Looking Forward to the Launch of the ‘First 100’

Over the last few weeks Professor Brian Maidment, Dr Ruth Mather, and I have been busy recording readings of the first 100 Lancashire Cotton Famine poems which are going to be made available to the public in mid-July (keep an eye/ear open for news of a major launch event at Manchester’s beautiful Portico Library on July 31st). This is a relatively small proportion of the total poetry haul we have amassed, and there are still many more to be discovered. However, working with this 100 we have been deeply struck by the formal, tonal, and thematic variety represented by the selection. There are domestic poems in heavy dialect, ‘state of the nation’ texts which have high literary ambition, comic verses which satirise particular elements of society, parodies, diatribes, laments…

But as well as the differences, we have also noticed the patterns which are beginning to emerge as this body of work is being collated and interpreted. The repetition of character types, certain literary phrases, or even poetic rhythms are not evidence of artistic laziness or lack of imagination, but of a vibrant literary culture which is aware of itself and capable of trading ideas for mutual benefit. What we are in fact coming to appreciate is that many of these texts, the vast majority published in newspapers in one geographic region over a few years from 1861 to 1865, are talking to each other. As we hoped when we first began this project in May 2017, we are beginning to reveal a previously unheard commentary on one of the most devastating economic disasters to occur in Victorian Britain.

As for our voices – Brian, Ruth, and me – we hope you will forgive our indulgencies when you come to hear the soundfiles which will accompany the launch of the First 100. We make no particular claims to accuracy, performance quality, or ‘authenticity’. We merely wish to present these poems both as written texts and as oral events, which many if not all were intended to be. We will be happy if in the future people are willing to offer alternative readings. The Lancashire dialect pieces in particular are fiendishly difficult to recite, and we are aware that pronunciation of many terms may be contentious. Nevertheless, we feel that this has been an important exercise, not least because an important part of this project has been to bring alive a significant element of Lancashire cultural history which has lain relatively dormant for over 150 years. The exercise has also been challenging, illuminating, and thoroughly enjoyable.

Dr Simon Rennie

 

‘The Lancashire Factory Girl’ – Exclusive New Faustus Track!

‘The Lancashire Factory Girl’ by Faustus

Well, as promised, here is another exclusve track from Faustus setting to music original poetry discovered during our research. The poem it comes from was published in the Preston Chronicle in the winter of 1862-63 (29/11/1862) – the harshest season in terms of social and economic hardship during the whole of the Cotton Famine. This is an important context – during this period half of the population of Preston was receiving official Famine relief.

The poem relates, in traditional ballad meter, the story of a young woman made unemployed by the factory closures being forced to sell her possessions one by one in order simply to survive. The way the poem is framed each of these possessions represents a gift from members of her family who have all succumbed to the famine. By the end of the text the young woman notes that she has at least retained her ‘reputation’ or ‘virtue’.

Poems such as these, while following the Victorian fashion for sentimental narratives, clearly serve the purpose of raising the consciousness of readers as to the true cost of the economic deprivation on poor families in the region. There is an implicit appeal for charity, for aid, and really just for work. For us, one hundred and fifty years later, the work functions as a unique window on not just the kinds of actions and behaviours which resulted from the crisis, but on how these were described to people within the region.

As with the previous track, we cannot thank Faustus enough for the work they have done bringing this wonderful text to life. That the author of this poem – ‘H. M.’ as they sign themselves – is actually the factory girl in question, is unlikely, but I was very moved by this piece when I first found it over a year ago. Listening to Faustus’s beautiful rendition brought all of these emotions back and I think this is an extraordinary collaboration between a long-dead anonymous Victorian poet and a phenomenally talented group of musicians.

Dr Simon Rennie

‘Cotton Lords’ – New Faustus Track!

We are delighted to release a brand new track from our musical partners in the Lancashire Cotton Famine Poetry project, Faustus. The group have been working on setting some of the texts we have recovered and have produced a fantastic arrangement of this fascinating piece, ‘Cotton Lords’.

The poem was discovered in Blackburn Central Library and was originally published in the Blackburn Times on July 2nd 1864. Actually ‘published’ is not the whole story because the piece appeared in an editorial comment about the kind of poetry that the editors would not publish. In a very real sense, this is the one that got away. It has often been noted that there is not as much anger in Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry as one might expect, and this example perhaps suggests that there was angry poetry written, but it just didn’t get published.

