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A Popular Song Writer: Mrs. John Hunter

by William Andrews

THE name of Mrs. John Hunter stands high on the roll of English song writers. She is one of the most gifted women in her particular literary field Hull has produced, and it is most remarkable that she is not noticed in any local work devoted to history or biography. Her maiden name was Anne Home, and she was the eldest daughter of Robert Home, of Greenlaw, Berwickshire, surgeon of Burgoyne’s Regiment of Light Horse, and subsequently a physician in Savoy. He greatly displeased his parents by marrying at an early age, and on this account they declined to assist him in the outset of his professional career. He proceeded to Hull, and practised as a surgeon. In the year 1742, Anne, his eldest daughter, was born. She received a liberal education, and at an early age displayed considerable poetical gifts. Her early work found its way into the periodicals, and in one entitled the Lark, published at Edinburgh, at the age of twenty-three years, she contributed[Pg 161] her well-known song, “The Flowers of the Forest,” and a song we quote as a specimen of her style:—

“Adieu, ye streams that smoothly glide
Through mazy windings o’er the plain;
I’ll in some lonely cave reside,
And ever mourn my faithful swain.

Flower of the forest was my love,
Soft as the sighing summer’s gale;
Gentle and constant as the dove,
Blooming as roses in the vale.

Alas! by Tweed my love did stray,
For me he searched the banks around;
But, ah! the sad and fatal day,
My love, the pride of swains, was drown’d.

Now droops the willow o’er the stream;
Pale stalks his ghost in yonder grove;
Dire fancy paints him in my dream;
Awake I mourn my hopeless love.”

Such is one of her many songs, several of which were set to music by Haydn. Her best known song is, perhaps, “My Mother bids me bind my Hair”:—

“My mother bids me bind my hair
With bands of rosy hue,
Tie up my sleeves with ribbons rare,
And lace my bodice blue.

“For why,” she cries, “sit still and weep,
[Pg 162]While others dance and play?”
Alas! I scarce can go or creep
While Lubin is away.

’Tis sad to think the days are gone
When those we love were near;
I sit upon this mossy stone,
And sigh when none can hear.

And while I spin my flaxen thread,
And sing my simple lay,
The village seems asleep or dead
Now Lubin is away.”

In July, 1771, Miss Home was married to John Hunter, the famous anatomist, who step by step rose from the bench of a cabinet-maker to one of the highest positions in the medical profession. He was a native of Long Calderwood, Kilbride parish, Lanarkshire. After working some time as a cabinet-maker, he proceeded to London, and obtained an appointment as an anatomical assistant. He was student at Chelsea Hospital in 1748, a year later undertook the charge of the dissecting room, and in the same year entered St. Mary’s Hall, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner. He did not remain there very long. In 1750 he was a surgeon-pupil at St. George’s Hospital. His brother made his mark in London as a surgeon, and John joined him as lecturer in 1754. Ten years’ toil in the dissecting room broke down[Pg 163] his health. With a view of obtaining a change of work and climate, he joined the army, and in 1761 was made staff-surgeon. He was at the siege of Belle Isle in his first year, and was afterwards with the army in Portugal. He returned home in 1763, and commenced practising as a surgeon. He read many able papers before the members of the Royal Society; in 1767, he was elected a fellow of that distinguished body. In 1787 he was awarded the Copleyan gold medal. He wrote some important medical works. His death was sudden, and occurred in the Board-room of St. George’s Hospital, on the 16th October, 1793, at the age of 64 years. His father died when he was ten years of age, and his early education was neglected. At the age of twenty he could simply read and write, knowing no other language than his own. He was most diligent. His museum contained 10,563 specimens and preparations illustrative of human and comparative anatomy, physiology, pathology, and natural history. It was two years after his death purchased by the Government for £15,000, and presented to the Royal College of Surgeons. Dr. Hunter won fame but not wealth, and died a comparatively poor man. In marriage he was most fortunate;[Pg 164] his wife had a beautiful face, and handsome person. She entertained the doctor’s guests with delightful conversation, and her amiability and simple manners endeared her to all with whom she came in contact, many of whom were men of world-wide reputation. Some of Mrs. Hunter’s friends did not always meet with the approval of her husband. The following story is well known, but will bear repeating:—“On returning home late one evening, after a hard day’s fag, Hunter unexpectedly found his drawing-room filled with musical professors, connoisseurs, and other idlers, whom Mrs. Hunter had assembled. He was greatly irritated, and walking straight into the room, addressed the astonished guests pretty much in the following strain: ‘I know nothing of this kick-up, and I ought to have been informed of it beforehand; but as I am now returned home to study, I hope the present company will retire.’ This intimation was, of course, speedily followed by an exeunt omnes.” Mrs. Hunter was both a skilful musician and a graceful singer. The greater part of her poetry displays much sweetness of expression and force. A volume of her poems was issued in 1802, and attracted much favourable notice.

[Pg 165]Mrs. Hunter wrote the following epitaph for a monument to her husband to be placed in St. Martin’s Church, London, where he was buried. The then rector of the parish, however, stated it was contrary to the rules to have any memorial placed in the church:—

“Here rests in awful silence, cold and still,
One whom no common spark of genius fir’d;
Whose reach of thought Nature alone could fill,
Whose deep research the love of truth inspired.

Hunter, if years of toil and watchful care,
If the vast labours of a pow’rful mind
To soothe the ills humanity must share,
Deserve the grateful plaudits of mankind.

Then to each human weakness buried here
Envy would raise, to dim a name so bright,
Those specks which on the orb of day appear,
Take nothing from his warm and welcome light.”

In the year 1860, the remains of John Hunter were removed from the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and placed in Westminster Abbey, to rest with the dust of England’s most famous sons. The Council of the Royal College of Surgeons erected a tablet bearing a suitable inscription.

Mrs. Hunter retired from society after the death of her husband, and found much enjoyment in literature. She had two children, a son[Pg 166] and a daughter. On the 7th January, 1821, she died in London after a lingering illness, being nearly eighty years of age. Her name will long remain, and recall the life of one who added several popular songs to our literature. In popular anthologies her productions usually find a place.