Music: Balladeer celebrated

Ray Hearne at the launch of book Seditious Things, about Sheffield radical balladeer Joseph Mather, at Shakespeares pub
Ray Hearne at the launch of book Seditious Things, about Sheffield radical balladeer Joseph Mather, at Shakespeares pub

Joseph Mather, a radical Sheffield balladeer who was an early champion of democracy, was celebrated at a gig in West Bar last Thursday.

As reported last week, local writer Steven Kay has just published a new edition of Mather’s songs – the first for more than 150 years – and folk musician Ray Hearne performed them to a packed Bard’s Bar upstairs at Shakespeares to launch the book.

Dr Jack Windle, a researcher who specialises in working-class literature, said: “It was fantastic to see Ray perform Mather’s songs – and to have a full house singing along to the choruses.

“Mather is a really important figure in Sheffield’s history.

“He could read but he couldn’t write and he performed his songs – often from the back of a donkey – at public events, giving voice to the urban working-class culture that was just starting to emerge in the late 1700s.’

Joseph Mather was born either in Chelmorton near Buxton or Cack Alley in West Bar – very little is know about his life and it’s nearly all in Kay’s new book, Seditious Things: The Songs of Joseph Mather – Georgian Punk Poet.

A cutler and local historian, John Wilson, published the first edition in 1862 and many songs were passed down through the folk tradition.

No other monument to Mather survives because his grave was destroyed when St Paul’s graveyard was cleared in the 1930s.

The organisers of the event hope that the new edition and Ray’s CD and performances will help to introduce Mather to a new generation of Sheffielders.

Asked what would be a fitting monument to Mather, Steven said ‘We’d like to see Joseph Mather taught in schools – it’s really important that kids find out about their history and how previous generations had to fight for democracy and decent conditions. Mather did that and gave us these wonderful songs.

“They evoke his period in history and the characters that helped make Sheffield an industrial powerhouse and a beacon of political progress.”

Ray Hearne said: ‘Mather inspired me. I came from an Irish house and a childhood filled with hymns and ballads.

Here was a bloke, uneducated except that he seemed to know the Bible backwards, making up his own songs and ballads about his own experiences and his own community.

“It was great to perform them in their natural habitat – a Sheffield alehouse – and I’m already looking forward to the next Mather night!”

Proceeds from the sale of the book are going towards another republication project the organisers are working on.

Miner and Sheffield Star journalist Len Doherty’s The Good Lion was well received when it was published in the 1950s.

Kay and Windle believe it is an overlooked classic of Sheffield literature and are writing a new introduction and tracing the copyright holders so they can publish a new edition later in the year.

If you are interested in other local working-class writers, email Dr Jack Windle at Jack can also give details of how to buy Ray Hearne’s CD, The Songs of Joseph Mather.

The book is published by 1889 Books and is on sale on its website,, for £6 plus postage and packaging.