The Peasants are Revolting: Samuel Holberry, Mary Cooper and the Sheffield Uprising

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It was an unusually cold Monday morning for early September when I, having found myself in Sheffield for the day, decided to see for myself the Victorian splendour of Sheffield General Cemetery. I set off in the magnificently tree-lined Nether Edge, a prosperous borough raised aloft in the southern part of the city, both looking down into the cavernous valleys of the urban sprawl and gazing away at the distant countryside of the city’s hill-studded environs. I made my way along a good number of such arboreal boulevards, espying a church or two amidst what seemed like  marshalled battalions of terraced dwellings, disappearing placidly into the horizon.

The cemetery itself is located in the neighbouring area of Sharrow, bordered by the aptly named Cemetery Road, along which I myself travelled, and edged on the other side by the indolent waters of the Porter Brook. I did not enter through the impressive neo-classical gatehouse, although, upon seeing this later, I was inevitably reminded of a Roman triumphal arch, a portal through which bodies would pass, overpowered by Death’s parading victory, in a final journey of silence. Rather, I myself passed through the so-called Egyptian Gate, gazed upon by twin ouroboroi – etymological tail-eaters – serpentine rings formed by coiled snakes with tails in their mouths, symbolising unity, eternity and a kind of cyclical balance. A winged sun surmounted the design, a pronounced symbol in the iconography of the Ancient Near East.

The site of the cemetery is spread across a quarried hillside, interspersed by a number of footpaths, both formal and informal, in what is now, I am told, a Grade II listed park. The presence of buildings manifestly influenced by Greek and Egyptian architectural styles attests to the grandeur and magnificence of the scope of the design – not merely a fine cemetery this, but a veritable Necropolis – a real life city of the dead.

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Opened in 1836, this Nonconformist cemetery holds over 87,000 burials, formerly serving as Victorian Sheffield’s main repository for the disposal of the dead. Rampant overcrowding, rife disease and paltry conditions in the churchyards of Sheffield had necessitated the construction of a burial site away from the dense congestion of the city itself. In 1834 a private enterprise, the Sheffield General Cemetery Company,’ was established with committee and shareholders, and the concern immediately began to gather funds for the project through public subscription. Their activities were reported in the press, as seen here in the Yorkshire Gazette of the 3rd of May 1834:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY.- A meeting

of the shareholders in this undertaking took place on Monday,

at the Cutlers’ Hall, T.A.Ward, Esq., in the chair. It

was stated, that £26,400 was already subscribed, but that

£25,000 would be amply sufficient to carry the object of the

society into effect. It was agreed, that the committee should

select a piece or several pieces of ground, and submit the choice

to a future meeting.

The requisite land was procured for £1900 and work soon commenced on the site. Designed by the Sheffield architect Samuel Worth and assisted by the horticulturalist Robert Marnock who superintended the layout, progress was rapid, aided considerably by the fact that the stone necessary for construction could be quarried from the very site itself. The first vault was sold on the 1st of January, 1836, and, amidst predictions of the cemetery’s imminent completion, the transaction was heralded with enthusiasm in the edition of the Sheffield Independent released on the following day:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY. – We understand

that the first and only finished family vault was sold

yesterday. It is calculated to contain about twenty coffins

in so many separate compartments, all neatly built with

stone and bricks. The ground and buildings are now

assuming a very imposing appearance, and it appears

probable that early in the Spring, the whole will be

completed.

As the year advanced and the business of the cemetery gathered momentum, directors of the cemetery were appointed and adverts placed for individuals to serve as employees, as seen here in the Sheffield Independent of the 28th May 1836, calling for a Sexton and Gatekeeper in residence:

SHEFFIELD GENERAL CEMETERY           

Wanted, a Steady, Active Man, who is married, to fill the Situations of SEXTON and GATEKEEPER, at the Sheffield General Cemetery. A Person who understands Gardening will be preferred. He will have a Residence, rent free, on the premises. Applications, with Testimonials of Character, addressed to the Directors of the Cemetery, must be presented at the Offices of Mr. JOHN WILLIAM SMITH, or Mr. GEORGE WELLS, Sheffield, on or before the 6th of June next. – Post letters to be paid.

The first burial was that of Mary Ann Fish, the wife of a book-keeper, having sadly succumbed to tuberculosis. Indeed, once ready to receive those to be interred, the cemetery had placed official advertisements in local newspapers. This extract, from the Sheffield Iris on the 9th of August 1836, announces the site’s readiness to bury the dead, a proclamation issued under the name of the Reverend William Thornhill Kidd of the Sheffield parish Eccleshall Bierlow:

Sheffield General Cemetery.

