Author Archives: Michael Shaw

Robert Davidson, by Barbara Bell

Catriona Macdonald’s post, ‘Summer-time Serendipity’ (11 July 2016), highlighted the ways in which editors of Victorian anthologies selected materials which avoided any mention of politics. In particular she noted the six-volume Modern Scottish Minstrel (1855) edited by Rev. Charles Rogers and in Rogers’ treatment of a working-class poet from the Eastern Borders, Robert Davidson (1778-1855), it is possible to see him filleting out swathes of Davidson’s work to exclude not only political but also religious commentary to particular effect.

Davidson was a day labourer on the farms around Morebattle and through a long life probably never left the sight of the Scottish/English Border. He had a basic formal education, a strong non-conformist faith, a keen eye for the detail of rural lives and a shrewd sense of humour. Davidson self-published small collections of his work in 1811 (lost) and 1825 with a larger, more polished, edition, Leaves from a Peasant’s Cottage Drawer (1848) published at the behest of local philanthropists. It is this edition that Rogers seems to be working from. Whilst Rogers acknowledges that “[m]any of his poems are powerful, both in expression and sentiment; and several of his songs are worthy of a place in the national minstrelsy “(Vol.III,p.206) he selects for inclusion in the Modern Scottish Minstrel, three pieces, “Farewell to Caledonia”, “On visiting the scenes of early days” and “To wander lang in foreign lands”, all poems about emigration or the wanderer returned.

Davidson’s longer pieces such as “The Ordination”, the local humour of “The Gypsy’s Rant” and “The Constable’s Rant” or the quiet dignity of “The Shepherd’s Address to his Auld Dog” might not have suited Rogers, but the effect is to cast the rather narrow shade of a writer with a strong, sentimental, attachment to his country, but little interest in the grist of current events.
What is certain is that one piece, “The Song of the Patriotic Elector”, would not have fitted within Rogers’ overall plan for not only was it an acerbic assessment of political and religious corruption likely to offend Rev. Rogers but it also took as its form a popular entertainment phenomenon, the song “Jump Jim Crow” and the blackface performance of it by W.T. Rice, an American actor who brought his hugely successful act to Britain in 1836.

“The Song of the Patriotic Elector”
I’m an elector brave and bold, there’s none presumes to doubt:
The struggling parties of the state, I give them vote about;
I soon forsook the Radicals, because their cash was low,
And that’s enough to make me turn and dance Jim Crow.
‘Tis round about, and turn about, howe’er the wind may blow;
With Tories, Whigs, or Radicals, I’m still Jim Crow!

I thought the Whigs would lift me up, to catch a gauger’s name,
Or some snug berth, – but yet to me promotion never came.
They pledged and promised fair enough, but still perform’d but slow –
I turn’d me to the Tories next, and danced Jim Crow!
‘Tis round about, &c.

The Tory’s creed being sage and short, I learn’d it in a crack –
To bless the Corn-laws and the Kirk, and curse O’Connell black.
Our wildest war-cry is the Church, and that’s the note we blow
To make the Whigs start from the helm, and dance Jim Crow!
‘Tis round about, Etc.

But if the Tories can bestow nought on their friends but thanks,
Such pay will never make me dine, – I’ll soon desert their ranks.
My heart is sick with hope delay’d, and I have told them so;
I’ll turn me to the Whigs again, and jump Jim Crow!
‘Tis round about, Etc.

I’m none of those that are content with poverty and fame;
Like patriots now in modern days I mind my house at hame.
Wealth brings us fame, and brings us friends, and whiles disarms a foe,
And often makes the ills of life to dance Jim Crow!
‘Tis round about Etc

The remaining verses focused on corruption in the Kirk. Mention of O’Connell alongside Rice’s performance, places it around the mid 1830s when the song-and-dance was at the peak of its initial popularity and O’Connell’s agitation was bearing electoral fruit; however, it also demonstrates the complexities of context which can make political commentary tricky to unravel long after the event.

The first challenge for the contemporary reader is in associations conjured up by the name of the song. Challenging scholarship by W.T. Lhamon (1998) has revealed that the impact of Rice’s work on white working-class audiences, decades before the infamous ‘Jim Crow’ laws were enacted, had more to do with a shared appreciation by the poor of the traditional ‘trickster’ character, mocking and outwitting the ‘masters’, than with any particular stance on slavery. A Jim Crow’s Song Book was published in Newcastle (Fordyce: 1832-37?) which could easily have crossed the border.

