Th' Petched Shirt

One day, reight anenst aor smithy, -
T’other side o’th’ wattergate,
Hung sum cloas :- “Well! said Jone, “si’thi,
Yon’s well-petched, at ony rate.”
(Theer un owd petch’d shirt wur dangling,
Flopping clumsily o’th’ line,)
“Aw shud want yon petches mangling
Daon a bit if yon wur mine.”
“Mending ollus shows a sloven,
Bi th’ big petches cloated o’er,
Wheer it happens to be roven
Summot like a big barn door.
Steod o’ wi’ ther sizzers cutting
Aot wheere’er it’s bad un thin,
Un a gradely bit theer putting,
Just as if ‘twor woven in.”
“But,” said Jone, “naoh, mending’s saving;
Wives ut cannot mend and darn,
Si’thi, lad, ur not worth heving!-
Un ther’s sum tu praod tu larn.
Weel-petche’d things ur noa disgraces;
Poor men’s wives mun darn and mend;
Petches uz just like the plaisters
Ut they call the “Poor Man’s Friend.”
Un o’ wife ut’s good ut stitching,
Keeps owd cloas boath good un smart;
Un o’ lass ut’s ‘shamed o’ petching
Hezent got a gradely haort.
Better, far, than I’ debt running,
Weor o suit of petched cloas,
Better that, than chaps cum dunning,
Poking bills before thi’ nose.”
“Well,” aw said, “Jone, th’art a nailer,
Yet, aw welly think th’art reight:
Better mend than gi’ tu th’ tailor
Brass ut ow’t to goa fur meight.”

Title:Th' Petched Shirt

Author:Williffe Cunliam

Publication:Burnley Free Press And General Advertiser

Published in:Burnley

Date:20th June 1863

Keywords:dialect, gender, poverty, virtue, work


This thirty-six line poem is arranged in nine quatrains with alternating rhymes, although typical of Cunliam’s style (real name: William Cunliffe), the switches of address, conversational tone, and occasional exclamations disguise the artifice of the poem, and render it more conversational than song-like. Because of this it is sometimes difficult to identify a particular metre, although there is a general recourse to trochees (stress / unstress) – ‘Poor men’s / wives mun / darn and / mend’ – in something like a ballad metre with an extra syllable in every second line.

This poem is fascinating because it details the way that social conventions and perceptions of respectability amongst the labouring classes shifted by necessity during the Cotton Famine. The Distress itself is not referred to directly but the poem was published in Burnley during the period, and Cunliam is known to have written directly on the subject in other poems. Along with ‘Hoamly Chat’, another Cunliam piece, this explores its subject through dialogue between two ordinary people, and the reader is essentially encouraged to feel as if they are eavesdropping on a slice of everyday life. The conclusion which ‘Jone’* convinces her friend to accept is that the sight of mended clothes, far from being a source of social shame, shows resourcefulness and financial pragmatism. Against the real shame of unpaid bills, or the discomfort or danger of actual hunger, the ‘petched shirt’ is an indicator of an admirable attitude, at the very least the lesser of two evils.

- SR.

*See ‘Thenkful Jone’ by the same author.