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The Midweek Hymn: The Holy City


I DOUBT if any other hymn writer has been posthumously accused of being a murderer, let alone of being Jack the Ripper, but that is the surprising story I will relate.

The Holy City was written in 1892 and became the single most popular song of the 19th century, selling a million copies in sheet music, surpassing even the works of Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Some authorities call it a hymn and others a religious song or ballad. Either way it is a prime example of the high Victorian ‘sentimental’ style that so annoyed Ralph Vaughan Williams when he edited the 1906 English Hymnal, in which he comprehensively rejected all such works. Sorry, Ralph, but I love the tune of the chorus.

The words were written in 1892 by Frederic Weatherly (1848-1929). He was born in Portishead, Somerset, and christened with the name Frederick. He dropped the ‘k’ later in life.

He won a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford, and is remembered for his role in a rowing escapade. Four members of the college rowing team had been practising for the Henley Royal Regatta without a cox. Apparently they had overlooked the fact that the race they had entered was for coxed fours. Weatherly volunteered to start the race in the cox’s seat and then jump out of the boat. He did so and the team won the race but were disqualified. However the race was later changed to coxless fours.

After Oxford, Weatherly qualified as a barrister, practising in London then in the west of England for the rest of his life. At the same time he had a flourishing career as a lyricist and is estimated to have written about 3,000 songs.

One was Danny Boy, which he wrote in 1910 while living in Bath. It did not have much success until his sister-in-law in America sent him a traditional Irish tune called Londonderry Air. He altered his lyrics to fit the music and published it in 1913. It became one of the most popular songs of the early 20th century. Here it is sung by a Welsh trio.

His ballad Roses of Picardy, written in 1916 and set to music by Haydn Wood, was one of the most famous songs from World War I. This version is by John McCormack in 1919.

The first of his well-known works was The Holy City, which he wrote in 1892 to music by his regular co-author Michael Maybrick (1841-1913), who used the pen-name Stephen Adams.

Maybrick was born in Liverpool to a musical and religious family. At the age of 15 he was appointed organist at St Peter’s, Liverpool. He went to Leipzig to study keyboard and harmony, but changed course and trained as a baritone in Milan. Subsequently he was very successful, appearing at all the leading venues in England.

By the 1870s he was writing and performing his own songs, mostly with lyrics by Fred Weatherly. His early sea song Nancy Lee sold more than 100,000 copies of the sheet music in two years. This lovely recording dates from 1908.

Another song was They All Love Jack, sung here in 1913 by Harry Dearth.

In 1884 he toured the United States performing his own songs. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, his friends spoke of his charming personality, but others thought him arrogant and vain.

Maybrick was a senior Freemason, and was appointed grand organist at the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge in London, a one-year honour previously held by Sir Arthur Sullivan.

Here is a 1908 recording of The Holy City by Edward Lloyd, which is probably as near as we will get to the way it sounded when it was first performed.

This is the young Australian tenor Mark Vincent – he was 18 at the time of this recording.

And here is a real tour de force, almost a mini-opera, by The Aeolians of Oakwood University in Alabama, who were named the 2017 Choir of the World. They are directed by Jason Max Ferdinand, but I could not discover the name of the marvellous pianist.

So to Jack the Ripper.

Bruce Robinson wrote and directed the wonderful film Withnail and I which was released in 1987. Here is a trailer:

He also wrote the screenplay for The Killing Fields (1984), being nominated for an Oscar.

Later he spent 15 years researching the Jack the Ripper story, about the unsolved murders of at least five women in Whitechapel in 1888. He concluded that the murderer was none other than Michael Maybrick, and called his 2015 book on the subject They All Love Jack, after one of Maybrick’s songs, mentioned earlier.

The name Maybrick may already have rung bells with readers familiar with old murder cases. Florence Maybrick was a young American framed for the murder of her husband James who died at his home, Battlecrease House, Aigburth, Liverpool, in 1889.

James Maybrick, a wealthy cotton merchant, is believed by some to be Jack the Ripper on the evidence of a document purporting to be his confession – the so-called ‘Ripper Diary’ – which came to light under uncertain circumstances in 1992, supposedly having been found by builders renovating Battlecrease House. Most dismiss it as a hoax.

James was Michael Maybrick’s brother, and like him a freemason.

Robinson’s theory is that the diary is genuine and that it was written by Michael Maybrick.

He believes that senior police officers, who were also masons, realised at once that the Ripper was a freemason, because of various rituals associated with the killings, and covered up or destroyed evidence.

The police received a number of letters purporting to be from the killer. Because they were sent from all over the country they were thought to be hoaxes, but Robinson says the dates and places of posting match Maybrick’s various singing engagements.

He believes also that Maybrick poisoned his brother the year after the Whitechapel murders and conspired successfully to implicate his sister-in-law, whom he loathed, in the crime.

Eventually, according to Robinson, someone put two and two together and realised that Maybrick was the likely Ripper. In line with the freemasonry theory, he believes Maybrick was warned to leave London. In 1893 he married his 40-year-old housekeeper and they moved to the Isle of Wight, where they took on his dead brother James’s two children. He became a magistrate and was Mayor of Ryde five times.

He died in 1913, aged 69, in the spa town of Buxton, Derbyshire, where he had gone in the hope of relieving his gout.

When They All Love Jack was published reviewers were impressed by Robinson’s research. The Guardian said: ‘He argues his case with such conviction that it is in the end convincing – although I suspect whether you believe him will come down to whether you subscribe to the cock-up or the conspiracy theory of history. Most historians put the police’s failure to catch the Ripper down to incompetence. If he’s right, it’s the biggest cover-up in British history. If he’s wrong – well, it’s still a bloody good read.’

The Spectator: ‘It’s an impressive performance, passionately argued, overwhelmingly convincing while one’s reading it, and more than a little mad.’

So what is the truth about the writer of The Holy City? We’ll never know.

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Margaret Ashworth
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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