The poem is intensely political and demands that the industrialists who have made money from the workers in the past have a responsibility to feed those workers when work dries up. The line ‘food’s conducive to their health’ is wonderfully sarcastic and a great example of poetic understatement (‘litotes’, to get technical). The last stanza is particularly interesting in terms of fears about female morality in the face of economic deprivation. The poem was original titled ‘Food or Work’ but we agree with Faustus that ‘Cotton Lords’ works better as a song title.

 

Cotton lords! Lords of creation,

Feed the slaves which made your wealth;

Is not this a Christian nation?

Food’s conducive to their health.

 

Tho’ you shut your factory gates,

Sell your cotton, stop each loom;

Tho’ war is raging in the States,

The cotton tree twice yearly bloom.

 

The time will come when you’ll be buying

Cotton for to work each slave;

Food or work for they are dying,

Save them from an early grave.

 

Save the English maiden’s beauty,

Keep them from immoral crime;

Those that has, it is their duty,

For to help at such a time.

There will be more exclusive tracks from Faustus on this site in the future so keep an eye (ear) out for that. But for now sit back and listen to Lancastrian anger transmitted across the centuries via Britain’s premier traditional music trio.

Dr Simon Rennie

 

 

 

 

Back To School (Kind of!)

This Monday we had another exciting project event – our first meeting with schoolteachers from across Lancashire, who we hope will get involved with their students in finding Cotton Famine Poetry.
We were very lucky to be able to hold this event at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum, thanks to the museum’s helpful staff and to Jessica Forshaw of Lancashire County Council’s Heritage Learning team, who facilitated the event. Jessica gave us a fascinating whistle-stop tour of the museum’s collections at the start of the event, taking us on a journey through the history of cotton production in Lancashire. This was really helpful for us, as it situated the Cotton Famine and the people it affected in a much broader historical context.
Brian, Simon, and I introduced the project, explaining what Cotton Famine Poetry is and how we find it. This lead to very productive discussion with the teachers, as well as Jessica and a representative of Lancashire Libraries who kindly assisted with library-related queries. We were absolutely thrilled with the level of enthusiasm about the project, and gained some really useful insights into how we can help teachers to get involved. It was a really fun event, and will hopefully lead to some of Lancashire’s school students playing a really vital role in uncovering poetry in their own local area.

Simon presents some of the poetry we’ve found.

If you work in a school in Lancashire or Greater Manchester and would like to get involved, please do get in touch with us. We are also always happy to hear from groups that would like us to do an event in their area.
If you don’t already, please also follow our social media channels for regular updates – sometimes with poems!
Dr Ruth Mather.

Project Launch

We’re officially launched!

Last weekend, we were delighted to be able to tell members of the public (who braved the miserable weather to join us at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford) about the project and to treat them to a fantastic performance by our project partner Jennifer Reid.

Simon started proceedings with an outline of the project, explaining the historical background as well as how he first encountered the poetry of the Cotton Famine thanks to BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time.  He also gave us a couple of brief readings, including Williffe Cunliam’s fantastic ‘Settlin’ Th’ War’, a fabulous satirical poem in dialect, which mocks the Burnley locals who stood around discussing the state of affairs in America wishing they’d “hurry up, un settle th’ war.” It’s a great poem to highlight the way that the Cotton Famine was a local crisis caused by global events, since Cunliam shows how well-versed Lancastrian people were in the news from America, and situates them in a very local place (Nuttall’s Corner) as they comment on issues over which they had little control. Williffe Cunliam is also a previously uncelebrated (perhaps unknown?) poet, but Simon has been able to trace a William Cunliffe in Burnley who may well fit the bill of our pseudonymous author. This is one of the really exciting elements of the project – the potential to discover poems and poets who deserve much greater recognition and to bring them to wider public attention.

After Simon had finished up with a summary of our planned collaboration with Lancashire schools, I took over to offer more detail on the process of finding the poems and preparing them for publication on our database. I demonstrated some of the difficulties we encounter, particularly where the quality of microfilm images or of the original newspapers themselves makes reading difficult or even impossible. Though the archivists and librarians who look after the newspaper collections we use work hard to preserve them, some damage has occurred before the items were archived, and both newspaper and microfilm necessarily degrade over time. We hope that by making as much of the poetry as possible available – as fragments if necessary – we can help to ensure that they continue to survive in spite of this, and remain accessible for as many people as possible. I finished my talk by explaining the process of transcription and text markup that we use to prepare the poems for digitisation, which also helps us to analyse the poems and highlight their particular features.

