Keys of Heaven featured in Southwell Folio

The Keys of Heaven – The Life of Revd Charles Marson Socialist Priest and Folk Song Collector by David Sutcliffe

In choosing a title for his biography of Revd Charles Marson (1859-1914), David Sutcliffe has taken the words of Jesus Christ as recorded by the Apostle Matthew. Jesus said to Peter: ‘And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 16:19). As David explains in his Preface: “This is the story of a man, Charles Marson, who was far-sighted enough in the midst of the Victorian slums to imagine a post-industrial society that would be gloriously free and fair, if people could only curb their greed and materialism… foolish enough to support unpopular causes like socialism and church reform, even at the expense of his own career…”

The son of a Somerset vicar, Charles became a radical at Oxford University. Torn between journalism and the Church, he first worked as a volunteer at St Jude’s Whitechapel in the East End of London, where he saw, alongside miserable housing and terrible poverty, the innovative attempts of his colleagues to uplift the people – adult education, work training, youth clubs. He became a founder of The Christian Socialist Society and editor of The Christian Socialist magazine.

A devoted priest much loved by his parishioners, Charles remained active as a writer and journalist all his life. Described as ‘the best letter-writer of his day’ (Lord Morley), he never was one to ‘hide his light under a bushel’ (Matthew 5:15) and never ceased to speak out as and when he thought necessary. Yet his views – on church reform, on social reform, on the celebration of mass, on the precise nature and location of heaven – brought him up against numerous bishops, which stifled his career. David Sutcliffe has documented some of these disagreements, drawing on an extensive collection of letters to and from Charles.

The papers which David used as the basis for his research are now in the Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton, and consist not just of correspondence but also very old photographs and line drawings. “They were being held in trust by a private individual when I originally got my hands on them,” David explains. “They had been passed down from Revd Frank Etherington, who had collected them together with a view to writing Charles’s biography. There are 440 of them in all, and they were in three large shoeboxes.”

Lavishly illustrated from this source, the book is also extensively researched. David travelled to Adelaide in Australia to study Charles’s time there from1889 to 1892. He found that Charles was as active in the press ‘down under’ as he ever was in England, taking a controversial stand on labour disputes, aboriginal rights and votes for women. Charles (who was a friend of Edith Nesbit, the creator of ‘The Railway Children’) is also on record as the publisher of the first children’s stories in Australia. It was in Australia that he became friends with Cecil Sharp, a name well known today to lovers of folk music. Charles introduced Sharp to folk music, passing on his knowledge and enthusiasm.

He intended to work in the London slums on his return, but his health broke down (he suffered from chronic asthma), and he was appointed to a crown living at Hambridge in Somerset. He invited Cecil Sharp to stay at the vicarage in Hambridge and introduced him to local singers. The two men collaborated on three volumes of Folk Songs from Somerset, Marson editing the words and Sharp arranging the music. However, Sharp moved on to morris dancing and fell out with Marson. As a result, Charles’s contribution to the first folk revival has been underestimated, as his contribution to the Church had been.

Charles never did seem to mind when others took credit for what he had done, as long as he knew he had contributed to a new kingdom of heaven on earth. The folk song ‘The Keys of Heaven’ was collected by Charles Marson and Cecil Sharp from Mrs Emma Welsh in 1904. Another version was collected from David Sutcliffe’s relation Charles Neville in 1908.

The Keys of Heaven by David Sutcliffe is published by Cockasnook Books of Woodthorpe Nottingham, ISBN 978-0-9557460-7-9, price £11.99, 328 pages, 70 illustrations. Copies available from the publisher’s website at or at the Minster bookshop.