MINISTER AND REGISTRAR,

The Rev. William Thornhill Kidd.

This beautiful Place of Sepulture, whose picturesque

and architectural attractions are so well

known to the Inhabitants of this Town, arranged

upon a plan admirably adapted to the purposes for

which it was designed, IS NOW READY FOR

THE INTERMENT OF THE DEAD. Vaults of

almost every description and size, and finished in the

most complete manner, may, by an early Application,

be purchased upon reasonable terms; and Graves, in

various situations, the most open or the most secluded,

are also disposable to the choice of the Public.

In this place, in an alleyway lined with crooked tombstones, I stumbled across the final resting place of one Samuel Holberry, the name faintly familiar, the epitaph lengthy and full-hearted:

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SACRED

to the Memory of

SAMUEL HOLBERRY.

WHO AT THE EARLY AGE OF 27 DIED

IN YORK CASTLE, AFTER SUFFERING

AN IMPRISONMENT OF 2 YEARS AND 3

MONTHS, JUNE 21st, 1842.

FOR ADVOCATING WHAT TO HIM APPEARED

TO BE THE TRUE INTEREST OF THE PEOPLE OF

ENGLAND.

VANISH’D IS THE FEVERISH DEAM OF LIFE:-

THE RICH AND POOR FIND NO DISTINCTION HERE,

THE GREAT AND LOWLY END THEIR CARE AND STRIFE,

THE WELL BELOVED MAY HAVE AFFECTIONS TEAR.

BUT AT THE LAST, THE OPPRESSOR AND THE SLAVE

SHALL EQUAL STAND BEFORE THE BAR OF GOD;

OF HIM, WHO LIFE, AND HOPE, AND FREEDOM GAVE,

TO ALL THAT THRO’ THIS VALE OF TEARS HAVE TROD.

LET NONE THEN MURMUR ‘GAINST THE WISE DECREE,

THAT OPEN’D THE DOOR, AND SET THE CAPTIVE FREE.

ALSO OF SAMUEL JOHN, HIS SON WHO

DIED IN HIS INFANCY.

THIS TABLET WAS ERECTED BY HIS BEREFT WIDOW.

I wondered why I felt such a twinge of recognition upon scanning these words, and I pondered too about the identity of the grieving widow, nameless, her own exertions unmarked, compelled by injustice to erect this monument to her lost husband, an appeal to martyrdom and an attempt at post-mortem exoneration. A subsequent search brought my ailing memory back to life: Samuel Holberry, the Chartist activist, organiser of the Sheffield Uprising and champion of democracy. Grievously ill-treated at the end, his death stands as a testament to governmental misconduct and penal brutality in a demonstration of the barbaric treatment of one whose very existence was devoted to the advocation of political rights for the people. I vowed to look into his life and, in doing so, to attempt to restore the selfhood of that unnamed widow.

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Bust of Samuel Holberry (Photo by River Sheaf)

Samuel Holberry was born in the small village of Gamston, Nottinghamshire in 1814, and was baptised on the 21stof November in that same year. His father John was an agricultural labourer, working on the Duke of Newcastle’s estate, and had married his mother Martha Simpson on the 19th of December, 1793, in Grove, also in Nottinghamshire. Martha and John had nine children in total, of whom Samuel was the youngest. He grew up working on the land, watching over livestock and scaring off birds, jobs typical of child workers at the time, whilst receiving some basic schooling, before achieving the position of labourer like his father.

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‘Gamston Village and Church’ by Roger Reach is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Samuel, however, was restless and unsettled, making the decision in March 1832 to leave the area and enlist, following in the footsteps of his brother. Being only seventeen at the time, he was forced to lie about his age, joining the ranks of the 33rd infantry and subsequently serving in Ireland and Northampton. It was during his time in the latter that he became politically sensitive – the town was a bastion of radical activity and had considerable ties with the NUWC, The National Union of the Working Classes, a group comprising those who rejected the 1832 reform bill as unrepresentative of the rights of working people and retained links with the unions. Such political activism in Northampton came to be a preserve of the shoemakers with whom Samuel himself came to associate.

In April 1835, Samuel bought himself out the army, moving to Sheffield where he began working as a distiller, following a brief period as a barrel-maker. It was here that he met Mary Cooper, born in 1816 to John and Ann Cooper, labourers of Oakes Green, Attercliffe, Sheffield. Mary and Samuel soon established a relationship. In 1837 the pair were  separated, however, as Samuel was made out of work and spent some time in London, before returning to marry Mary on the 22nd of October in that same year, and settling in Sheffield. Despite joining the Sheffield Working Men’s Association towards the end of 1838, driven by his desire to extend the political rights enshrined within the aforementioned 1832 Reform Act, he did not yet announce himself as an active Chartist.

