The song of Tiny Tim

What do you usually buy for Christmas? High on my list of presents for friends is the gift that I most like to receive myself – books. The Christmas period is one of the busiest times of the year for book sales. In 2016 over £83 million was spent on books in the United Kingdom in the run-up to Christmas. 

Dancing the Roger de Coverley at the Fezziwig’s Christmas Ball.
Illustration from A Christmas Carol. S727.d.84.2

Book of the year for Christmas 1843 was undoubtedly Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Written in just six weeks in November-December 1843, this was the novel that is sometimes credited with the re-invention of Christmas. The book itself may be 175 years old this week, but the Christmas that Dickens rejoiced in is still with us today. From less-than-festive Scrooges to holidaying Cratchits, food and drink and charitable giving, carolling and partying, time for family and friends, remembrance of Christmases past, and hopes for a better future; Dickens’ novel was instrumental in the re-creation of the way we celebrate Christmas in the United Kingdom.

The original manuscript, beautifully bound, is now in the Morgan library. If you’re lucky enough to be in New York before January 7th, the manuscript is on display there. Failing that, the Morgan library has digitised the volume in stunning detail; and it can be seen here.

As you might expect of a book with such a name, music plays a role in the novel; but A Christmas Carol holds a festive mystery…

Some of the music mentioned in the novel is clearly described. An over-exuberant carolling school-boy receives short shrift from Scrooge when he bellows a verse of God rest ye, merry gentlemen through Scrooge’s door…

….while guests at Mr. Fezziwig’s party delight in dancing the Roger de Coverley to the traditional tune.

Each chapter retains a musical essence being called a “Stave” rather than a chapter; and bells ring out throughout the novel. Miners and sailors sing traditional, unspecified carols, whether spending Christmas with their families or upon stormy seas. Even the Cratchits join in, ending their family feast with games and music, and Tiny Tim singing in a “plaintive little voice”, a song about “a lost child, travelling in the snow”. 

This song has remained a bit of a mystery – it sounds as though it should be real, but so far has remained elusive. Dickens’ enthusiasts have searched for it in carol books, but in vain. G.K. Chesterton even wrote a poem A child of the snows to fill this musical gap. It has been set by several composers including Samuel Pegg (MRB.210.201.203), Bryceson Treharne, and Samuel Gregory Ould. The latter two settings seem to be remarkably rare with only solitary copies held by the British Library appearing in COPAC searches. 

A setting of the Chesterton poem intended to evoke the song of Tiny Tim

As early as February 1856, the American poet, Augusta Moore, a regular contributor to The Ladies Repository, had written a poem The Pauper’s childIts similarity to the subject matter of Tiny Tim’s song does make me wonder if this wasn’t an early attempt in the same spirit as G.K. Chesterton.

Chatting about this in MusiCB3 headquarters (the Anderson Room office!), Victorian song aficionados felt that it was more likely to be a song than a carol. And so began a festive hunt for the song of Tiny Tim. An English broadside ballad bearing the same name as Augusta Moore’s later poem seems to match the subject matter as described by Dickens.

The copy in the Bodleian was published by John Harkness of Preston. Harkness began printing broadsheet ballads in 1838, and continued printing until the mid-1870s, so evidently this ballad was published sometime between those dates. Could this be early enough to be the song of Tiny Tim? 

Although there are a few London editions of the broadside ballad, the two earliest were published in or near Manchester; a city that Dickens just happened to visit in September 1843, and which was to be instrumental in the writing of  A Christmas carol. 

A later edition can be found in the Library of Congress set to the tune Annie Lisle. It also includes the name of a composer (lyricist?), a Mr. Boot.

Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets.

Annie Lisle continues to be popular to this day in the United States, where it is regularly used as the tune for many an Alma Mater song. It was published in 1857 with words by H.S. Thompson. Widely used in the States, it is even featured in a song by Charles Ives, Old Home Day. The tune however predates the words and is popularly believed to have started its life as a traditional Irish or British folk-tune.

So, could this be the song of Tiny Tim? More research would be needed to definitively date the first publication of the ballad, but it would appear to be a likely contender. Astounded by the poverty that he witnessed in Manchester, a power-house of the industrial revolution, Dickens decided to write a novel that would reflect on some of the evils of poverty, rather than write a short factual pamphlet. The book had more impact than any pamphlet, with some employers spontaneously deciding to give their workers a Christmas break in the best spirit of a reformed Scrooge.

Perhaps a child singing on the streets of that great industrial metropolis was the inspiration for the song and, possibly, even the character of Tiny Tim?

MusiCB3 is now off for its holidays. We’ll back in 2019 with more posts on all things musical. In the meantime we wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas, and very best wishes for the New Year.



About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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