After a quick break for brews and biscuits, we resumed with performances of the poems by ‘the pre-eminent broadside balladress of the Manchester region’, Jennifer Reid. Jennifer really brings the poems to life with lively renditions that really demonstrate the way dialect poets animated different characters and found humour even in bleak situations. In the days before TV or radio, these kind of performed poems and songs would have provided much-needed entertainment in working-class communities, and transferred a knowledge of poetry beyond those who were literate to their family and friends, so we love being able to recreate this performative aspect. Jennifer is also a mine of knowledge on Lancashire dialect and ballad traditions, with a vast repertoire of local songs at her disposal – if you do get chance to see her perform, we highly recommend you go along!

We’d like to offer huge thanks to the Working Class Movement Library for hosting us and for providing refreshments, as well as to everyone who came along and took such interest in the project. We hope to do many more events over the coming months, so please do get in touch if you are interested in hosting a talk about the project. For news on upcoming events, please follow us on social media (links below) or drop us a line to be added to our forthcoming email list.

Dr Ruth Mather

https://twitter.com/CottonPoetry

https://www.facebook.com/cottonfaminepoetry/

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Project Partners

 

 Chetham’s Library Workshop, April 22nd 2016

Project Partners

A vital part of a large-scale project like this is its associations with non-academic partners. These individuals and institutions perform different roles in conjunction with the activities of the academic team (myself, Professor Maidment, and Dr Mather), enabling the project to function in itself and to operate as an outward-facing entity. Some partners will provide space for events and important outlets for dedicated publicity, some will provide links with schools to maximise the educational potential of the project, and still others engage with the artistic and performative aspects of the material we are uncovering.

On the 22nd of April 2016, some time before AHRC funding was awarded for the project, Professor Maidment and myself hosted an all-day workshop funded by Exeter University’s College of Humanities Link Fund on the potential of research into Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry. The workshop was held in the medieval space of Chetham’s Library in Manchester, which has become an important partner in the project. With both academic and non-academic input from participants, the workshop’s dual aims were to set out the objectives of the project, and to establish links with potential project partners. Academic papers were delivered by myself, Professor Maidment, Dr Andrew Hobbs (UCLAN – an expert on nineteenth-century British newspaper poetry publication) and Professor Alan Rice (UCLAN – an expert on transatlantic discourse and the ‘black Atlantic’). There was also a sample performance of dialect poetry and song from Jennifer Reid. Also present were representatives from Lancashire County Council’s Museums Heritage Learning Service, the Elizabeth Gaskell Society, the Portico Library, and the Manchester Centre for Regional History (based at MMU). Also present were distinguished scholars and writers on working-class poetry, Dr Brian Hollingworth and Dr Mike Sanders (Manchester University). Discussion with partners centred on the way that this material can be disseminated to the public but also the role of the public, either through individuals or groups, in finding and collating the material. Further contacts were subsequently made with the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, the Elizabeth Gaskell House, and the traditional music ensemble, Faustus. Below I will briefly list the project’s partners and their roles, providing links to websites where appropriate:

 

Chetham’s Library – Possibly the oldest public library in continuous use in the English-speaking world, Chetham’s Library is a hidden architectural gem in the centre of Manchester. Karl Marx wrote some of his famous works there and the library holds many important local collections, including the recently acquired Eddie Cass Collection, which contains several Lancashire Cotton Famine novels. The library has supported the project since its inception and we will be hosting more events there.

http://library.chethams.com/

 

Elizabeth Gaskell Society – The Elizabeth Gaskell Society is devoted to the promotion of the works of that writer but is also very active in exploring the world and culture around her in the Manchester and Cheshire areas in the mid-C19th. Gaskell and her husband, William, were active in relief efforts for the famine and were deeply engaged in working-class contemporary culture – William was an expert on local dialects. I gave a talk on this project at the most recent AGM of the Society and will be giving another talk at the southwest branch in Bath next May. The society will be hosting events for us.

http://gaskellsociety.co.uk/

 

