“The Wheels of the World”


Spinners turn the wheels of the world. Some spinners are named with their product: Pitt, Castlereagh, Napoleon, Wellington, John Mitchell, John Bull, factory owners and the rich. "Let liberty be your bright motto and glory will turn your big wheel"


According to "Wheels of the World," Pitt [ "banish'd in Charon's old boat": d.1806] and Castlereagh spun the union of Ireland to England [1800] but were unhappy at the end, and Castlereagh committed suicide [1822]; Napoleon spun freedom and Wellington spun Waterloo [1815] "but if Grouchy had never been bribed sure the French would have split him in two"; John Mitchell spun to free Ireland but John Bull spun him to exile [1848]; factory owners and the rich spin to grind the poor. Broadside Bodleian Harding B 11(4120) mentions other spinners: Luther, Henry VIII, John Calvin, Nelson and the French that killed him at Trafalgar [1805], Prince Albert [1840] and Victoria: "For 300 years they've been spinning, Destruction all over the land."

There is a dating problem for broadside Bodleian Harding B 11(4120): it mentions John Mitchel's exile to Bermuda [subsequently Cape Colony and finally to Van Dieman's Land] which occurred after 1844. [I think the problem is an error in the attribution to the printer Pitts; the defaced imprint does not contain his name as it stands, merely the words "toy warehouse." Pitts also owned a toy warehouse, but the appearance of the broadside is unlike any of the other Pitts broadsides I checked. Given that this piece, if circulated in Ireland, would be considered perilously close to treason, I wonder if a printer might not try to fake the attribution. There is probably a good thesis in there somewhere, on broadside printers and their fonts and clip art collections. - RBW]

The ballad is recorded on one of the CD's issued around the time of the bicentennial of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. See:

Franke Harte and Donal Lunny, "Wheels of the World" (on Franke Harte and Donal Lunny, "1798 the First Year of Liberty," Hummingbird Records HBCD0014 (1998)) - BS

It is interesting to note that, of the three legible Bodelian broadsides of this song, only one carries an actual printer's imprint, and that defaced. The Bodleian editors did manage to determine two of the printers, but one of those attributions is questionable -- and it's also interesting that this song of interest primarily to the Irish was printed on British soil.

There is much interesting history in this song, which can be dated fairly precisely by the events it mentions. The three legible Bodleian broadsides (Harding B 11(4120), Harding B 20(190), Firth c.14(127)) all have nearly the same text, and must have been printed at about the same time. The references which give us our dates are as follows:

"I'll sing you a song about spinning, it was a good trade in its time" -- This might (or might not) refer to the direct control Britain exerted over Irish textile manufacturing; for more on this, see e.g. "The Volunteers' March."

"Luther... King Henry the eighth... John Calvin" -- the founders of the three basic branches of non-Catholic Christianity: Protestant (a name falsely applied to all three types), Anglican, and Reformed/Presbyterian. In Protestant England they were mostly approved of; not so in Catholic Ireland! Thomas ("Tom") Cranmer (1489-1556) was Henry VIII's Archbishop of Canterbury; though hardly a noteworthy theologian, he was largely responsible for implementing Henry's new church. It is odd to note that the song does not mention his hard end (Mary Tudor had him burned at the stake)

"John Mitchell the brave son of Erin" -- John Mitchel (1815-1875), for whom see the song of the same name, started as a writer, and founded the publication _The United Irishman_. He ended up calling stridently for change in Ireland, and in 1848 was sentenced to transportation. Sent briefly to Bermuda, he then was moved to Australia, and escaped to the United States, there to advocate slavery and flogging of prisoners. Since his exile to Bermuda is mentioned, the song must date after 1848. (One suspects this verse, the third in all the broadside texts, has been displaced; were it moved after the seventh verse, the song would be in chronological order. On the other hand, Mitchel is the only Irishman referred to; maybe he was shoved forward as a result.)

The Lord C--n--n of all the broadsides is Lord Clarendon, i.e. George Villiers, fourth earl of Clarendon (1800-1870), the Lord Lieutenant from 1847-1852 before becoming foreign secretary. Although nominally responsible for the case against Mitchel, and the suppression of the sort-of-revolt of 1848, he had so little influence on the course of Irish history that I found only one mention of him in the histories I checked. In the broader world, his work seems to have been successful and relatively enlightened.

