had been preceded by the publication of the single long poem The Ranter in 1830. They were inspired by a fierce hatred of injustice, and are vigorous, simple and full of vivid description. The poems campaigned against the landowners in the government who stifled competition and kept the price of bread high.

In 1837 Elliott’s business suffered from the trade recession that year and he lost a great deal of money. But he still had enough to retire in 1841 and settle on land he had bought at Great Houghton, near Barnsley. There he lived quietly to see the Corn Laws repealed in 1846, dying in 1849 aged 68