Elizabeth Gaskell House – Incredibly, the house where Elizabeth Gaskell and her family lived near the centre of Manchester for many years has survived extensive urban developments in the area and has been restored to its former glory as a literary museum and learning space. This is an amazing place to visit and I am lucky enough to be giving a talk there this coming September 20thhttp://elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/events/merikay-war-lancastrian-poetic-commentary-american-civil-war-cotton-famine/

http://elizabethgaskellhouse.co.uk/

 

Portico Library – Another hidden gem in the centre of Manchester, with its beautiful domed ceiling and original bookshelves, the Portico Library was where William Gaskell borrowed his books (and because women were not allowed to be members of this private library at that time, he got books for the whole family!). The Portico Library will be hosting events and we very much look forward to our further association with them.

http://www.theportico.org.uk/

 

Working Class Movement Library – The WCML in Salford is a vital centre for working-class literature and radical history based in the north of England. It regularly hosts events featuring labour historians and literature scholars both academic and amateur, and also many writers. They have an already existing strong association with our partner, Jennifer Reid, and we are hosting our first interactive Cotton Famine poetry event there (with Jennifer) on Saturday October 7th at 1pm.

http://www.wcml.org.uk/

 

Manchester Centre for Regional History – Although strictly speaking they are academic partners, Manchester Metropolitan University’s MCRH work to promote regional history study to academic and non-academic audiences. Through our main contact there, Dr Craig Horner, the Centre will provide space for seminar-style events dedicated to the project. The Centre is an important hub for historical regional enquiry and its journal publication, the Manchester Region History Review has contained writing by the leaders in the field (including our own professor Brian Maidment). I am particularly looking forward to renewing my acquaintance with MMU because I studied for my undergraduate degree there and lectured there for a while in the English department.

https://www2.mmu.ac.uk/hpp/mcrh/

 

Lancashire County Council’s Museums Heritage Learning Service – In conjunction with Jessica Forshaw, who represents LCC’s Heritage Learning, we will be designing projects which will enable Lancashire schoolchildren to undertake primary research. They will be able to participate in supervised searches for original Cotton Famine poetry which lies mostly unread in local newspapers in libraries around the region. They will then transcribe the poems and be credited with their discovery on the eventual database we are creating. This is one of the most exciting aspects of the project and we are very grateful to LCC, whose enthusiasm for the scheme was there right from the start. We will also be holding events in some of the amazing industrial spaces in the region, such as Helmshore Mill (http://www.visitlancashire.com/things-to-do/helmshore-mills-textile-museum-p7153)

http://www.lancashire.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/museums.aspx

 

Jennifer Reid – Jennifer is Manchester’s premier ballad singer and is a highly sought-after performer with an extensive knowledge of C19th working-class culture. Amongst other things, she has clog danced at the Venice Biennale (!), and appeared in many radio and TV programmes. As well as working with us in our events, Jennifer is also undertaking vital research into the links between Lancastrian and Bangladeshi industrial song. She will be setting some of the poems we find to song, especially those in Lancashire dialect. We feel very lucky to have her on board.

http://jenniferreid.weebly.com/

 

Faustus – Faustus are one of the most respected traditional music groups in the country, recently winning the prestigious German Record Critics Award and contributing to the staggering success of the folk musical The Transports. My first real association with the group (after being a fan for several years) came in October 2015 when I chatted to their violinist, Paul Sartin, after a gig in Exeter. This led to Faustus recording a setting of a Chartist poem, ‘Slaves’, which then went on to become something of a signature tune (my previous research was into the poetry of Chartism). Our association has continued and the group have worked on musical settings of some of the material we have found and will be recording them soon. We can’t wait. As soon as we hear them, you will.

http://www.faustusband.com/

 

Dr Simon Rennie

University of Exeter

Searching for Lancashire Cotton Famine Poetry

Searching for Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry, like any research based around identification, collation, and interpretation, is in equal measures exhausting and thrilling. Most examples of this kind of poetry are held in local newspaper archives, and because they were largely written by ordinary people in response to a particular historical event (these poems are, in this sense, ‘occasional’) they have remained ‘hidden’ there since they were published. The archives are kept for the most part in local libraries, and in most cases they are preserved on microfilm. For the researcher this means a seemingly endless parade of microfilm readers of varying quality and functionality which range from the relatively high-tech all-singing all-dancing flavour, to the kind of machine which would look comfortable in a 1970s episode of Dr Who. It also means the development of a dab hand at wheeling the film back and forth, either electronically or manually, depending on the reader. Of course, we are lucky that we are searching for poetry, which looks very different on the page from prose (surely one working definition of poetry) and so stands out from the millions of surrounding words in the newsprint. We are also lucky that many Victorian newspapers preferred to publish their poems in the same place on the page week in week out.

