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Home News The Midweek Hymn: The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended

The Midweek Hymn: The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended

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THE day thou gavest, Lord, is ended
The darkness falls at thy behest;
To thee our morning hymns ascended
Thy praise shall sanctify our rest.

We thank thee that thy Church unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night.

As o’er each continent and island
The dawn leads on another day,
The voice of prayer is never silent,
Nor dies the strain of praise away.

The sun that bids us rest is waking
Our brethren ‘neath the western sky,
And hour by hour fresh lips are making
Thy wondrous doings heard on high.

So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never
Like earth’s proud empires, pass away;
Thy Kingdom stands, and grows for ever,
Till all thy creatures own thy sway.

Some have seen this popular hymn as a song of praise to the British Empire, ‘on which the sun never set’. Indeed it was chosen by Queen Victoria as the hymn for her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, when it was sung in thousands of churches around the world. Here is some film of the Jubilee celebrations:

A century later it was played when Britain handed control of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, another imperial link ended.

Others see it more as a song of praise to the worldwide Christian movement, citing its reference to ‘earth’s proud empires’ passing away.

The words were written by the Rev John Ellerton (1826-1893). We have come across him before as the translator from Latin of O Strength and Stay, by St Ambrose of Milan (340-397). This is the hymn that went through various revolutions to become O Perfect Love, which is popular at weddings.

Here O Strength and Stay is performed by the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral with its beautiful tune by John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876).

While looking for details about Ellerton, I was lucky to stumble to across a biography by one of his former curates, Henry Housman, written in 1896.

It gives a picture of a talented but entirely unassuming and much-loved man, and starts in this delightful way:

‘There are some men the records of whose lives have an interest for the many, and there are others whose memory will only be treasured by the few. Every particular illustrating the career of one who has been a ruling power in Church or State, or a shining light in literature, science, or art, is justly regarded as among the most precious things which the present can inherit from the past or bequeath to the future. But although of less common interest, the memorials of many a life passed in comparative obscurity may be very precious; and, within the orbit in which they are designed to move, be as highly prized as those of earth’s great ones. Quiet lives may make but quiet reading, lacking the excitement of stirring scenes and startling actions; still, there are times when it is a relief to turn from the study of those who lived in the full glare of the world’s observation to the simple narrative of some favourite poet who sang, so to speak, in the shade.’

John Ellerton was born in London but later moved to Ulverston (then part of Lancashire, now Cumbria). He was educated at King William’s School near Castletown on the Isle of Man and at Trinity College, Cambridge. Towards the end of his time at Cambridge his father and his younger brother died, which Housman thinks ‘may have tended to give that sub-melancholy colouring to his character which continued through life’.

He caught smallpox and graduated with an aegrotat degree awarded to those who are too ill to sit their final examinations. He was ordained in 1851 and his first curacy was in Easebourne, a village near Midhurst in Sussex. His mother lived with him, and subsequently his family, till the end of her life. He was soon promoted to the senior curacy of St Nicholas, the parish church of Brighton, and this is when he started writing hymns.

In 1860 he married Charlotte Hart of Brighton (they had seven children) and became vicar of Crewe Green in Cheshire, about a mile from the rail junction. Ellerton threw himself into organising education for the railway workers at the Mechanics’ Institute.

Housman quotes a letter from one of the chief officials at the Crewe works, Mr W M Moorsom: ‘The unwearied patience with which night after night he would trudge into dirty, black, smoky Crewe, bringing with him an air of wide-reaching interests and warm sympathy for the toiling masses, made a deep impression; and he gradually won his way into the hearts of large numbers of the artisans, to whom such a character was somewhat novel. The writer has frequently heard expressions of wonder from onlookers, themselves artisans, “What it could be that led Mr Ellerton to take so much trouble to teach the lads from whom he had nothing to expect in return, and who were not worth the expenditure of time so valuable in other directions as his was known to be”.’

Ellerton wrote The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended in 1870, reportedly during his walks to and from the Mechanics’ Institute. The first line is borrowed from an anonymous hymn of 1855.

It was published in Church Hymns and Tunes, edited by Sir Arthur Sullivan, in 1874. The melody, St Clement, was said to have been commissioned by Sullivan from the Rev Clement Cotterill Scholefield (1839-1904) and is credited to him. However in recent years doubt has been cast on the authorship and some experts consider it likely that Sullivan wrote it. The two men became good friends when Sullivan was organist at St Peter’s, South Kensington, from 1867 to 1872 and Scholefield was the curate.

In an article in the Hymn Society Bulletin in 1994 Mervyn Horder, himself a hymn-tune composer, said that St Clement was head and shoulders above the quality of Scholefield’s other work, adding that ‘none of the 41 other hymn-tunes penned by this self-taught musician show anything like the craftsmanship, originality or melodic sweep of St Clement’. Additionally, none of his other tunes was in 3/4 time (waltz time), which is quite unusual for a hymn.

Obviously I have no way of knowing what the truth is but I do wonder why Sullivan, who was not noted for hiding his light under a bushel, would not take the credit himself.

Incidentally St Clement was loathed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, editor of the 1906 English Hymnal, who is rapidly becoming my bête noire. He consigned it to his ‘Chamber of Horrors’ appendix with Sullivan’s Golden Sheaves (which you can listen to here, if you can bear it) and other examples of the Victorian music he so despised.

However St Clement has survived despite Vaughan Williams’s best efforts. Here it is sung by the choir of the Abbey School, Tewkesbury.

This is a lovely performance by the National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain.

And I enjoyed this old-fashioned version which reminded me of church halls of my childhood.

John Ellerton moved from Crewe Green to Hinstock, an isolated Shropshire village, then to Barnes in south-west London. It was a large parish and by then he was much in demand as an authority on and writer of hymns. After eight years in Barnes he was completely worn out and in 1884 he became ill with pleurisy from which it was feared that he would not recover. However after some months in Switzerland and Italy he was ‘vastly renovated in mind and body’ and able to take up his last posting as rector of White Roding in Essex. Here he continued writing, translating and editing.

In December 1891 he had a stroke, and retired to Torquay. A second stroke followed. He was given the honorary title of Canon of St Albans Cathedral but was too ill to be installed.

Housman writes: ‘His mind became overclouded, and as he lay peaceful and happy there came back to his memory in endless succession fragments of the hymns he so dearly loved. Gradually he grew weaker, and ever less conscious day by day, until on June 15 those around him witnessed the realisation of his own words [from O Strength and Stay]:

“The brightness of a holy deathbed blending
With dawning glories of the eternal day”.’

At his funeral in Torquay all six hymns were his own works, the final one being O Strength and Stay.

‘Thus amid the singing of his own hymns was the beloved poet laid in his honoured grave “Not dead but living unto Thee”. Over no one, be it king or conqueror, prelate or statesman, could it be said with greater truth than over the priest and poet now left to sleep in his Father’s gracious keeping, that “his body is buried in peace; but his name liveth for evermore”.’

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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