Davidson, through his poetry and also his relationships with known anti-slavery campaigners, was clearly a voice for freedom and his poem not only utilises the popular song form, but also encompasses the doubled nature of the original stage performance. T.D. Rice, a white American actor, was performing in black-face, purporting to be what he was not in a capering caricature that echoes the cynical manoeuvres of the Elector who takes on the crude politicking of each party in turn.

1832 Playbill of Thomas D Rice as ‘Jim Crow’

Rice’s fakery is knowing, as paper-thin as the Elector’s commitment to party, and the cumulative impact of the familiar song-form and performance context set against the British subject matter is to create a distancing effect which challenges the reader to consider the political realities afresh.

In the end it’s plainly worth searching out poets’ lesser-known work. The multi-volumed Modern Scottish Minstrel was followed by a single volume selection, The Scottish Minstrel: The Songs of Scotland Subsequent to Burns in which Davidson’s contribution is further reduced to one song, ‘Farewell to Caledonia.’


Political Poetry and Dundee City Council – Erin Catriona Farley

During the 19th century, Dundee’s newspapers (like those of other Scottish cities) were studded with poems on national political matters, particularly around elections, and the acts which extended the franchise. However, the city also had a strong tradition of songs and poems focusing on local politics and specifically the affairs (and wrongdoings) of Dundee City Council.

“The Charge on the Common Good”, by the pseudonymous “A. Tammyson,” takes on an issue very familiar to satirists today: politicians’ expenses. The Provost’s allowance from council funds was doubled to £200 in 1868. The opening verses are:


Double it, double it,

Seize on the plunder;

Out of the Common Good

Vote the Twa Hunder.

“Forward, ye drouthy boys;

Fear not thy rant and noise;

Heed not the public gabble:

Let us be hospitable:

Vote the Twa Hunder.”


“Amen!” all the Council cried,

With jaws extended wide;

Visions of toddy-bowls,

Melting their flinty souls,

Make them knock under.

“Vote!” cried the Civic Chief;

Speeches are few and brief:

Theirs not to make a din,

Theirs but to vote the “tin”

Into the Provost’s “fin”

Goes the Twa Hunder.


Roast beef to right of them,

Veal pie to left of them,

Champagne in front of them,

Waiters in rear of them,

Gaping with wonder

To see how the custard,

The beef, bread and mustard,

The “brandies” and “toddies”

Slip into their bodies –

Good Lord, how they’re sweating;

There’s labour in eating

And drinking Twa Hunder!


A note accompanying the poem advises: “The above is respectfully dedicated by the author as a contribution to the next public readings in the Kinnaird Hall for the benefit of the Royal Infirmary – the Provost in the chair.” When the public were being asked to donate towards the upkeep of the hospital by the Provost himself, doubling his hospitality budget was never going to be a popular move. Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” being a very well-known poem, was a good option for parody, and here the heroism described in the original poem is contrasted with the Council’s very un-heroic deeds. The double meaning of ‘charge’ was also no doubt at the front of the poet’s mind.

The council are frequently portrayed as drunken, feckless and in the lap of luxury, a contrast to the people whose affairs they manage. “Ye Song of Ye Committee,” was published in the magazine The Piper O Dundee to commemorate the opening of the Burns statue in Albert Square in September 1880. The verse is in favour of both statue and celebration, but slips in a small dig:


The Provost and the Bailies a’

Will join us in oor glee, man;

For, what wi drinking halfs and hales,

They’re aye fit for a spree, man.


One of the challenges posed by poetry with a very local focus is contextualising it fully – nicknames which were obvious to contemporary readers can be very difficult to match to real individuals, and dates are often unclear for broadsides or pamphlets. The following song is one of several which were printed in an undated pamphlet, all set to well-known Scots tunes and all on council politics. For obvious reasons, this is probably the most frequently used tune for songs on Dundonian matters in the 19th century.


Bonny Dundee

Wha ettled to ding down our Guild Corporation?

Silly blind body! Why dinna ye see?

A ketteran bit callan, wha starved in the Hielands

Cam doon on a foray to Bonny Dundee.

Saw ye his bonnet, his hair stickin’ through it;

His wee tattered kiltie scarce coverin’ his knee:

Wha wad hae dreamed it, far less wad ha’e said it,

That he’d become ruler o’ bonny Dundee?


He first trock’d in brandy, syne gin and tobacco,

Sour trash o sma’ claret, and Gottenburg tea:

He ousted the Maxwells, the Thoms and Pitcairns,

And sae got the whip-hand o Bonnie Dundee.

He open’d up Crichton Street, Tay Street, and Castle Street,

Syne gat the stanes fae the famed Howkerie;

Sell’d himsel’ stances, grew rich, and his creatures

Set up o’er the natives o Bonnie Dundee.