Legibility is an issue. We should be thankful that local authorities have funded the copying of rapidly decaying local historical newspapers and that we have these images, but the quality of reproduction is not always of the highest. Smudges, paper curls, folds, and slanted images are our sworn enemies, and sometimes we must battle these with our knowledge of Victorian diction and rhyme in order to fill in the gaps. And we should always remember that often, this is all we have. There are two myths which should be dispelled. The first is that this kind of material is being rapidly digitised by some benevolent literary body with endless financial and human resources, and the second is that the British Library holds copies of everything that was ever published. Neither of these are true and hence the preservation aspect of our work is particularly important. Every time one of these poems is converted into a digital file through Optical Character Recognition, or in the case of our illegibly smudged little friends, actually transcribed by hand into a digital text, I breathe a sigh of relief.

Of course, the pay-off for all this work is the kind of text I have provided an example of above, which was discovered by Francesca Howard, an intern who worked on this project early on. This piece was published in the Blackburn Standard on October 15th 1862 and explicitly comments on the ongoing American Civil war and calls for its immediate end, identifying it as the direct cause of the ‘distress’ in Lancashire, as well as its bloodshed and horrors. Its condemnation of ‘fratricide’ is strikingly even-handed, and there is no sense here of partisan support for the anti-slavery cause of the Union to which British workers were traditionally thought to be sympathetic. The poem is clearly pacifist in a religious manner, but the sixth stanza is striking in its outrage that the globalised trade in cotton has been interrupted by war. Tantalisingly for me, ‘J. R.’ could be the great Mancunian dialect poet and journalist of the time, Joseph Ramsbottom, but until we find the text in some kind of corroborating context, this is just speculation.

The next blog entry will detail some of the partners of the project who are helping us to bring these texts alive again in various ways. We are grateful to all of these individuals and institutions, but for the moment I will just leave you with links to the websites of two of the musical partners to the project, who will be working to set some of the texts to music, for live and recorded performance. More details will be forthcoming…

Faustus

http://jenniferreid.weebly.com/

 

Dr Simon Rennie

University of Exeter

 

More Blackburn Times

Last week, I returned to Blackburn Central Library to finish scouring the Blackburn Times for Cotton Famine poetry. As Simon mentioned in his post, our previous Blackburn visit was very productive, and my return visit didn’t disappoint. I am now in the process of going through more than 50 printouts from the Blackburn Times microfilm, exploring the various themes and transcribing the poems that haven’t printed very legibly. Transcribing can be a tricky task, given the small print size, and we are hoping that computer software will be able to do some of this work for us, but it is proving very useful in prompting me to look in depth at the poetry we’ve collected.

I started looking at the paper from the beginning of 1861. Though this was prior to the outbreak of the American Civil War, it revealed some of the difficulties that the cotton trade was already experiencing before the blockade of southern American ports stopped the supply of raw cotton. For example, a poem called ‘Those Who Have Money and Those Who Have Not’ contrasted the life experiences of rich and poor, highlighting the potential rifts between the working classes and their wealthier employers, while William Billington’s ‘Let Us Labor One and All’ was published in the context of strikes over pay reductions in Blackburn in early 1861. These poems suggest that all was not rosy between employers and employed prior to the severe shortages which followed.

The contrast between rich and poor remained a theme throughout 1861, with a poem by John Baron entitled ‘A Lay For the Poor’, published on November 2nd, railing at the injustice that ‘Those who live on the fruits of our toil’ managing comfortably while working people struggled. William Billington’s ‘The Cry of the Crowd’ (published May 10th, 1862) likewise wondered how workers who had brought their employers such wealth could be ‘cast aside as useless things’. Other poems were, however, rather less politicised. Some were passive, even despairing, in tone, such as W.A. Abram’s ‘Aspiration’ (November 1st, 1862), which expressed the ­­­narrator’s fear that death would arrive before the better days which workers hoped for.

