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Sir  John Stanhope Arkwright (1872–1954), by Sir Benjamin Stone, 1902Sir John Stanhope Arkwright (1872–1954), by Sir Benjamin Stone, 1902
Arkwright, Sir John Stanhope (1872–1954), politician and hymn writer, was born at 11 Lowndes Street, London, on 10 July 1872, the only son (there were three daughters) of John Hungerford Arkwright (1833–1905), landowner and lord lieutenant of Herefordshire, of Hampton Court, Leominster, Herefordshire, and his wife, Charlotte Lucy, née Davenport (1839–1904). The textile machinery inventor Sir Richard Arkwright was an ancestor. He was educated at Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford, where he graduated with a third class in jurisprudence in 1895. A keen footballer in his youth, he played on the right wing for Hereford Town in the Birmingham league. In 1898 he was called to the bar at the Inner Temple, and at the ‘khaki’ election of 1900, during the South African War, he was elected unopposed as Conservative MP for Hereford. The death of his father in May 1905 left him the owner of extensive lands in Herefordshire, but the properties were heavily encumbered with mortgages, as a result of falling rentals during the agricultural depression.

On 21 December 1905 Arkwright married (Helen Muriel) Stephanie (1883–1947), youngest daughter of Stephen Robinson, landowner and cattle breeder, of Lynhales, Herefordshire, with whom he had two sons. Embracing tariff reform, he narrowly retained his Hereford parliamentary seat against a Liberal opponent in the general election of January 1906, but was returned with a somewhat increased majority at the two general elections of 1910. Ill health caused his retirement from the House of Commons in March 1912. During 1911 and 1912 he sold the family estate at Hampton Court and purchased a smaller property, Kinsham Court, near Presteigne, Herefordshire, formerly the seat of his brother-in-law Francis Lyndon Evelyn (d. 1909).

As a schoolboy at Eton, Arkwright had demonstrated a talent for versification, carried on at Oxford, where he won the Newdigate prize in 1895 for an epic poem, ‘Montezuma’. His poetic contributions to the Black and White, on patriotic and imperial themes, and a ‘Hymn for use in time of war’ were gathered together in The Last Muster (1901), which saluted the sacrifice of those who died in the war with the Boers. These sentiments anticipated his most enduring contribution to the literature of remembrance, his highly emotional First World War hymn, ‘O valiant hearts’.

During the winter of 1916–17, when he became private secretary to Alfred Milner upon the latter's joining the war cabinet, Arkwright was working on a requiem, set to a tune that he had previously heard and thought appropriate for the theme. This tune had been composed to accompany another hymn by Charles Harris (1865–1936), rector of Colwall in Herefordshire, and Arkwright obtained Harris's permission to use it as a setting for the remembrance hymn. The resulting ‘O valiant hearts’ cast those who fought and died in the First World War as knightly heroes and compared their sacrifice to that of Christ at Calvary. First sung in Colwall at a service to mark the unveiling of a plaque in memory of Harris's nineteen-year-old son, killed in Mesopotamia in April 1917, it was brought to wider notice when it was included at a service of solemn intercession attended by George V, Queen Mary, and other members of the royal family in Westminster Abbey on 5 August 1917 to mark the war's third anniversary. Two days before the service The Times printed the first five verses of what it called ‘the new hymn’ (which had previously appeared in the Hereford Times of 21 July 1917). The full seven-verse version of the hymn was also published about this time in leaflet form with the epigraph ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’. A copy of this leaflet in the British Library has an accession stamp with the date 9 August 1917.

In this leaflet ‘O valiant hearts’ was accompanied by Harris's tune ‘The Supreme Sacrifice’. Harris's grave and sonorous melody was eventually destined to become inextricably linked with Arkwright's words but it took some years for the pairing to be established. When ‘O valiant hearts’ was sung at the Westminster Abbey service in 1917 it was to E. J. Hopkins's tune ‘Ellers’, rather than Harris's tune, which, however, was used at the service in Hereford Cathedral on the same day. ‘Ellers’ was also used on 11 November 1920 when the hymn was sung at the burial service in the abbey for the Unknown Warrior.