The Harbour was chok’d up, neglected and ruin’d;

The Hospital fell as arose the pear-tree;

The streets were all miry, unguarded, not lighted,

And a’thing look’d dowie in Bonnie Dundee.

But joy is returnin’; the Harbour’s repairin’;

The Guildry hae roused them, and sae far are free;

The Trades are determined; the Burgesses steady, –

Success to their efforts for Bonnie Dundee!

(Dundee Central Library: A.C. Lamb Collection 433/11)


Judging by the events referred to in this booklet, it was written after the Dundee City Council reforms which took place in 1830 (though possibly before the first Reform Act in 1832, as this is not referenced.) The “ketteran bit callan” is Provost Alexander Riddoch, born in Comrie (hence linking him to caterans or ‘ketterans,’ cattle thieves or raiders who were active in Highland Perthshire.) He was Provost between the years of 1776-1819, alternating terms with his supporters. Riddoch’s refusal to implement many proposed mprovements, particularly in the harbour, made him extremely unpopular among Dundee’s Trades guildry and merchants, while radical groups in the town despaired of the council’s practice of self-election. In the early years of the 19th century, the Dundee Political Union was formed – a coalition of leading merchants and political reformers including Robert Rintoul, a newspaper editor who would later be arrested for his part in reform demonstrations in 1819. The pressure this group put on the council led to the establishment of an independent Harbour Commission in 1815, and ultimately to a restructuring of the council election process in 1830 – changes which would shortly be extended with the 1832 Reform Act. The DPU’s perhaps unlikely collaboration of political and business interests effected real change in Dundee, and (at a time when waterfront developments are again at the top of the local agenda in Dundee) illustrates how important it is to consider how local action and allegiances work alongside the wider national, party-political picture.

Recording with Adam McNaughtan – Michael Shaw

Back in September, we were privileged enough to have a recording session with Adam McNaughton.  Adam is one of the leading authorities on Scottish folk music and a folk singer himself.  A product of the 60s folk revival, Adam has written several of his own songs and has undertaken a great deal of research on ‘The Poet’s Box’, a shop that was set up in Glasgow in the mid-nineteenth century to print off broadside songs and poems.  When he came along to our archives event at the National Library of Scotland in May, we invited him to perform some political songs c.1832-1918 and we were delighted when he accepted.

On 27 September, Adam and I met at Green Door Studios in Finnieston.  I had gone down early to introduce myself to one of the owners, Sam, but I managed to get the wrong door and walked in on a Belle & Sebastian rehearsal.  Oops!  I eventually found Sam though and Adam arrived.

Adam had prepared seven political songs for us, six from 1832-1918 and one of his own about the political reformer Thomas Muir.  He had also written an invaluable introduction to the songs, which we recorded.

The first song Adam performed is from the Edinburgh election of 1832, following the passing of the 1832 Reform Bill.  The song encourages the listener to get out and back the Whigs (who were the main party behind the Bill).  The subject of the second song is the Glasgow Clothlappers, who went on strike for a reduction in the working day from 12 hours to 10.  The third song is from a Glasgow by-election in 1837, which urges the electors to replace the Liberal, James Oswald, with another Liberal, John Dennistoun, and to reject the Tory candidate, Robert Menteith.  Like the second song, the fourth song concerns the short-time movement and focuses on ploughmen.  The fifth song is Adam’s own song on Thomas Muir of Huntershill (1765-1799), a Scottish reformer who was sentenced to transportation to Australia for sedition.  The sixth song is a famous pro-reform song, Dark Bonnymuir, which concerns the battle of Bonnymuir in 1820, where 19 radicals were arrested and transported.  The two leaders of the insurrection, Baird and Hardie, were executed.  The final song is one written by the Communist suffragette, Helen Crawfurd, which calls for the extension of the franchise to women.

Adam’s essay and all seven songs will be available to download from our website in due course – stay tuned!  For now, here is one of the songs we recorded, ‘Thomas Muir of Huntershill’.


And if you want to learn more about Thomas Muir, a new collection of essays about his life is being released this week: Thomas Muir of Huntershill: Essays for the Twenty First Century, ed. by Gerard Carruthers and Don Martin, featuring essays by Sir Tom Devine, Alex Salmond and many others.



Strains of Eden: Re-imagining History through Scottish Roots Music – Alan Dickson

Alan at Riverside Museum


I don’t know about you but I’ve never been able to square the circle between Scotland’s growing sense of identity and our fascination with Americana roots music. Witness the headline shows at Celtic Connections, such as Roddy Hart’s annual Roaming Roots Revue, and Radio Scotland’s recent pop-up radio station with the likes of Ricky Ross proclaiming all things Americana.

