HISTORY: A hymn and a school for the poor of Rotherham

HISTORY: A hymn and a school for the poor of Rotherham

By Andrew Mosley | 23/04/2020

HISTORY: A hymn and a school for the poor of Rotherham


Just opposite the town hall, down a narrow pathway, is a little-known building of genuine historial importance. Andrew Mosley looks into its past

Jive Bunny and Muse’s Chris Wolstenholme have both played big parts in Rotherham’s musical history, while Ebenezer Elliott is the town’s most famous poet.

All three have received more acclaim than Jacob Brettell, yet he managed to succeed in both platforms.

You’ll find his grave in the grounds of the unassuming old school for the education of poor children in Rotherham, just to the left-hand side of Down’s Row, near the more imposing Talbot Lane Methodist Church building.

Inscribed on a large stone on the largely undecorated wall of the former school are the words: “In the year 1702 A school for the education of poor children in Rotherham was endowed by THOMAS  HOLLIS SENR. of London and afterwards by his descendants. And in 1789 THIS BUILDING was erected, and the school further endowed for the same purpose, by the contributions of several of the Trustees and other Protestant Dissenters.”

Brettell, the son of a Unitarian Minister (also called Jacob), was born in Gainsborough in 1793, becoming a pastor in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1816, before arriving in Rotherham two years later.

He became well-known through his work here and played a significant part in the poetic development of the Corn Law Rhymer himself, Ebenezer Elliott.

Brettell is described as a good scholar, an effective public speaker and a strong liberal, taking an active part in the anti-Corn Law agitation, which led to him becoming an intimate friend of Elliott.

Historians say Elliott’s hopes of becoming a poet were improved by Brettell, one piece revealing: “Locally, people were starting to pay attention to the young man’s aspirations. One was a Rotherham minister, Rev Jacob Brettell. Elliott submitted his poems to Rev Brettell and they enjoyed discussing them and improving them. We know, too, that Earl Fitzwilliam was impressed by Elliott’s early work.”

Brettell’s work was varied, including hymn-writing and poetry, and in addition to minor pieces in various newspapers he more notably published The Country Minister; A Poem in four Cantos, with other Poems and Sketches in Verse from the Historical Books of the Old Testament.

In 1837 he contributed 16 hymns to Beard’s Collection. These have largely fallen out of use, the best known being “The Last Full Wain Is On The Road,” and “He Lived, As None But He Has lived (Life of Jesus)”.

“In compiling a volume of sacred poems these hymns, from their poetic character, might be consulted with advantage,” wrote John Julian in the Dictionary of Hymnology (1907), probably leaving many a reader none the wiser.

His other musical compositions, largely published in Unitarian collections, include A Harvest Hymn, in which he calls the Almighty the “bright Regent of the Skies”.

He also contributed hundreds of uncollected pieces, hymns and political and patriotic pieces, to publications including the Christian Reformer, Sheffield Iris, Wolverhampton Herald and other periodicals.

Brettell, who was married to Martha and had four sons and two daughters, also caused some controversy in The First Unitarian, in which he voiced the then unpopular opinion that Cain was not the first Unitarian, but in fact the third.

He died in the town on January 12 1862.

School founder Thomas Hollis, meanwhile, was born in Rotherham in 1634, and was a deeply religious man, becoming an enthusiastic dissenter and a Baptist.

In 1654 his uncle sent him to London to manage his wholesale cutlery and hardware business, and he became a Freeman of the City of London and a member of the Drapers’ Company.

At his funeral in 1717, one Jeremiah Hunt said of Hollis that: “He denied himself, and lived frugal, that he might more extensively express his goodness. He erected and founded two churches at Rotherham and Doncaster, and established schools at each place for teaching youth; communicating in his life to their maintenance, but bequeathing some encouragement after his decease.”

Both men may be little known in Rotherham today, but they certainly made an impact.