An empty field in the middle of the countryside. Kneeling before a freshly-dug grave with a gun to his head, notorious Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders, closes his eyes and utters what he thinks will be his final few words before death. In that incredibly tense, heart-stopping moment, what does this infamous criminal choose to say?
“In the Bleak Midwinter.”
Yes, the title of a Christmas carol. 
But why? More importantly, what’s the history behind this much-loved festive tune?
Part 1: Christina Rossetti
To examine the history of the carol, we first have to look at the poem it was based on. A poem that will be celebrating its 150th birthday in January 2022.
It was in late 1871 that Scribner’s Monthly (or to give its full name; Scribner’s Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine for the People), a relatively new American literary publication founded in 1870, approached famous British poet Christina Rossetti asking for a contribution for their winter 1871/1872 edition. Rossetti herself was experiencing increased periods of illness at this time, something that had plagued her for much of her life and would continue to do so till her final days, but still wrote back with an offering for publication. Simply titled ‘A Christmas Carol’, the poem featured on page 278 with an illustration of the nativity above it. 
After this initial appearance in Scribner, it took another 3 years before the poem was first released as part of a book of Rossetti’s assorted poetry in 1875, published, as with much of her work, by the now-iconic Macmillan’s of London . At this point, it was simply one of many poems in her back catalogue and it would take several more years before the evolution into musical hymn and rise to household status would begin.
Part 2: Gustav Holst
In Edwardian England around the years 1904 to 1905, composer Gustav Holst, in his mid-30’s and happily married to wife Isobel since 1901, was approached by his close friend and colleague Ralph Vaughan Williams to contribute to a new project he was working on.
In 1904, Vaughan Williams was himself approached by clergyman Percy Dearmer, tasked with helping to assemble a new Church of England hymnbook. There was already a hymnbook in wide circulation throughout the Church of England at this time, Hymns Ancient & Modern, first published in 1863, but its latest edition in 1904 had been met with much criticism. Hymn numbers were jumbled around, wording had been altered and some much-loved hymns of the time had been left out altogether. Dearmer and several other discontented voices within his parish had decided that they would commission something new to take its place.
Initially named English Hymns and written simply for local use, this idea quickly grew in scale with the involvement of Oxford University Press and became The English Hymnal, intended for widespread publication throughout the nation. Being a clergyman and not a composer, Dearmer reached out to Vaughan Williams to assist him with the musical side of editing the final publication. Dearmer, having heard of Vaughan Williams and his musical prowess from English folk song collector Cecil Sharp (who was also a friend and collaborator of Holst), was confident that the 32-year-old composer would hopefully accomplish this task in just 2 months; it actually ended up taking 2 years! 
As well as In the Bleak Midwinter, Gustav Holst would go on to submit two other hymns for The English Hymnal; From Glory to Glory Advancing and Holy Ghost, but In the Bleak Midwinter has definitely become the more well-known to contemporary and secular audiences. It is highly likely that Holst first came upon Rossetti’s words thanks to a publication of her collected works released in 1904. The tune he wrote to accompany them is known as ‘Cranham’, named for the Gloucestershire village where Holst spent many years of his life. (4). The exact time and place where ‘Cranham’ was created remains unclear, although it’s perhaps unsurprising that many residents of Cranham village like to stake a claim that the tune was composed in the very place from which it takes its name! 
After years of work, The English Hymnal was finally published in 1906; the words/lyrics edition appearing in May of that year, followed by the tunes/sheet music edition some weeks later. The end product that Dearmer and Vaughan Williams had delivered radically divided opinions within the Church of England. The book’s more Catholic undertones, especially regarding the Virgin Mary and the Intercession of Saints, drew the ire of several Bishops and members of the clergy.
The Bishop of Bristol, George Forrest Browne, banned the book in his Diocese, stating “I cannot reconcile it to my conscience, or to my historical sense, to do less than prohibit a book which would impress upon the Church of England tendencies so dangerous.”. This caused further outrage in the press, and eventually the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, got involved by censuring The English Hymnal. 
Throughout this discourse, Dearmer remained steadfast and defended his creation. Oxford University Press, worried that the drama may cause sales to dip, eventually agreed a compromise with Dearmer and released an ‘abridged’ version of The English Hymnal in 1907, with the ‘controversial elements’ removed. This seemed to satisfy the critics, yet the revised version quietly seemed to fade into obscurity over the following years, not seeing any further reprints following the initial production run. In fact the only major revision to The English Hymnal after this was in 1933, when Vaughan Williams made some changes to the Tunes edition (no changes were made to the original lyrical/word edition). This 1933 version is the one that has remained in circulation through to the present day. 