Or maybe it’s just me, and that it doesn’t really matter what music it is as long as it is good music? But I’ve long wondered about our own roots music, one that is rooted in the land back in eighteenth/nineteenth-century Scotland.

It was in this spirit that around three years ago I began independent research re-appraising our poetic song tradition, firstly at the Janey Buchan Political Song Collection, University of Glasgow, then at Caledonian University’s Special Collections, consulting relevant books, and online sources such as together with Chartist sources.

I discovered there were dissenting voices back then (not just Robert Burns) that questioned progress, but most collectors tended to ignore the more radical poems and songs.  I’ve managed to trace and re-work some of them, hopefully giving them a contemporary relevance and edge as Hamish Henderson so often encouraged us to do. In total there will be around 36 songs in the final collection, organised into five EPs. The first three EPs have already been produced with the help of a grant from the Alistair Hulett Memorial Trust.

The EPs though need a little explanation. When it came to selecting the songs I wanted to present – in the spirit of Patrick Geddes, the pioneering Scottish ecologist and town planner – an holistic view, remembering that songs arise from people’s natural environment. Each EP, therefore, is aligned generally to one of the five elements. So for example the first EP ‘This Land is Our Land’ is about protest (the fire element), the second EP ‘Traces of Freedom’ is about hope (the air element) and the third EP ‘The Enduring Land’ is about loss and exile (the water element).

Through the songs the project charts the people’s history dating back to the Lowland and Highland Clearances through to Chartist Times and agitation for land in the Highlands. It highlights particularly how democracy and land ownership are intertwined, and the need for land reform.

As well as depositing copies of the EPs in the Janey Buchan Political Song Collection and the British Library Sound Archive the songs are being made available as an online educational resource at

Short Bio

Originally from Leith, Alan Dickson studied land use planning at Dundee, then went onto train and then work in community education in and around Glasgow for over thirty years. He took voluntary redundancy from Glasgow Life in 2013 to concentrate on his music.

Burning Bishops: Bonfire Night and Reform Poetry – Michael Shaw

With Bonfire Night around the corner, and many straw Guys awaiting their fiery fate, there’s no better time to reflect on the role of the effigy in reform campaigning, and the representation of effigies in 1830s political poetry. Although Bonfire Night may now be considered a family-friendly evening of fireworks and shows (perhaps some belated dookin for apples), its roots are overtly political. Between 1604 and 1605, Guy Fawkes, an English Catholic, was part of the Gunpowder Plot that aimed to blow up Parliament House and overthrow the Protestant monarchy. A Scot, James VI and I, now led this monarchy (following the Union of the Crowns in 1603) and Fawkes is reported to have been bitterly anti-Scottish. On 5 November 1605, while guarding the explosives, Fawkes was captured and arrested, and bonfires were lit across London to celebrate the king’s survival. Soon, these bonfires became a form of annual commemoration to express Protestant monarchism and (sometimes) blatant anti-Catholicism: Bonfire Nights offered the perfect opportunity to make an example of a supposedly treacherous Catholic.

Political figures continue to be the subject of effigies on Bonfire Night in the UK. Bonfires in Lewes, East Sussex, for instance, are renowned for treating political figures to a ceremonial burning. David Cameron (accompanied by a pig) and Alex Salmond (with Nessie) are just two of Lewes’s recent political victims. Although these effigies can cause public controversy, organisers like to stress that they are satirical gestures that mock the powerful: they are not intended to advance particular parliamentary campaigns (so we are told, at least).

But the effigies created by reformers in the early 1830s were explicitly intended to back a specific political cause: they were designed to attack, threaten and undermine anti-reformers. Across the UK in this period, the public demand for a wider electoral franchise and reforms to the voting system was vocal and pervasive. This was marked in Scotland where the franchise was especially limited: in 1831, only 5,000 adult males were eligible to vote, when the total population of Scotland was nearly 2.4 million (by comparison, over 6,000 people had the vote in Bristol at that time). The opponents of the reform cause were widely held to be the Tories, who thwarted the advance of the Reform Bill on several occasions. But in 1831, it wasn’t just the Tories who were attacked by reformers: it was the bishops. The second Reform Bill was rejected by just 41 votes in the House of Lords in October 1831 and reformers highlighted that, if the 21 bishops who voted against the Bill had voted for it, the Bill would have passed. This understanding led to widespread public outrage against the bishops.

