‘The Poetry of North-east Coalminers in the Nineteenth Century’

Oliver Thomas, a second year Creative Writing and English Literature student, reports on the second of our Romanticism @ Edge Hill University Seminar Series 2016


Prof. John Goodridge’s lecture on English nineteenth-century north-eastern coalmining poetry offered a banquet for thought. Introduced by Steve Van Hagen, Goodridge unveiled what he described as one corner of the coal-mining poetry tradition, namely the north-eastern English corner. His lecture style engaged its audience wonderfully, thanks in no small part to passing round books written by the poets he discussed, in many cases printed in the era. Added to his enthusiastic readings (given with remarkable energy and what I thought was a fair attempt at a Geordie accent) it successfully engaged this undergraduate to the point of total immersion. To me, the broad and minute understanding Goodridge displayed of those miners, who I now understand to have been self-educated men of insight, along with the words of the mining poets themselves, was transporting.  I found my perception of coalmining poets, their intellectual and poetic abilities radically expanded both by the breadth of time Goodridge’s selection of poets covered, and by the evolution of their poetry itself, again conveyed through a selection featuring works by Skipsey, Armstrong and Tate, to name a few. Far from the dumb, dirty workmen of certain stereotypes, these poets revealed the north-eastern coalminers to be motivated, intellectually engaged, sensitive and thoughtful men, whose poetic abilities only increased with time and education.

The value of such lectures cannot be underestimated, as, like the iceberg, the visible advertised lecture is only a small of fraction of what such lectures really are. For undergraduate students, the chance to listen in to the Q and A sessions, and perhaps even partake, provides a two-fold learning experience. On the one hand, a student gets an exemplary lesson in phrasing complex questions (which came, in this case, from Van Hagen), and on the other, said student is able to add to their own ever-expanding contextual knowledge of the long nineteenth century and English poetry as a whole, in exploring those poets highlighted in these lectures.

goodridge2Finally, refreshments! Our Master of Nibbles (Dr. Andrew McInnes) laid on an excellent selection to stimulate laughter and long, complex conversation, of which there were equal amounts. With the warmth of such an informal tone, I found myself chatting to Dr. Goodridge about my favourite subjects (Tolkien’s work, the environment and, most recently, my belief that we need to revise the canon of Romantic poets) and, as ever, finding out much more than I could hope to from books or the internet. These conversations form the part of the lecture iceberg that no advertisement can convey and that make such lectures both engaging and enjoyable.


Soraya Atherton, a second year English Literature student, shares her views on Prof. John Goodridge’s lecture

Hosting the second of our Romanticism Lecture Series was Professor John Goodridge, of Nottingham Trent University, and his work: ‘The Poetry of North-East Coalminers of the Nineteenth Century’. The subject of poetry by coalminers was relatively unheard of among the majority of us students and we were very interested to learn about Romantic and Victorian poets in this profession. In addition to being introduced to poets such as Joseph Skipsey, Edward ‘Ned’ Corvan and Thomas Armstrong, to name a few, we learned about the hardships that these men endured and how they expressed themselves using this mode of writing. Goodridge furthered our understanding of poets working in coal-mines and we learned more about the context in which they wrote.

Firstly, Goodridge began his lecture with an analysis of Skipsey’s ‘Mother Wept’ and ‘Get Up!’ and explained how Skipsey’s story was one of self-education and notorious ambition. His verse expresses the hardships of working as a coal-miner and reflects on the different responses from his family and peers. It is evident that this was considered to be a terrible fate as it was common for men and boys to sustain injuries and deaths were recurrent.  Goodridge then proceeded to examine an extract from Corvan’s ‘The Caller’, a poem written about a ‘knocker-upper’ – a man officially employed to wake the workers each morning. Subsequently Professor Goodridge analysed Armstrong’s ‘Trimdon Grange Explosion’, one of several disaster poems in which sixty-nine workers were killed due to the dangerous conditions in the mines.

We learned that the tradition of self-representation for North-East labouring class poets was very powerful. Their poetry also reflects on the conflicting attitudes towards the working-class. Goodridge concluded his lecture with Alexander Barass’s ‘The Pitman’s Social Neet’ and Matthew Tate’s ‘The Claims of Labour’ and the latter poem commends the coalminers for their honourable work. Recognising these poets, who have been underexplored from the 18th Century to contemporary times, was thought-provoking. Through his analysis of each of his selected poems Goodridge explored themes such as the necessity to work in deplorable environments, fear of loss, auto-didacticism and the union of these men.

After the lecture, and the following questions and answers, we were able to discuss our interests in poetry more generally with Professor Goodridge. We talked more about labouring class poetry, how it is an understudied subject and what resources we can use to study this area of literature further. We also talked about how it would be fascinating to learn more about labouring class female poets of the Romantic period. This brought us to a discussion about the poetry we have studied recently on our Romanticism module – namely female poets such as Charlotte Smith, Felicia Hemans and Leticia Elizabeth Landan.

This was certainly a great evening with another fantastic guest lecturer. I would recommend everyone to attend future lectures in the Romanticism at Edge Hill University series.