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.