Mr. Sefton’s Salutary Songs

by Jonathan Crowe


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, music was not universally taught in Canadian schools. Music teachers did their best to make the case for including (or keeping) music in the school curriculum. One of the more interesting arguments they used was that music could be a method by which socially improving messages could be passed on to the children. Harry Hill, a Kitchener-based music teacher, put it this way: “it is surprising how many things can be taught by just having the children sing a song about them. We all know that milk is good for children, that they should clean their teeth regularly, and we have found that a song about these things fixes them in the mind far better than everlasting lectures by the teacher.”1

Perhaps the strangest and least subtle example of this attitude that I encountered in the course of my research on music history was Henry Francis Sefton’s Three-Part Songs for the Use of the Pupils of the Public Schools of Canada (Toronto: James Campbell & Son, 1868). Sefton’s songbook, which was on the Ontario curriculum until 1884,2 was unusual for two reasons. For one thing, the book could only have been meant for more advanced pupils: June Countryman has even argued that its three-part harmonies were beyond the abilities of anyone who had trained solely through Sefton’s own system.3

But the book’s chief appeal is its heavy-handed attempt to indocrinate pupils through the songs’ lyrics. As Sefton wrote in the preface, “Great care has been taken in the selection of the poetry, with a view not only to engaging the interest of the pupils, but also to producing a salutary effect on their principles and habits.” If the lyrics included here are any indication, what Sefton was aiming at were pupils that were patriotic, pious, hard-working and utterly miserable — perfect British subjects, in other words.

It did not occur to me at the time to copy the music, so I have no idea whether the songs accompanying these lyrics were any good. It’s fun to imagine, though.

And now, on to the songs.

The Songs

My Hands, How Nicely They Are Made

My hands, how nicely they are made,
To hold, and touch, and do;
I’ll try to learn some honest trade,
That will be useful too;
My eyes, how fit they are to read,
To mind my work and look;
I ought to think of that, indeed,
And use them in my book.

My tongue, ’twas surely never meant
To quarrel or to swear;
To speak the truth my tongue was sent,
And also given for prayer.
My thoughts — for what can they be given?
For thinking — to be sure;
That I may think of God and heaven,
And learn my faults to cure.

(Sefton, Three-Part Songs, p. 15)


How pleasant it is, at the close of the day
No follies to have to repent,
But reflect on the past, and be able to say,
My time has been properly spent!

(Sefton, Three-Part Songs, p. 9)

Hurrah for Canada

Hurrah! hurrah! for Canada,
Her woods and valleys green;
Hurrah for dear old England!
Hurrah for England’s Queen!
Good ships be on her waters,
Firm friends upon her shores,
Peace, peace within her borders,
And plenty in her stores . . .

(Sefton, Three-Part Songs, p. 6)


  1. Harry Hill, School Music: Its Practice in the Class-Room (Toronto, 1934), p. 37.
  2. George Campbell Trowsdale, “A History of Public School Music in Ontario” (EdD diss., University of Toronto, 1962), pp. 349-350, 357-358.
  3. June Campbell Countryman, “An Analysis of Selected Song Series Textbooks Used in Ontario Schools, 1846-1965” (MM thesis, University of Western Ontario, 1981), p. 20.