In 2017 Robin King, from Newcastle, discovered that the title track of our CD, Awake, arise, Good Christians, which we had thought was anonymous, was actually written by the children’s writer Mary Botham Howitt (1799-1888), who wrote The Spider and the Fly.
Mary Botham was born in Coleford, Gloucestershire where her father was a mining engineer in the Forest of Dean coalfield. She married William Howitt and for a time lived in Heanor, Derbyshire, but then moved to Nottingham where William’s family were in business. William later sold his share of the business and the couple moved to London, both to write full-time. They later spent time travelling and living in Europe. Mary died in Switzerland while on holiday. She had been living in Italy for a number of years.
Robin, who spent most of his career working in the Registrar’s Office at Newcastle University, found the poem in Mary’s book Hymns and Fireside Verses (Darton and Clark, London, 1839) in the Special Collections at Newcastle University Library – it’s the last-but-one poem in the book. There’s also a copy at Sheffield Hallam University, and you can see a scanned copy of the book in the US Library of Congress. You can use the link below to read Mary’s poem.
Mary Botham Howitt – Awake Arise – A Christmas Carol
The carol also appears as No 53 in “88 Favourite Carols and Hymns for Christmas” published by William Walker & Sons of Otley, West Riding. This is undated, but since it contains reference to the publishers’ catalogue being obtained on receipt of a penny stamp, it must be no earlier than the 1840s when the Penny Post was introduced by Rowland Hill. This ties in with the original publication of “Awake, arise, good Christians'” in 1839 and a number of other carols whose earliest known references date from the 1840s or 1850s. Robin believes it is probably from the later 1850s or after as it contains the five verses of James Montgomery’s original 1816 version of “Angels from the Realms of Glory” where Montgomery writes of Angels, Shepherds, Sages, Saints and Sinners. After Montgomery died (1854) the Sinners verse either was not printed or was replaced by a verse from one of Montgomery’s other hymns.
The version of Mary’s carol that is sung in the Sheffield Carolling tradition is attributed to William Mount, but three other versions were published in America, by W.F. Sherwin in 1871, Karl Reden in 1875, and Charles Lewis Hutchins in 1916. The last two stick closely to Mrs Howitt’s words (not all verses are included), but the Sherwin version has more radical changes.