A very British culture war. Matt Cardy/Getty Images

December 19, 2023   6 mins

It should have been a formality. The education committee for Somerset had already approved Day School Hymns for use by teachers in the county; now all that Bath Council had to do was nod the thing through for schools in their city. But that didn’t happen. Labour councillors raised objections to some of the material included in the collection, and the resulting dispute propelled Bath to the frontline of a culture war about censorship and the political indoctrination of children.

This was — to avoid confusion — exactly 100 years ago, in December 1923. But the essential features of the controversy feel very familiar today. There was a Gadarene rush of commentators staking out their positions, and the views being expressed were exactly as they would be now. The key difference, to which we shall return, was the tone.

The thing that so upset Bath councillors a century ago was one of the most popular and enduring of children’s hymns, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, written by Cecil Frances Alexander — also of “Once in Royal David’s City” fame. The hymn is an inclusive celebration of God’s Creation: not the most sophisticated theme, but not a particularly contentious one either. And then comes the third verse:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate;
God made them high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

“Christ never meant children to sing such a verse,” protested one councillor: this was simply propaganda in support of the class system, the words clearly suggesting divine disapproval of socialism. They might have added that it was surely no coincidence that this reactionary attempt to shore up the status quo had first been published in 1848, the year revolutionary voices were being raised across Europe, as Marx and Engels were writing The Communist Manifesto. In case there was any doubt of where Alexander’s sympathies lay, exception was also taken to a verse in another of her hymns, “Day by Day the Little Daisy”:

God has given each his station;
Some have riches and high place,
Some have lowly homes and labour –
All may have His precious grace.

There had been criticism of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” before, and some schools elsewhere in the country had unilaterally chosen to omit the offensive words. But it was Bath that declared open season on the story. On the Left, Lady Clare Annersley — the socialist, pacifist, vegetarian daughter of the 5th Earl Annersley — said she was “horrified” by the verse; it would “have scandalised the prophets of the Old Testament”. James Adderley, a leading Christian socialist who was Rector of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, took a more performative approach: he would interrupt the singing of the hymn just before the offending passage, calling out: “Children, don’t sing the next verse, because it is a lie!”

From the Right came accusations that removing the verse would be a “mutilation” of the hymn, and that those who wished to do so were killjoys. The conservative press complained that these Socialists thought that “the Christian religion was inimical to the progress of their cause because it is aimed at making people happy and contented”. The charming innocence of a childhood favourite was being corrupted because “class hatred was being preached by certain poisonous sections of the community”.

The problem with starting down this path, some ruminated, was not knowing where it might end. “A great many hymns in school hymn books are not fit for children to sing,” said Dr Frank Ballard, a Methodist minister in Sheffield. “Fifty per cent of them are not fit to be sung in churches and chapels because they are not sensible.” And why stop at hymns? “What about Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson?” asked the Daily Express. “There is hardly a classic which would not be disembowelled by majorities and minorities.” Further still: “The agnostic might demand a revised version of the Bible on the ground that his feelings were hurt by being described as a fool.”

Then there were the facetious responses: really, who could afford a castle these days, what with income tax and supertax and death duties? And there were those who loftily dismissed the whole row as a tiresome irrelevancy. No one had sung that verse for 25 years anyway, wrote a Middlesex vicar to the Daily Mail: “Hymn books soon get out of date owing to a better understanding of social life and the different aspirations of the ages.” No one, however, could suggest any precedent for the censorship being proposed.

Besides, it was not as if the hymn’s suppression would do any good, observed a columnist in the Birmingham Gazette: “The banning of the verse will not eject any rich man from his castle, or give any poor man a permanent pass through the gate.”

And maybe, it was suggested, the Labour councillors were out of touch with the values and concerns of those they claimed to represent. The verse might be seen not as insult, but inspiration, a reassurance that the poor, too, were loved by God. “To me, as a working woman, it has been the greatest comfort,” said a Bath resident. She added: “I hope the poor man at his gate will not always be as poor, but I don’t think it will be brought about by dragging the rich man down to the poor man’s level.”

In the end, Bath council referred the matter to its own education committee, which — embarrassed by the national publicity — instructed schools to drop the verse. Elsewhere, in Nottinghamshire, there was a recommendation that it be retained, though only if accompanied by an advisory note that it could be omitted at the discretion of teachers. Complaints continued, however, and in 1939 the Church of England finally yielded to pressure and advised that the verse be removed, not because Alexander meant any harm by it, but because it was “open to misinterpretation”. They didn’t quite apologise if any offence has been caused, but they weren’t far off.

It was a mostly trivial episode, as any individual skirmish in a culture war tends to be, but it did illustrate the state of politics at the time. This kind of story proliferates when there is broad agreement on the big questions of government: the economy, tax and spending, international relations. That was the case 100 years ago, as a post-war consensus emerged.

The row in Bath came just days after the general election that produced the first ever Labour government, led by Ramsay MacDonald. It wasn’t exactly an electoral triumph, though. With barely 30% of the vote, an increase of just one point, Labour had 191 MPs – some way behind the 258 Tories — and was able to govern only with the informal support of the Liberals, and only on the assumption that it wouldn’t do anything that might be construed as socialism. No one had any great expectations and nothing much was delivered. All the talk of nationalising the railways and the coal industry had faded away, no concessions were made to the trade unions. The government didn’t last a year, and had little to show for itself, save the reassurance that Labour in office was not going to be red in tooth and claw. As MacDonald told the King, the Party had demonstrated that it was not “a band of irresponsible revolutionaries intent on wreckage and destruction”.

In the absence of real power, a marginal fight over a children’s hymn book provided a happy diversion from politics. Labour activists could take heart from making a principled stand for socialist doctrine, Tories could paint their opponents as inherently hostile to the nation’s culture and traditions, everyone else could get on with their lives. No one was hurt, and little was at stake. It was a very British culture war.

A century on, the treatment of such a story would be much the same, but with a level of bitterness that was not evident in 1923. The difference, perhaps, is the general acceptance then of the hymn’s central message: the wonder and harmony of God’s Creation. There was, despite the differences being voiced, a shared culture beneath the war. Now, the common ground is narrower.

And that perhaps reflects a much longer period of political stagnation. Ramsay MacDonald’s government had just ten months to disappoint his activists; Tony Blair had 10 years. There was an attempt, under Jeremy Corbyn, to redraw the lines on economic grounds but it failed, and — with little prospect of change — positions have become ever more entrenched.

But “All Things Bright and Beautiful” was part of that shared culture and, shorn of what one columnist called its “Victorian class-snobbery”, it remained a fixture in school assemblies for decades to come. It was even sung in radical institutions, such as the South Islington Socialist Sunday School — though they did, of course, rewrite the words:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
They shall be gone for ever,
Completely out of date.

Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.