In the years following the First World War ‘O valiant hearts’ acquired its popularity and its special association with remembrance day services. It appeared, amended, in a collection of Arkwright's wartime verse entitled The Supreme Sacrifice, published in November 1919 on the anniversary of the armistice, with illustrations by Bruce Bairnsfather, Wilmot Lunt, Louis Ramaekers, and Leonard Raven-Hill. In the same year it was also included in Laus Deo, a collection of hymns compiled by Walford Davies where it was set to Andrew Freeman's tune ‘Limpsfield’. That tune was used to accompany the hymn in the 1923 publication A Student's Hymnal. ‘O valiant hearts’ was brought to wider notice with its inclusion in Songs of Praise, published in 1925. Here it was given two new tunes, ‘Valiant Hearts’, specially composed by Gustav Holst, and ‘Valor’, adapted from a traditional melody by Songs of Praise's musical editor, Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Baptist Church Hymnal of 1933 was one of the first of several denominational hymnals to include it accompanied by Harris's tune ‘The Supreme Sacrifice’. In that year unfavourable comments on Harris's tune by a music critic generated a lively newspaper correspondence about appropriate settings (The Times, 7–23 Oct 1933).

When Arkwright was knighted, in 1934, it was for the authorship of the remembrance hymn that he was best known. Active in Herefordshire affairs, as freeman and chief steward of the city of Hereford, he was also a noted gardener, producing a popular hybrid, Lychnis arkwrightii, and experimenting with the propagation of daffodils. He was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society in 1925. One of his sons was killed in the Second World War and his wife died shortly afterwards. Latterly in ill health, he died at Kinsham Court, Herefordshire, on 19 September 1954. His funeral took place at Byton, Herefordshire, on 22 September.

Arkwright's ‘O valiant hearts’ probably reached the peak of its popularity in the 1940s and 1950s (and was added to the revised version of Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1950). From the 1960s it began to be purged from hymn books because of growing unease about its theology and focus. The compilers of the BBC Songs of Praise hymnal of 1997 were taken to task by several reviewers for including it in full. The hymn has fallen foul of Christian critics of several different theological persuasions. Evangelicals are profoundly uneasy about its reference to ‘lesser Calvaries’ which they take to detract from the full atoning sufficiency of Christ's one perfect sacrifice on the cross. Those of a liberal and pacifist persuasion feel that it glorifies war and conflict and almost blasphemously suggests that those who in reality had been conscripted and called up for service in the armed forces were somehow voluntarily responding to ‘God's message from afar’. Both camps are agreed that these and other factors make it virtually unsingable for a Christian congregation and that it should be regarded as a poem to the dead rather than a Christian hymn.

Despite the vociferous protests of its mostly clerical critics, however, ‘O valiant hearts’ continues to be sung at remembrance day services and parades up and down the land and has many devotees among members of the British Legion. It is, in fact, one of the few hymns that directly link human suffering and sacrifice to the sacrifice of Christ. Harris's tune, however, seems destined to survive: it is regularly played at the annual act of remembrance at the Cenotaph and in several recent hymn books it accompanies a hymn by Fred Kaan (b. 1929), ‘God! As with silent hearts we bring to mind how hate and war diminish humankind’, which is more in keeping with modern sentiments about the proper theme and tone of remembrance services.

Ian Bradley


The Times (10 Oct 1933); (13 Oct 1933); (20 Sept 1954); (5 Oct 1954) · Hereford Times (21 July 1917); (11 Aug 1917); (22 Nov 1919); (24 Sept 1954) · N. Davidson, Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 166 (1954–5), 45 · I. Bradley, The Daily Telegraph book of hymns (2005), 339–41 · C. Beale, Champagne and shambles: the Arkwrights and the downfall of the landed aristocracy (2006) · Herefs. RO, Arkwright papers, A 63 · ‘The supreme sacrifice’, Hereford Public Library, LC 821.9 Ark · Burke, Gen. GB · b. cert. · m. cert.


Herefs. RO, A63


B. Stone, platinum print, 1902, NPG [see illus.] · B. Stone, platinum print, 1902, NPG · B. Stone, platinum print, 1902, Birmingham Reference Library · Gilman & Co, photograph, repro. in ILN, 117 (13 Oct 1900), 526 · Jakeman and Carver, photograph, repro. in Herefordshire portraits (1908), 7

Wealth at death  

£247,513 19s. 4d.: probate, 9 Feb 1955, CGPLA Eng. & Wales