WRONGS AND RIGHTS
Title:WRONGS AND RIGHTS
Publication:Burnley Free Press and General Advertiser
Date:January 25th 1862
Keywords:class, politics, radicalism
The poem which this song is derived from is distinctive in several ways. Firstly, its lines are quite long and are composed broadly in the ‘dactylic’ meter – a three-beat metric foot that sounds almost like a waltz. But what is perhaps more unusual is the political anger expressed in this text. Its themes are oppression, tyranny, poverty, and exploitation, and the fact that it was published in a cotton mill town, Burnley, near the beginning of the Cotton Famine is extremely significant. Although the event of the economic ‘Distress’ is not directly referred to, the idea that the ‘master’ might ‘snatch’ the ‘hard-earned bread of toil’ is a characterisation that cannot help but be politically provocative at a time when mills are beginning to close and unemployment is bringing real hunger to the region. In several ways, this text resembles the revolutionary and reformist poetry of the Chartist generation of the 1840s. Calls for action against the ‘tyrants’ like those in the last two verses represent very rare sentiments for poetry published in newspapers during the 1860s. This poem is one of those included on Faustus's 'Cotton Lords' CD, and Saul Rose was particularly drawn to this text because he recognised that it expressed such a different attitude to the political situation than that represented by the majority of poetry from the region. It is certainly true that, as the example of ‘Food or Work’ (‘Cotton Lords’) illustrates, we can never really know the extent of political anger in the region, partly because where it emerged, it was usually suppressed.
Another unknown is whether this poem was written by a member of the working classes. As with so many newspaper poems from the time, all we have is the initials, in this case ‘W. C.’ There was another poem entitled ‘The Mill-hand’s Petition’ by a ‘W. C.’, which was published in 1861 and referred directly to the Famine and its causes. There is also the Burnley dialect poet ‘Williffe Cunliam’ (real name William Cunliffe), who published in the same newspaper from 1862. However, Cunliam’s poetry tended to be politically conservative, or at least not radical. It is still possible that they are one and the same poet. Perhaps Cunliam used different pen-names for different poetic tones. If this were the case then this is a genuine working-class radical poem from the Cotton Famine – William Cunliffe was a blacksmith. – SR