Working-class women poets were not unusual in the long nineteenth-century. Yet the number of working-class women who wrote about their work, and who produced openly political poems, is very small. This piece introduces a working-class woman writer who is virtually unknown to scholarship: Sarah Ann Robinson, a Lancashire weaver. She is a prime example of a newspaper poet whose writings were facilitated by the radical newspapers, designed for an audience of factory workers, in late Victorian Yorkshire and Lancashire. As I suggest here, Robinson’s career shows us how vital it was for women workers to be able to access a newspaper, which not only enabled but encouraged readers to submit verse about life on the factory floor.
Robinson’s most striking poems appear in the Labour and trades-union supporting Yorkshire Factory Times. In 1898, for instance, the Factory Times published a poem, signed ‘S. A. R., Padiham’, from the perspective of a woman factory weaver, on a bullying overlooker:
Do you think that because you’re a tackler that I
Should tremble before you with a tear in my eye?
Do you think that because I am little and weak
That a big swear from you should make my heart break.
Do you think when I ask you to look at my loom
I draw a deep sigh, as though meeting my doom
If to use tyranny, sir, you make it your rule –
Why, then, I just look upon you as a fool.
(‘A Reply (Written for an Overlooker a Certain Time Ago)’, 26 August 1898, 2)
Poor behaviour by ‘tacklers’, who repair the looms, was a common topic of discussion in the Factory Times. Since weavers were paid by the piece, tacklers had considerable power on the factory floor, because the weavers’ income relied on their quick and efficient mechanical repairs. Reports of tacklers who abused their position were frequent, including through what we would now call sexual abuse and harassment. This castigatory poem participated in this debate by calling on the overlooker to behave with more manly civility and threatening to report him to the master. It reflects the moral standards of the poetry and fiction in the Factory Times, which championed workers’ need to join a union in order to resist such bad behaviour by their superiors more effectively.
‘S. A. R.’ was a set of initials known to Factory Times readers. Sarah Ann Robinson of Padiham published at least twenty poems in the paper between 1895 and 1902. Verse by Victorian women factory poets usually leans towards the standard themes of women’s poetics favoured by the gatekeepers of culture, such as pastoral, elegy, love-poems, religious verse and verse on domestic themes. This is true of the poems by Robinson which appear elsewhere in the Burnley Express, where she published several early poems on such topics as ‘Summer’ (Burnley Express, 7 July 1895, 3) and Christian faith (‘Light on Earth’, Burnley Express, 11 August 1894, 3). The Factory Times, however, seems to have given her an opportunity to move away from such topics and to communicate the hardships and injustices of life in the weaving shed, to an understanding audience. Over half of her poems focus on first-person accounts of factory life. Many use technical language and describe situations specific to the textile industry, such as her several poems on ‘bad warps’:
For many long weeks have I mourned for its fate
And wished it were far, far away,
For mashes and pullbacks, mishaps and floats,
They troubled it every day.
Many a time have I turned with this beam
Until my poor fingers were sore;
Such dreadful complaints this warp it did own,
Makes weavers they want to give o’er.
(‘Last Lay of a Bad Warp’, 29 April 1898, 2)
A bad warp, with threads that tangled or broke, delayed the weaving process and threatened to damage the finished cloth. Both of these issues affected earnings: as Robinson says in this poem, this particular warp ‘crippled my pay’. As here, a number of her poems focus in detail on the day-to-day issues faced by weavers in the 1890s, including the requirement to mind several looms at once; being shut out of the factory for being a few minutes late for work; the constant threat of having pay docked, and the exhaustion and physical pain caused by hard, day-to-day manual labour. Her poems do focus on the importance of duty and the need for Christian resignation, in a way that is typical of Victorian factory verse. Yet they also make direct appeals for working people to support each other and for masters to be more mindful of their workers’ concerns. ‘The Voice of the Weaver’, for instance, imagines speaking out to an angry master about the poor quality of his cloth:
If he uses much cross language to me,
I’ll give him a bit of my mind;
Then maybe he’ll say it is the best way
To deal with his weavers more kind.
He must know that such terrible weaving as this
Is hastening us on to the grave;
I’ll tell him that I to please him will try –
But I don’t want to be his slave.
