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Henry Russell (1812-1900) was born in the Jewish community in Sheerness and was a prolific and talented song-music writer, of a claimed eight hundred melodies. He was also a successfull singer and pianist. His metier was the popular song, particularly patriotic songs. He is most famous for writing "Life on the Ocean Wave" and "Cheer! Boys, Cheer!"

Russell found celebrity at an early age. He appeared on stage by the age of three, having trod the boards in Sheerness when Beverley the actor played Pizzaro. Celebrity came early when he sat on King George IV knee having just performed with an opera troupe. His early singing career was interrupted by a spell, aged ten, working in a Sheerness apothecary shop. This alternative career came to an abrupt end when in the enthusiasm of youth he gave a customer sufficient Epsom Salts to bring down an elephant.

A key stage in his career came after his voice broke. He went to Italy to study composition with both Rossini and Bellini - it is claimed that he won the Naples Conservatory prize for the best musical composition of 1833. The Italian opera style was to be a key influence on his song-writing style.

He returned to England where he was chorus master at Her Majesty's Theatre for a brief period. However the New World beckoned and he went on to Canada on a solo concert tour in c.1834. He soon arrived in Rochester New York and took up posts as an organist and choir master at the First Presbyterian Church and as a tutor at the Rochester Academy of Music.

There in America he found his talent for song writing, and indeed for singing his own works. He also began to collaborate with leading lyricists and poets who provided the songs which he set to music. His first song was "Wind of the Winter Night".

One regular collaborator and influence was George Morris. One of the songs which he wrote with Morris was "Woodman, Spare That Tree" - a song which set a trend in his work. It was inspired by Russell seeing Morris intervening to save a tree that his grandfather had planted. He had gone out to see this fine tree and in horror had found a woodman about to cut it down. Morris offered ten dollars to the daughter of the woodman in exchange for preserving it for the remainder of her life.

Russell suggested that Morris write a song about the incident hence the lyrics,

"Oh, woodman spare that tree,
touch not a single bough,
in youth it sheltered me,
and I'll protect it now.

Russell's songs were ones that often sought to do good and in fact some were written to lend weight to social campaigning. These included songs like, "The Indian Hunter", which was against racial intolerance and his songs based on "Uncle Tom's Cabin" were against slavery. "The Gamblers Wife" was about the pitiful situation of a deserted mother and child. Songs also evinced the terrible situation of private mental hospitals.

Part of Russell's success was due to the fact that he collaborated with leading poets and lyricists or used their songs or poems. These included such as Longfellow, Tennyson, Dickens (who wrote the words of "The Ivy Green"), Thackery and Eliza Cook (who wrote "The Old Armchair").

One of his best sources was however was that of the poet Charles Mackay who provided him with some of his most successful songs; "The Ship on Fire", "To the West, to the West to the Land of the Free", "There's a Good Time Coming Boys" and of course, "Cheers! Boys, Cheers!"

Unfortunately Russell's success was not met with the financial rewards he undoubtedly reserved. There was no copyright protection at this time and in any case most of his songs were brought out for a pittance. "Cheers! Boys, Cheers!" brought him precisely three pounds, even though his publisher boasted to him that thirty-nine presses had to work day and night to keep up with sales. Most of his other songs brought in around eight shillings and ten shillings each. In a lifetime he received about four hundred pounds - thus on average his artistic out-put provided him less than the income of a domestic servant. It was only the performance of his own work at the piano which made the difference. He was immensely popular (especially in Boston and New York) and was unusual in that he performed with no supporting musicians or vocalists.

However, Russell worked hard to help those who were less fortunate than himself. Again it is interesting to note how Russell, in common with many Victorian Jewish figures, brought social concern and action into his work. Not only did he use his songs to raise awareness, but he raised some £7,000 for the victims of the Irish Famine. He was particularly active in emigrant work. He helped the Canadian Government assist the passage of many poor people to emigrate to greater fortunes in Australia.

Russell continued to perform through much of his life. He returned back to England in c.1844. His penultimate performance was at Lancaster, when he was suffered a stroke while singing, "The Ship on Fire". He continued to write however and as an old man he kept himself busy in his Maida Vale workshop following the family craft of furniture making. He also wrote his autobiography in 1895.

He gave one final performance, aged 79, his swan song, when he sang in 1891 at a concert given in his honour at Covent Garden. The auditorium was filled with shouts of rapturous appreciation for the artist as he finished singing his trademark song of "Cheers! Boys, Cheers!" Russell died in 1900, just before his 87th birthday.

He left five sons, from his marriage to Isabella Lloyd (1835). Two of these followed their father into music and rose to success. Sir Landon Ronald (1873-1938) became a conductor, pianist and composer, Henry Russell (1871-1937) an Opera impresario. The Rev. Henry Russell, of Chislehurst Church, believed to be Russell's son, has already been mentioned. Also thought to be his son, was John Henry Russell (b.1847?) who emigrated to South Africa. The other son William Clark Russell, appropriately wrote sea tales thus hearkening back to the family origins by the sea at Sheerness.

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