One of the themes that has really stood out for me is the representation of home and family in the poems. This may be because my previous research looked at home, gender, and politics, but I couldn’t help but notice how frequently the poems referenced wives and babies in particular. Women and children were positioned as dependents, with the men as the primary workers, although one of the poems, entitled ‘The Lancashire Famine: A Contrast’ (January 17th, 1863), acknowledged that men and women, old and young, were all employed in the mills prior to the crisis. For the most part, though, the poems present men as the providers, troubled less for themselves than for their ‘weeping wives / And helpless offspring’, as David Little’s ‘The Voice of Want’ (August 16th, 1862) put it. Another recurrent image in the poems is the pawning of treasured household items, often those intimately related to family life or which suggest the respectability of the family. Items mentioned include Bibles, clocks, and a portrait of the narrator’s late mother, with items sometimes specifically described as marriage gifts. Hearths and beds, which symbolise both warmth and family life (as the heart of the home, and the marital bed), are also frequently referenced. One of the few dialect poems I’ve come across so far is by W.A. Abram, entitled ‘The Beddin’s Goan’ (November 29th, 1862), and narrated by a wife and mother who explains to her husband that the bedding needed to be pawned to pay rent, leaving the family without warmth and comfort as winter approaches. Although this is not dwelt upon in the poem, the landlord’s insistence that he ‘mut hev his brass’ again hints at class conflict, with a property owner refusing to take account of the crisis in which his impoverished tenants found themselves.

A final theme worth noting is that of the American Civil War, which is conspicuous by its absence from much of the material. The majority of the poetry relating to war is of a general character, usually deploring all war, as did William Billington’s ‘Bullets and Blood’ (October 18th, 1862). Those poems which relate specifically to the American Civil War are frequently taken from other publications, such as Punch. Two exceptions include Richard Rawcliffe’s original poem, ‘England and the American War’, published on October 24th 1863, and ‘Old Abraham, The Splitter’ by ‘A Joker’ (October 29th, 1864), which take very different positions on the war. The former calls on Britain to aid the North in ridding America of the ‘foul stain’ of slavery, while the latter mocks the idea that emancipation was the aim of the war, expressing scepticism regarding Lincoln’s pledge ‘The Negro’s chains to sever.’ Mary Ellison, in her book Support for Secession (1972), argues that many deprived Lancashire workers discounted the idea that the Civil War was about slavery, enabling them to support the restoration of trade with the South. I’m interested to see whether this is borne out in the poetry we find from the Cotton Famine poetry, if more writing specifically relating to the Civil War emerges.

I’ve been really pleased that the Blackburn Times has yielded so much fascinating detail, since, as Simon mentioned, I’m from the town myself. Scouring the microfilm, annotating, and transcribing the poetry has offered me a great introduction to the project, demonstrating just how much Cotton Famine poetry can tell us about a critical period in Lancashire’s history.

 

Dr Ruth Mather

University of Exeter

 

The Blackburn Standard

Although the database of Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry is yet to be populated, I thought I might give you a flavour of the kind of text we have been discovering in our research. The following poems were found during one of our digital trawls by a student intern, Francesca Hayward, who worked on the project last year:

The Blackburn Standard (Blackburn, England), Wednesday, October 15, 1862; Issue 1446. British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.

‘America’

I.

O Prince of Peace! how long, how long

Shall sin assert its pow’r,

And war its thousands brave and strong

In distant lands devour?

 

II.

For men at strife, O Lord, we pray,

Oh bid their contests cease;

Bid angry passions pass away,

And yield to thoughts of peace.

 

III.

 

No foreign hosts invade their soil,

No savage hordes they see!

Ready their sacred homes to spoil,

And crush their liberty.

 

IV.

But ’tis a fratricidal strife

Which angry brethren wage;

A brother takes a brother’s life,

And sons with sires engage.

 

V.

O Prince of Peace, but speak the word,

And man on slaughter bent

Will quickly sheath the blood-stain’d sword,

A humble penitent.

 

VI.

Why should the labour of the loom

So long suspended be?

And why should want o’erspread with gloom

The seats of industry?

 

VII.

Prosperity, O Lord, restore

To thousands in distress;

With peace and plenty evermore

All nations deign to bless.

 

VIII.

And in their midst, O Lord, be thou

All potentates above;

The Lord to whom all knees shall bow,

The God of peace and love.

September 1862.         J.R.

 

 

The Blackburn Standard (Blackburn, England), Wednesday, November 26, 1862; Issue 1452. British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.

The Lancashire Operatives’ Appeal’

By William Eaton.