Consequently, on 5 November 1831, several effigies of bishops were set ablaze by reformers. Church of England bishops being cast into fires usually reserved for a Catholic traitor must have raised a fair few eyebrows and, unsurprisingly, the satirical poets of the 1830s, ever in pursuit of the shocking and offensive, were drawn to these effigies and even encouraged the burnings. Take this poem below, published in the Glasgow Chronicle on 11 November 1831. The poem is titled ‘New Chaunt’, and it was intended to be sung by the ‘Guy Faux’ Boys’ on 5 November 1831. We don’t know who wrote it but it is unlikely that the poet was Scottish: the poem is attributed to the Kent Herald so it was probably written by a local poet in Kent where several effigies of bishops were burnt. By publishing the poem in Scotland, the staunchly pro-reform Glasgow Chronicle subtly expressed its sympathy towards the poem’s proposals and its tone.

effigy copy

This poem is particularly scathing of the bishops. Their opposition to reform is described as ‘Clerical treason’ and the speaker of the poem joyfully imagines them going to hell, after they are destroyed by the reformers. The speaker even styles reformers as modern equivalents of Guy Fawkes, prepared to blow up the bishops in the House of Lords. For reformers in 1831, Bonfire Night offered an opportunity to identify with Guy Fawkes rather than condemn him (a fact that is all the more striking when we remember that Catholic emancipation had only passed two years previously). In the paragraph that precedes this poem, Fawkes is even described as ‘poor Guy’ and the author advocates replacing him with the figure of a bishop.

The effigies proposed here, and the ones that were burnt in Kent and other parts of the UK, were symbolic of overcoming anti-reformism, but they were also a visual threat, designed to intimidate the bishops and highlight just how loathed they had become. And there can be no doubt that the bishops would have paid attention to these gestures. In the week preceding 5 November 1831, pro-reform rioters had attacked and set light to the palace of Robert Gray, the Bishop of Bristol, causing significant damage. Although the bishops continued to oppose the Bill, the evident public unrest and violence led to heightened anxieties amongst the political class. In the summer of 1832, the Reform Bill passed and several historians maintain that the passing of the Bill was influential in averting revolution in Britain.

The fact that this ‘New Chaunt’ was intended to be sung at an event is instructive: like many verses that appeared in the poetry columns of the 1830s newspapers, they were not designed to be read and appreciated privately: they were designed to be memorised and recited as part of a collective experience, whether at a Bonfire Night, at a demonstration or in the living room. That was the important role that newspaper poetry played in this period: it was a means of not only distributing political messages but instilling them in the collective consciousness, and thus newspaper poetry (along with broadside poetry) became a key campaigning tool, for both the pro- and anti-reform movements.

It’s unlikely that many bishops will be treated to a ceremonial burning this year, but with political tensions running high over various issues, this may well be a memorable year for the Bonfire Night effigy.

Summer-time Serendipity – Catriona Macdonald



I like the word serendipity, and as I get older, instances of such become more common. Coincidences seem to emerge in direct proportion to age!

Anyway, this is just a short summer-time reflection on how personalities and poetry often intertwine in interesting ways.

In search of political poems and songs, I’ve recently been revisiting Paisley – a place I knew very well in the 1990s when undertaking my PhD. Access to historical materials has certainly improved over the years: the Heritage Centre in the Library on the High Street is a great place in which to work.

In early June, working through Robert Brown’s two volumes of Paisley Poets (1889), the approach and the format began to feel very familiar. Something I’d been reading recently was very similar: but could I put my finger on it? (As well as serendipity, age also nurtures forgetfulness!)

Got it! Another project which is occupying a lot of my time introduced me recently to Charles Rogers (1825-1890), founder of the Royal Historical Society. It was his Modern Scottish Minstrel (1855) which echoed with Brown: both offer brief biographies followed by a selection of poems. The MSM was Rogers’ attempt to celebrate the Scottish poetic tradition following Burns. In several volumes, he sought to rescue poets that seemed both inspired by Burns but also cloaked by the shadow of Burns’s posthumous following.

But the approach of both authors also went deeper than that. Brown regularly eschews printing the political poems of Paisley’s poets: so, we are denied James Paterson’s ‘Queen Caroline’, and when illustrating the work of Andrew Leiper (who died in Paisley poorhouse around 1862), Brown clarified that he would print only a selection ‘free from the extreme political and even seditious opinions held by him.’ (Leiper was a member of the Republican Club in the town.)

In like fashion, Rogers, when introducing the poetry of Alexander Rodger (1784-1846), a writer closely associated with the Reformers’ Gazette, notes: ‘Many of his poems, though abounding in humour, are disfigured by coarse political allusions.’

