“On the Road…” – Gloucester and the USA

“On the Road…” – Gloucester and the USA

3 years ago

On the road…” is a series of posts about our Discovery of Britain’s highways and byways. Whether it be some family fun, a surprising connection or just a beautiful spot we want to share our love for this country with you.

Today we visit Gloucester to celebrate the 4th July – American Independence Day.

So how does this English Cathedral City have any connection with American independence? You can guarantee that today there will be multiple renditions of the American national anthem being sung from state to state… and that is where Gloucester steps in.

Or more precisely, that is where John Stafford Smith (1750-1836) steps in.




Smith was born along this street – the son of Gloucester Cathedral’s organist. The musical gene passed into his blood as he progressed from chorister to composer and, like his dad, organist. Somewhere around 1773 he composed some music called “The Anacreontic Song” for the Anacreontic Society (1766-1792) – a group of amateur London musicians. Their club was named after the Greek poet Anacreon (582-485 BC) who was famed for love songs. Smith’s song was performed at the end of each of their meeting as all the members joined hands and sang six verses which began:
“To Anacreon in Heav’n, where he sat in full Glee,…”
In 1812 the lyrics were changed by Francis Scott Key (1779-1843) as he witnessed the British Navy bombarding Baltimore. His four stanza poem began:
“O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light…”
Seventy seven years later these new lyrics were being officially used by the United States Navy, and another 27 years passed before it was being used by American President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1921). Finally, in 1931, 119 years after the words had been written and 158 years after John Stafford Smith had created the music, President Herbert Hoover declared it was the USA’s national anthem. The sounds of this little Gloucester Chorister are now heard throughout that great nation at just about every major sporting event or public gathering.


A Plaque to John inside Gloucester Cathedral

In an unusual twist of events the melody found its way back to London in 2001. On September 12, the day after the horrific destruction of New York’s Twin Towers, the Queen instructed her Guards to play the USA National Anthem outside Buckingham Palace. One day later, September 13, the Queen joined thousands of other Brits in singing the anthem in St Paul’s Cathedral as a gesture of unity. Few people probably realised that this very ‘American’ tune had been penned and performed in London 228 years earlier by our John.

This is an excerpt from the tour Gloucester City Tour – Part One which explores the streets around the Cathedral. The full tour is found on www.obelisktours.co.uk