Part 3: Harold Darke
From its initial release in 1906, Holst’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ has become a firm favourite with carol singers and choirs around the world. The tune, although labelled as ‘dreary’ by some, has become as iconic as Rossetti’s words, and can be regularly heard in a smorgasbord of places during the Christmas season. But Gustav Holst was not the only one inspired to combine the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem with music to create a festive hymn. Just 5 years later than Holst, another composer would add his own unique take on this Christmas classic.
In 1911, 23-year-old Harold Darke was a student at the Royal College of Music and also the resident organist at Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead. The exact circumstances surrounding the conception of his tune are hard to fathom, but it was in that year that London-based publishers Stainer and Bell first printed the music for his creation. 
It’s a distinctive melody, quite different from Holst’s tune. Performances naturally vary between different choirs and carol singers, but in many performances of Darke’s tune the first verse is usually performed by a soprano as a solo, Rossetti’s fourth stanza is omitted altogether, and the final line is often repeated.
This version, noted for its higher degree of complexity, has become the more popular with professional choirs around the world. Fittingly reflecting Harold Darke’s tenure as organist of King’s College, Cambridge, during the Second World War, this version is still a firm favourite with the King’s College Choir and still regularly appears in their famous Christmas Eve ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ service, enjoyed by radio listeners and television viewers around the globe. (11)
The appeal of this tune remains strong well into the 21st century; A 2008 BBC poll to find the ‘best’ Christmas carol was conducted with 51 directors of music across the UK and US, and they voted Darke’s version of In the Bleak Midwinter into the top slot at number 1. (12)
Part 4: Midwinter’s Legacy
Sadly, Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst were plagued by severe health complications throughout their life, and both would die relatively young, never truly seeing the scale of the legacy of their work.
Rossetti died in 1894 at the age of 64 after a bout of breast cancer, over a decade before Holst’s adaption of her words. One can only wonder what she’d have made of a Christmas carol being created out of her poetry.
Holst himself died in 1934 at the age of 59 owing to heart failure, in part caused by an unsuccessful operation to treat an ulcer. He lived to see the release of The English Hymnal, but sadly not to observe the lasting popularity of his work throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Fittingly, Ralph Vaughan Williams conducted the music at his memorial service.
Harold Darke had a far longer life, finally passing away at the age of 88 in 1976. However, his lasting views on In the Bleak Midwinter were less than positive; despite bearing witness to the success of his creation, he allegedly grew to dislike it, becoming irritated that he wasn’t better known or recognised for his other pieces of work.
So, what of Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders? Why do the main characters of Stephen Knight’s highly successful period crime-drama series seem so obsessed with a Christmas carol?
Shelby himself explains in one episode that the family’s shared love for the carol goes back to their time serving in the First World War, and a particularly gruelling winter’s night when they all widely believed, and accepted, that they were to be rushed and killed by enemy forces. The group’s Padre, Jeremiah (played by poet Benjamin Zephaniah) suggested that they all sing the carol in that moment. When they survived the night and the enemy forces never came, they concluded that they had been spared by an act of divine mercy, and that everything in their lives from that moment until their actual deaths would be considered ‘extra’.  The carol goes on to appear multiple times throughout the show’s story, popping up in multiple episodes, often in the moments when various characters think that their death is imminent.
Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem turns 150 years old this winter and it’s a tribute to her skill as a writer that her words, be it sung or spoken, remain so popular with so many people over 100 years after her passing.
I could have written a blog post about the history of any number of fascinating Christmas carols, as they each have their own amazing stories. From the inspired last-minute improvisation behind the creation of ‘Silent Night’ through to the violent end of the life of Wenceslas I of Bohemia (‘Good King Wenceslas’), itself easily worthy of starring in an episode of Horrible Histories.
But I have a big soft spot for In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s a poignant carol. It’s delicate, melancholy and yet simultaneously comforting at the same time. It remains my favourite carol and I have no doubt that it will remain a regular fixture of carol concerts and church services for many years to come.
Thank you for reading! A big thank you to Danie for giving me this spot in her wonderful blog! She’s absolutely brilliant, please do go back through her older posts and give them a look. It was lovely to write this piece and research an area of history I don’t normally delve into.
It only remains to say that I hope you all had a safe, peaceful Christmas and I wish you all a prosperous, trouble-free New Year.
Andrew, a MA Museum & Heritage Development graduate from Nottingham Trent University
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