Victorian anthologisers ought to be thanked for their preservation of Scottish poetry in the nineteenth century when few scholars seemed interested in the phenomenon, but they did so selectively and in ways that tended towards the de-politicisation of the form.

Hence the need for this project!

Note: For more on Rogers, see Catriona M.M. Macdonald, ‘Rogue Element: Charles Rogers and the Scotching of British History’ in Gerard Carruthers and Colin Kidd, Literature and Union (OUP, forthcoming).

‘In Embro to the ploy’: The People’s Voice at the National Library of Scotland – Catriona M.M. Macdonald

On the 13th May, the National Library of Scotland hosted the first in our series of events relating to the People’s Voice project. The focus of our half-day workshop was on archival perspectives, and also on the extent to which different time periods and locales generate their own special challenges for the researcher and the archivist.


Kirstie Blair, in her presentation ‘Songs for the Million: Recovering Popular Verse Cultures’ highlighted the obstacles faced when locating and framing popular verse cultures, before turning her attention specifically to the publication history and circulation of the temperance poem, The Drunkard’s Raggit Wean: ‘A wee bit raggit laddie gangs wan’rin’ through the street…’

She identified versions of this work in broadsides, British and colonial newspapers and in edited collections (e.g. The Crystal Fount, 1858) before turning her attention to a range of franchise poems, including the following extract read at a franchise demonstration reported in the Hamilton Advertiser in 1884:


Let Tories laugh. They laugh who win:

And this you may be sure,

No Tory can your birthright keep –

Your victory is secure.


She ended her presentation by giving the audience some intriguing insights into her soon to be published work on the People’s Journal: we look forward to seeing the anthology when it appears in press later this year.

Erin Farely, a post-graduate student from the Univeristy of Stirling, and Michael Shaw, the People’s Voice Research Assistant then turned our attention to the importance of the local dimension of political poetry and song, and the role of trade societies and unions, blending insights from archival and material sources. It was particularly fascinating to see what the Lamb Collection from Dundee has to offer scholars of that city.

Turning our attention southwards, Robert Betteridge of the National Library of Scotland drew our focus tighter still: to a particular place (Edinburgh) and to two particular elections (1832 and by-election 1834) and to one particular candidate, James Aytoun. His lecture was fascinating in pointing to the traces of broadside literature found across a number of National Library collections. It made the team only too aware of the amount of archival ‘digging’ they will have to do!

Finally, David Goldie concluded the day by offering us food for thought, when it comes to dealing with materials relating to the early twentieth century. David, the co-editor of a recent anthology of Scottish war poetry, From the Line (ASLS, 2014) made a strong case for the limiting impact of parody in the political poetry of the early years of the twentieth century. How and where do we find an authentic voice, unmediated by popular expectation and the homogenising impact of mass education? Equally, ought we to look at this more positively, as confirmation that political poetry as a form had somehow come of age?

The enthusiasm of the audience (ably channelled by the chair-person, Gerry Carruthers) and the exciting insights offered by the speakers, was very encouraging, and the People’s Voice team would strongly urge – as they did on the day – anyone who has an interest in this area to get in touch with them to find out more about the project.

Poetic Commemorations of Thomas Muir – Prof Gerry Carruthers

Currently, with my co-editor Don Martin, I am preparing for publication a collection of essays on Thomas Muir (1765-99). In the introductory chapter I thought I would try a parallel exercise to something once undertaken by the great Scottish folksinger, Adam McNaughton. Having gone off in search of songs commemorating the ‘Scottish Father of Democracy’, Mr McNaughton could find very little and so wrote his own song, the rousing ‘Remember Thomas Muir of Huntershill’, which has been so memorably performed by Dick Gaughan and several others. The world has been spared my attempts at a poem on Muir, since, while not plentiful, poems and – also songs – about the man appear sporadically through the 1790s and into the mid part of the 19th century. Muir is written about in verse most famously by Robert Southey in his ‘To the Exiled Patriots’, a text much admired by S.T. Coleridge. Southey’s text was first published in 1794 in the radical London journal, Politics for the People, and so I thought I would explore that channel. I found that in 1794 also, Politics for the People printed two songs about Muir, ‘The New Vicar of Bray, or Wha Wants Me?’  and ‘A New Song’.  So there were songs early on and published in England. Several decades later, Muir also attracted the attention of Yorkshire Chartist, Ebenezer Elliott (1781-1849), who included his ‘Epitaph on Thomas Muir’, in his collection of poetry, Corn Law Rhymes (1831). Disinterred by Michael Shaw of The People’s Voice project is the anonymous text, ‘A Song, Political Martyrdom of Thomas Muir, Esq written 1837’ which is published in The Altar of Liberty (1842). My ongoing hypothesis is that after a first flush of admiration from the Romantics (Coleridge and Southey), it is in the Chartist period, and in England particularly, that Muir seems to capture the imagination in song and poetry. My published chapter will also examine Muir’s appearances in Scottish Literature, more often in fiction and drama rather than in poetry or song. The book of Muir essays will appear before The People’s Voice has run its course, and it will be intriguing to see what other poems and songs about Muir TPV might turn up, as well as from where these are located.