Pray help us, we are starving;

None can our sufferings tell,

God only knows the anguish

That in our hearts doth dwell.

 

Pray help us, we are starving;

And cannot work obtain;

To go about a begging

Runs sore against the grain.

 

Pray help us, we are starving;

This we could bear alone,

But wives and children clemming

Would rend a heart of stone.

 

Pray help us, we are starving;

Our chattels one by one

We’ve had to sell to buy us food,

And now the last is gone.

 

Pray help us, we are starving;

Bare boards are our best beds,

And thankful are, if we on straw

Can rest our weary heads.

 

Pray help us, we are starving;

Home drives us to despair;

No cheerful voices greet us

When we now enter there.

 

Pray help us, we are starving;

To our country we apply,

She promptly must support us,

Or we shall droop and die.

 

Pray help us, we are starving;

Pray help us in our need;

Pray help us now and freely

And God will bless the deed.

Horwich, Nov., 1862.

 

The first poem is a fascinating example where a Lancashire writer addresses the cause of the Famine in the American Civil War. The language is slightly elevated, and the stanzas are numbered, as though they are ‘cantos’ rather than verses. This separates them and suggests that they in some sense stand in their own right. Despite these nods to high culture, the poem’s rhythm is actually ballad meter (four beats / three beats / four beats / three beats, or, to get technical, iambic tetrameter alternated with iambic trimeter), which is actually a popular form associated with song.

The second poem, ‘The Lancashire Operatives’ Appeal’, assumes a collective voice for Lancashire mill workers. It is an example of the kind of Lancashire Cotton Famine poem which serves as a direct appeal for charity. The style of verse here is simple and might easily be sung. This is down to the repetition of the first line and the easy meter, which is based on iambic trimeter.

Although digital searches proved profitable in the early months of the project we very soon found that we exhausted the newspapers which had been digitised. Vast amounts of newspaper pages remain to be searched and most of these are not held in the British Library but in local libraries across the Lancashire region. Although libraries do a good job in preserving local heritage material, the reality is that these texts are a long way from digitisation (and therefore real preservation) given the amount of funding available to the sector. We feel that, quite apart from our academic interest in these poems, we are helping to highlight the fact that treasures exist all around us, just waiting to be discovered.

Dr Simon Rennie

University of Exeter

The Blackburn Times

 

Well, the project really feels like it has started now. On Saturday (June 10th) I went to Blackburn Central Library with our new Postdoctoral Research Associate (PDRA), Dr Ruth Mather. We knew that they had microfilmed holdings of the Blackburn Times from the relevant years of 1861-65, and paper copies of the Northern Daily Telegraph. We did not get on to the latter but as it turned out we had plenty to get our teeth into with the former. As Ruth looked at the beginning of the run from 1861, I took the single year of 1864, and we began to scroll through the editions. The Blackburn Times was a Saturday paper and almost every single week there was a poem published. Of course many were about pretty flowers, and the innocent smiles of little children.

However, in the end we found more than 25 relevant poems which addressed the concerns of the Lancashire Cotton Famine from just over two years of newspaper copy, and this represents the richest seam yet in any of the Lancashire newspapers I have encountered. Not only that but the subject matter and tone of some of these poems were fascinating. For instance, there is a perception that Cotton Famine poetry is generally apolitical and tends to shy away from confrontational approaches in order (partly) to better appeal for charity; but we found examples of poetry that was sometimes angry, even radical, in its tone. The radical Chartist poet, Gerald Massey, was published more than once in this paper, and poems by presumably working-class contributors expressed their anger at the rich for allowing the conditions in which they suffered terrible economic deprivation. I found one poem where the contributor had signed him- or herself off as ‘STARVATION’.

As ever with this project, we only need to dig a little further for the story to become more complex and its implications to become more profound. All of these poems will eventually find themselves transcribed onto the database with attendant information so you will be able to read them for yourselves. They will be arranged in order of the towns they are most associated with so people from places like Blackburn, for instance, will be able to read for the first time in over 150 years what their working-class forebears wrote about this most fascinating period. I should add that Ruth had a particular investment in this search – she is a Blackburn lass herself! As you can imagine, she is keen to complete the search of the Blackburn Times, and move on to the Northern Daily Telegraph. She will be doing this next month.

Anyway, that’s enough for now. But keep checking in for future updates…

Dr Simon Rennie

University of Exeter