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Maxine Peake pays tribute to cultured Victorian rebels

29 Apr 2010

Acclaimed actress Maxine Peake is to pay tribute to the working class poets who published hundreds of poems in a Chartist newspaper more than 160 years ago, by performing their work.

Maxine Peake
Maxine Peake

The star of Shameless, Dinner ladies and Early Doors will join Chartist influenced choir Corista and Senior Lecturer Dr Michael Sanders from The University of Manchester, who will talk about the Chartists in a public lecture.

The free event, organised with the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, is the first  Frow Memorial Lecture in honour of the library's founders Eddie and Ruth Frow.

Dr Sanders will discuss the poetry column of the Northern Star, which printed over 1,000 poems between 1838 and 1852 and discussed in his book, the Poetry of Chartism: Politics, Aesthetics, History published by Cambridge University Press last year.

According to Dr Sanders the poems provide a forgotten record of what life was like in the decade known as the ‘Hungry ‘Forties’, as well showing how  poetry was once central to working-class communities.

He said: “The sheer volume of poetry produced by rank and file Chartists literally forced the poetry column from the margins to the centre of the paper.

“Moreover, with a peak circulation of 50,000 and a readership of around one million, these writers had the largest audience of any Victorian poet.”

He added: “These poems show us that poetry was once central to the way working-class communities expressed themselves both politically and otherwise.

“It’s amazing that ordinary men and women who might have been working 12 hour shifts also took the trouble to write poetry and send it to a newspaper, even risking brutal rejections from the editor.

“The creative, cultural energy of Chartism stands in sharp contrast to the sometimes philistine nature of the contemporary Labour Movement.”

Margaret Cohen, Chair of the Library's trustees said: “The Working Class Movement Library is a unique collection capturing the stories and struggles of ordinary people’s efforts to improve their world.

“Working people have always struggled to get their voices heard.”

“It is fitting that the first Frow Memorial Lecture is on Chartist poetry, which was enthusiastically collected by the library’s founders Eddie and Ruth Frow and on which they lectured and wrote extensively’.”

Who were the Chartists?
The Chartists fought for the “People’s Charter” of 1938 which comprised six demands, five of which were adopted. Although the Chartist movement petered out towards the end of the 1840s, its aims were taken on by others. The Charter demanded:

  • Equal electoral districts.
  • Abolition of the property qualifications for MPs
  • Universal manhood suffrage
  • Vote by secret ballot
  • The payment of MPs
  • Annual parliaments, which was not adopted

Poets who published in the Northern Star
“a factory lass from Stalybridge”
She apologised for the her badly written style but  added:

“If I’d been taught better then better rhymes I would make.
“And I would have a better slice of their cake.”

Earnest Jones
A Chartist who was imprisoned for something he probably didn’t do. The legend is that he wrote his poems in blood as he wasn’t allowed to use pen and ink in prison.

Example of savage rebuttal of editor William Hill in 1838:
“W.M.,  A Worsbro’ Common Weaver, desires us to alter any word we think proper, or put in any new words that may be needed in his verses.

“The best thing we cant [sic] suggest to him is, to alter all the words, or, what might be still better, take them all away, and leave the paper blank (NS 15 December 1838: 4).

Example of a Chartist poem published in the Northern Star:
Iota, ‘Sonnet Devoted to Chartism III’ written in response to the ‘Newport Uprising’ of 1839

What fury maddened yonder mountain race,
And unto desperation drove their chiefs?
Was it their own severe heart-rending griefs,
Because th’oppressor ground the poor man’s face,
And want was likely, from the earth, to chase
Them and their offspring? Was wanton mischief’s power
Sufficient all their souls t’inspire
With fearful resolution to destroy
The guilty and the innocent by fire,
Or sword, or musket shot? Was it the joy
They hoped to realise by rapine’s gains
That urged them on with too industrious speed
To dare the execution of a deed
Which, failing, must result in death or chains?

Notes for editors

The event is at Conference Room, Old Fire Station, The Crescent, Salford, a couple of hundred yards from the Library on May 1 at 2pm. Admission is free.

The Library collection contains books, pamphlets, personal archives, photographs, plays, poetry, songs, banners, posters, badges, cartoons, journals, biographies, newspaper reports and more. They tell the story of Britain's working classes from the earliest days of industrialisation to the present day. It is open to the public on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. At other times visitors are welcome to make appointments to view or use the collection. Admission to the library is free. Visit for details.

Dr Sanders is available for comment.

Image is available please credit Manchester Central Library

For more details contact:
Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567