Poetry, Education and the Franchise in the Local Press – Prof Kirstie Blair

Hamilton Advertiser

In early May, I visited the Hamilton Town House Library to read the Hamilton Advertiser, an example of a successful mid-Victorian provincial newspaper which, under editor William Naismith, had developed a culture of supporting local poets. These famously included the miner-poet David Wingate, who first appeared in its columns as ‘Davie’ and would become one of the most highly regarded Scottish working-class writers of this period. Like most local Scottish newspapers in this period, the Hamilton Advertiser was Liberal in sympathy and pro-Reform. I hoped, then, that I would find a number of poems concerned with Reform in 1867 and 1884 in its active ‘Poet’s Corner’. But with the honourable exception of two 1880s poems by Peter Carmichael of Douglas, stationmaster and regular poetic contributor, the ‘Poet’s Corner’ was almost entirely silent on Reform, even when the rest of the paper, in the mid-1860s and early 1880s, featured lively debates on the issue.

The general absence of Reform poems from the ‘Poet’s Corner’, however, does not mean that the Hamilton Advertiser had nothing to say about poetry and reform. In 1865 and 1866, it made sure to discourage poets from submitting pro-Reform poems by mocking examples of these in the ‘Notices to Correspondents’ column. In common with such columns across the Scottish press, this specialized in publishing amusing extracts of poorly-written poems sent to the paper with satirical or encouraging – usually the former – editorial commentary. Arguably far more popular than the actual poetry columns, the ‘To Correspondents’ sections of the local press were avidly read by aspiring poets as guides to editorial policy. On 11 November 1865, in ‘Notices to Correspondents’, the editor of the Advertiser reproved the pseudonymous ‘Libertas’ and rejected his (or her) Reform poem:

‘We suspect, if the only wish of you and your friends in seeking to obtain the franchise for everybody is, that you may by that means be able to seize upon the other five points of what has been called the People’s Charter, you will not easily succeed in getting the sympathy and respect of Mr Gladstone’.

He then cited four verses of the rejected poem, which concludes (addressing Gladstone):


You’ve made the income tax grow wee –

Our sugar’s cheap, and so’s our tea,

To a’ the world our trade is free

To buy or barter;

But a’e thing mair ye yet maun gi’e,

And that’s the Charter.


I wish that ye wad only please

To get us a’ the great franchise,

The ither points we then could seize

O’ that great law,

That would give freedom, wealth, and ease

To ane and a’. (11 November 1865, p.2)


The effect of the editorial put-down in the headnote is to suggest that ‘Libertas’ is politically naïve, and that the Advertiser is also lacking in ‘sympathy and respect’ for poets who retain their loyalty to Chartism. Readers are expected to share the editor’s sardonic stance on the poem, not to agree with its sentiments. Yet the fact that the editor included the poem, rather than simply dismissing it, allows us to see that at least some readers of the Advertiser did connect Reform in the 1860s to the Chartist ideals of the 1830s and 1840s, and that Chartism was still an active force in the area.

Similarly, just over a year later, on 3 November 1866, ‘Notices to Correspondents’ printed the most striking pro-Reform poem found in the Advertiser, this time by ‘Liberty’, with the note:

‘Your poem is not remarkable for poetic beauty or grammatical accuracy, but perhaps you think learning is as little needed for the writing of poetry as you think it is for exercising the franchise’.

The poem, in entirety, then follows:


I tell you, sir, there’s many a man

As well as you on Nature’s plan,

Which have no education got,

And yet deserves to have a vote.

Some have wise thoughts within their head

Although they have not learned to read,

It needs not to have learned to write,

To see the wisdom of John Bright;

Thousands could vote for men like he

 Who could not work the Rule of Three.

The want of learning’s a pretence

To keep back men wi’ common sense.

Can men by arithmetic rules


Discern between wise men and fools!

I think it’s every man’s and woman’s

Right to elect the House of Commons.

Why do you give her no control

As well as him? – she has a soul,

And should have freedom of her will,

As you may learn from J. S. Mill;

Although I hold in detestation

His notions about education.