"Lord Nelson he was a good spinner" -- For Horatio Nelson, see e.g. "Nelson's Victory at Trafalgar (Brave Nelson)" [Laws J17]

"Billy Pitt, too, was a good spinner, and so was Lord Castlereigh... they spun the Union from Ireland" -- William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806) was an MP as early as 1781 (from a "rotten" borough) and Prime Minister while still in his early twenties (1783). He would be Prime Minister for most of the rest of his life. He tried to pass several measures to help Ireland (free trade, catholic emancipation), but all were stymied. Therefore he is remembered mostly for the much-hated Act of Union, which eliminated the Irish parliament while introducing Irish members into the British Lords and Commons.

The reference here reminds me very strongly of a similar reference in "The Game of Cards (II)," though the direction of the dependence is not clear to me.

Robert Stewart Viscount Castlereagh (1769-1822) was actually Irish (from Ulster). He entered the English parliament in 1794, and became a member of Pitt's government. His was a brilliant career; he served at various times as both war and foreign secretaries, was largely responsible for the Peninsular campaign, and helped direct the last battles against Napoleon. He was by rational standards an outstanding success -- but in Ireland he was remembered as being the actual director of the campaign for Union. In his later years, when it was clear that the Congress system for governing Europe was failing, he became despondent. The responsibilities of his offices overwhelmed him, and he had a nervous breakdown and committed suicide.

"Napoleon he was a great spinner" -- The Irish held out great hopes for Napoleon, though he never did much for them; for what encouragement and help he did give, see the notes to "The Shan Van Voght."

"Old Wellington" -- obviously the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), winner of the Peninsular campaign and victor at Waterloo (1815), much disliked by the masses because he finally defeated Napoleon. If Mitchell's 1848 exile offers the earliest date for this song, the "Iron Duke's" death may supply the latest; two of the three broadsides have the line "Old Wellington he went a-spinning," but Firth c.14(127) patches this to "Old Wellington he now is dead"; this presumably was a topical change made 1852 or 1853, with the other versions coming from (though perhaps not printed) before 1852.

"If Grouchy had never been bribed" -- Emmanuel Grouchy (1766-1847) commanded one of the wings of Napoleon's army in the Waterloo campaign, and his failure to arrive at Waterloo may have cost Napoleon the battle. The charge that he betrayed Napoleon occurs also in "Napoleon Bonaparte (III)" (see that song for a discussion) and in "The Removal of Napoleon's Ashes," but there is no reason whatsoever to believe that it is true.

"Prince Albert" -- Albert of Saxe-Coburg (1819-1861), the husband of Queen Victoria, upon whom she doted almost irrationally. He was not particularly well-liked in England, being suspected (as in this song) of being "on the make," since he was of far less note than Victoria. But though she seems to have fallen in love first, there is no evidence that he tried to tempt her into anything. Indeed, as long as he lived, he proved a capable consort and diplomat, even if the people did not take to him.

"For the Queen has another young son That was spun in the City of Cork" -- Victoria had four sons: Edward (the future Edward VII, 1841-1910), Alfred (1844-1900), Arthur (1850-1942), and Leopold (1853-1884). Arthur later became Duke of Connaught, and is surely the child intended. The more so since Victoria visited Cork (which was renamed Queenstown at that time) in 1849, so it is possible (though hardly proved) that he was conceived in Cork.

Thus the strong internal evidence is that this piece was written between 1850 and 1852. - RBW

Cross references


  • Bodleian, Harding B 11(4120), "Wheels of the World" ("Come all you true sons of old Erin"), J. Pitts (London), 1819-1844[?]; also Harding B 20(190) [J. Harkness(Preston), 1840-1866], Firth c.14(127), "Wheels of the World," Firth b.27(49) [mostly illegible and probably trimmed]


  1. Moylan 200, "The Wheels of the World" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. BI, Moyl200


Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1867 (broadside, Bodleian Harding B 20(190))
Found in: Ireland