(15 November 1895, 2)
The language of Robinson’s verse is mostly informal (though unlike other Factory Times poets, she does not use dialect), and the form is often simple and even awkward. This ‘voice’ may reflect a lack of formal education but is also suited to the colloquial intent of the poem. Her first-person perspective reiterates the newspaper’s emphasis on the need for workers to stand up for their rights and to confront injustice. The poetry column – in a newspaper edited by at least two significant factory poets, Joseph Burgess and Ben Turner – explicitly set out to publish politicized work. ‘We are indebted to our readers for many poems on miscellaneous subjects, personal and otherwise’, the editors advised in 1892, but ‘It is quite impossible for us to find space for compositions on any other theme than that of Labour, work and workmen, or companion topics.’ Robinson’s poems are not at all atypical, but she is by far the most prominent woman poet in these years, and one of a very small group of named women who wrote verse or stories for the paper.
Who was Sarah Ann Robinson? Not all authors representing themselves as factory workers were ‘real’ factory workers, and no poem by a working-class author should ever be read as an unmediated and authentic account of real-life experience. In Robinson’s case, however, it is likely that her poetry does to some extent reflect on her life, since she is almost certainly the Sarah Ann Robinson born in Padiham, a Lancashire weaving town, in 1865, and recorded in the 1881 census as a ‘Cotton Weaver’. In 1901, she was still living at home and still working as a weaver. In 1911, she had married Frederick George Poulton of Manchester, a grocer or shopkeeper; her profession is still listed as ‘cotton weaver’. Frederick Poulton appears in the Burnley Express, in 1910-11, writing political letters on various topics, including letters which express support for Lloyd George, for women workers, and for the Co-operative Society. He also published a short story about the First World War. It is not impossible that he was a co-operative shopkeeper, and that he and Robinson knew each other through shared political interests.
We also have insight into Robinson’s politics through her contributions to Teddy Ashton’s Journal (which became the Northern Weekly). Run by the prolific author Charles Allen Clarke after he left the Cotton Factory Times (Teddy Ashton was one of his several pseudonyms, and he also contributed extensively to the Factory Times), this was another popular paper for factory workers. Robinson’s poems started appearing in the Northern Weekly from 1898. Though her poems and contributions to the children’s columns are less personal, and less concerned with industrial labour, than her work for the Factory Times, she had a closer relationship with the staff of the paper. She spoke at Northern Weekly annual summer picnics, and she was a leading light of the Padiham Northern Weekly debating club, which sometimes took place in her home. In December 1900, she is introduced to readers as ‘a Padiham young lady, unmarried. She has a tender sympathetic soul. Her songs of factory and weaving-shed life are based on her own experience.’ A description of one of the debating club meetings, from 8 November 1902, states that Robinson’s father was a former Chartist, suggesting a possible source for her political views. Paul Salveson, local historian and author of Clarke’s biography, also identifies her as part of Clarke’s circle and an activist for the Independent Labour Party.
Research and enquiries to date suggest that Robinson is not known to literary scholarship. This is most likely because she never collected her poems into a published volume. Like the majority of working-class poets of the long nineteenth century, newspaper columns were her favoured venue. Her Yorkshire Factory Times verse stands out from other factory poems by women, including her contemporary Ethel Carnie and her predecessor Ellen Johnston, because she actually describes her working life, and does not represent herself as a young romantic heroine but as an experienced career weaver, familiar with the ups and downs of her profession. Undoubtedly there are more writings by Robinson still to discover, in these newspapers and elsewhere, which would shed further light on her literary and political career, and on the relationship between radical newspapers and working-class women. Of all the outstanding and little-known writers collected by the ‘Piston, Pen & Press’ project, she may be the most exciting. How many more women workers, emerging into greater public prominence in the late nineteenth century, wrote literary works that we are still to find?
Thanks to Paul Salveson for his advice on tracing Robinson.
Kirstie Blair is a Chair in English Studies and the current Head of the School of Humanities at Strathclyde. Her latest book, Working Verse in Victorian Scotland: Poetry, Press, Community (OUP, 2019) recently won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. She is the Principal Investigator on the AHRC project ‘Piston, Pen & Press: Literary Cultures in the Industrial Workplace’ (www.pistonpenandpress.org, @PistonPen) and led development of three new free online courses on ‘Working Lives’ in the long nineteenth century, including at Futurelearn.