That man can’t vote by natural gumption,

I’m sure is an absurd assumption.

Empires were ruled by men, not fools,

Before there were such things as schools

Moses was wise – I doubt if he

Could have performed the Rule of Three;

And Nimrod, that great man of might,

Perhaps could neither read nor write.  (3 November 1866, p.2)


This poem is a direct intervention in the debate over whether the right to vote should depend on educational qualifications, and its own grammar and expression constitute a comment on this debate. The Advertiser had extensively discussed John Stuart Mill’s views (‘I regard it as wholly inadmissible that any person should participate I the suffrage, without being able to read, write, and, I will add, perform the common operations of arithmetic’ (‘Considerations on Representative Government’ (1861), chapter VIII)), and those of several other prominent commentators on the need for voters to meet particular educational standards, in an editorial of 13 January 1866, ‘Reform Projects’ (p. 2). (To be fair to Mill, he was advocating that universal free education was vital in achieving these criteria). That this poem is so obviously ‘uneducated’ (particularly in the line ‘Which have no education got’) invites the question of whether it is parody rather than the genuine product of an author with little formal education, though the editorial headnote suggests the latter. Even if the contemporary reader was expected to mock the poem and poet, it comes across as an impassioned defence of universal franchise, unusually radical in its sentiments.

These poems show that Reform verse can be found in unlikely places, and did not always find its way into print because the publisher supported its sentiments. The absence of political verse in the ‘Poet’s Corner’ of this newspaper, however, also shows us a link between poetry, education and the franchise that is not always apparent. For working people to gain the vote, as the Scottish provincial press continually emphasized, they needed to show that they had the intelligence to use it. What better way to display this than by producing culturally literate poems expressing approved sentiments? The Hamilton Advertiser’s editorial decision to publish and promote grammatically accurate, poetically beautiful, inspiring and improving poems by local working-class writers, on topics such as love and courtship, springtime, rural scenery, and domestic piety, is not apolitical. It is designed to show that working men and women possess a high degree of literacy, and would meet any franchise requirements of reading, writing and grammar. As a researcher on ‘The People’s Voice’, and a twenty-first century scholar, I would prefer to find poetry columns filled with lively election and franchise poetry by writers like ‘Liberty’ and ‘Libertas’. But it is important to remember that the very existence of a ‘Poet’s Corner’ and the critical forum of the ‘Notices to Correspondents’, in almost every local paper across Scotland, in itself had a significant relationship to the franchise debate.

Telling Stories by Matt Hill (Quiet Loner)

In anticipation of his performance of ‘The Battle of the Ballot’, as part of the Manchester Histories Festival, we asked the People’s History Museum’s songwriter in residence Matt Hill (Quiet Loner) to reflect on his experiences of working with franchise poems.


Peterloo Banner, 1819

As newly appointed ‘songwriter-in-residence’ at the People’s History Museum my job is to interpret the museum’s collection through songs and in doing so increase public engagement with the collection. There are so many stories within the museum but I’ve started by looking at the history of ‘universal suffrage’ and how we all came to get a vote in 1928.

Writing songs is an unpredictable process, some come quickly in a matter of minutes, others need to be laboured on for weeks and months. Sometimes the ideas dry up and you’re left waiting for inspiration to strike. So in order to get my creative juices flowing, I’ve been reading as much as I can about the people and events, especially eye witness and first hand accounts. I’ve also fixated on objects within the collection and tried to unravel their stories.

One song called ‘Banners held high’ is about a group of reformers marching from Rochdale into Manchester to take part in a meeting that would tragically end in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. I read an eyewitness account by Samuel Bamford who led the march and he explained how important the banners were to them. The only surviving banner from this march is blue and gold and I took the slogans as my starting point. This became the chorus of the song –


“Liberty, Unity, Suffrage for all

These are our colours as wide as they’re tall

Gold of the sun and the blue of the sky

Sewn on our silks with our banners held high”


I’ve since taken inspiration from an old desk that Thomas Paine wrote upon, from sabres belonging to the Manchester Yeomanry at Peterloo, from old prints of mass Chartist meetings and from satirical anti-Suffragette postcards.

The fight for the right to vote is such an epic story with so many twists and turns and I’ve just an hour to tell it. But I hope that the stories contained in the songs will inspire people to come to the People’s History Museum and explore the collection themselves. There is so much from our shared past that can inspire and lead us today.

You can find out more about the Museum songwriter residency at Matt’s blog

His performance of The Battle for the Ballot premières as part of Manchester Histories Festival on June 4th.