Th' Petched Shirt
Title:Th' Petched Shirt
Publication:Burnley Free Press And General Advertiser
Date:20th June 1863
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.
*See ‘Thenkful Jone’ by the same author.