Lancashire’s forgotten famine poems rediscovered

Crooked Lane soup kitchen in Preston during the cotton famine of 1862-63

Crooked Lane soup kitchen in Preston during the cotton famine of 1862-63

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Long-forgotten poetry about some of Lancashire’s toughest times has been rediscovered.

Dr Simon Rennie, lecturer in Victorian Poetry at Exeter University was compelled to research the verses created about the Lancashire Cotton Famine from 1861 to 1865 after hearing about the phenomenon on a Radio 4 programme.

Crooked Lane soup kitchen in Preston during the cotton famine of 1862-63

Crooked Lane soup kitchen in Preston during the cotton famine of 1862-63

“This is my area, so it really stood out to me”, said the Manchester-born academic who previously worked in the textile industry for 20 years.

He added: “I tried to find some critical material on these poems and couldn’t, and although there were poems about the famine from established writers of the time, I struggled to find much else.”

At first working through online digitsied copies of old Lancashire newspapers such as the Preston Chronicle and the Burnley Free Press, and then travelling up north to scour archives, Dr Rennie rediscovered reems of literature written by Lancastrians.

He said: “Most newspapers had a poetry column in those days. It’s fascinating to read and some of it is very moving because a lot of it is about poverty.

An example of poetry from and about Lancashire's Cotton Famine

An example of poetry from and about Lancashire's Cotton Famine

“But there’s also an amusing side, as seen in a poem from Burnley called Settling Th’ War!, which tells the tale of people standing around in Burnley discussing how to sort out the war in America. To have it written in a Lancashire dialect is fascinating - it’s merging the global and local.”

Around 10 to 15 per cent of the poems seen by Dr Rennie are written in a phonetic dialect style. He is confident this is deliberate and not just the result of poor literacy of the time.

Dr Rennie is now hoping to carry out more research and will be applying for grant funding to start up a publicly-accessible database of the work.

He said: “Reconnecting with this work is vital. Lancashire needs to hear it’s own voice.”

An example of poetry from and about Lancashire's Cotton Famine

An example of poetry from and about Lancashire's Cotton Famine

Dr Simon Rennie of Exeter University

Dr Simon Rennie of Exeter University