This latter movement had arisen from the People’s Charter, centring itself upon ‘a charter of rights for all,’ and, in particular, promoting mass enfranchisement. Authored mainly by William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association and introduced in Glasgow in May of 1838, it laid out six features of Chartist ideology deemed necessary for electoral reform: universal suffrage, no property qualification, annual parliaments, equal representation, payment of members and vote by secret ballot. Both Mary and her husband became increasingly involved in these Chartist aims and objectives and began to engage in a number of peaceful protests.

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‘The People’s Charter’ by the Working Men’s Association is licensed under CC by 2.0

The rejection of the Chartists’ strategy of moral resistance in 1839 after the failure of the above petition gave rise to a fractious leadership, riddled by division and dissent over the future of the movement. With some local leaders advocating a physical response, an initial uprising took place in Newport in Wales (the Newport Rising), but was swiftly suppressed, hamstrung by its own lack of proper planning. In this climate of insecurity and increasing anger, Samuel and Mary became involved in calls for more radical action, with Samuel spearheading proposals for an armed rebellion and appropriation of key settlements throughout the region. It was in this climate of discord and disunity that the Sheffield Rising was conceived, the event for which Samuel and Mary would become almost national celebrities.

With Samuel now in a leadership position alongside other prominent Chartists, more extreme plans began to be take shape. There was talk of seizing control of public buildings in Sheffield, namely the Town Hall and the Fortune Inn, with the aid of firepower and explosives. The houses of magistrates would also be torched. Before such proposals could come to fruition, however, the group was betrayed by the Rotherham landlord of the Station Inn, James Allen, on the 11th of January, 1840. Both Samuel and Mary, in addition to a number of their fellow activists, were arrested for conspiracy. Police officers Atcherly and Wilde had entered a dwelling owned by Samuel on Eyre Lane close to midnight, finding Holberry reclining in bed, fully clothed except for his stockinged feet, illuminated by the intermittent flickering of a bedside candle. According to the Northern Star of the 21st March 1840, the conversation proceeded as follows:

‘Are you one of the people called the Chartists?’ said Wilde.
‘Yes.’ replied Holberry.
‘This dagger is a deadly weapon – you surely would not take life with it?” said Atcherly.’
‘Yes; but I would in defence of the Charter, and to obtain liberty” replied Holberry.’

Whilst Samuel and his associates were held in custody, Mary was released, remaining tight-lipped throughout her interrogation. As Gammage (1969:173) notes, ‘Mrs. Holberry, a very interesting woman, was also arrested; but the evidence against her not being sufficient, she was discharged.’

Unrepentant, Samuel openly admitted his intentions to the police and swore that he would die for Chartist principles. Undeterred, the authorities admitted him for trial at Sheffield Assizes, charging Samuel with seditious conspiracy. A reporter for the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent of the 18th January 1840 described Samuel (and, elliptically, Mary in attendance) as follows:

Samuel Holberry: a very tall, well formed, and muscular young man, with much of the appearance and manner of an itinerant showman.

Mary Holberry: his wife.

Samuel’s importance both to the Chartists and the case itself can be seen in these opening remarks of the prosecuting Attorney General in the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette of the 20th March, 1840:

‘In regard to Holberry, it will be proved that he was a leader, and attended the class meetings; that he attended a meeting at a place called Fig Tree Lane, where the delegates used to attend, and that he attended likewise a meeting held in Lambert-Street, where the details of the plan were arranged. He was, I may say, the contriver of the scheme.’

During the course of the trial, the plans of Holberry and his associates to foment disorder by using force were laid bare. In this extract from the Northern Star on the 21st March, 1840, the testimony of Chartist Samuel Thompson revealed the extent of Holberry’s proposed charge:

‘He said we must all be at the Town Hall and the Tontine [Hotel] by two o’clock, as they must be the places to be first taken. The classes were to come up to take these places, one man first from every class, then two, and the whole body. Exactly as the clock struck two they were to rush into the Town Hall and Tontine, and take possession of them. Boardman said he could bring about fifty, and I said I could bring about fifty … If they got the Tontine, they were to shut the gates, and barricade them with the coaches inside. When they got into the Town Hall, one party was to occupy the floor, and the others were to go above. We then began to talk about the ‘cats’, the instruments to lame the horses, and it was proposed to throw them in Snig Hill, leading from the barracks, and they were to be thrown at the corner of the Town Hall and the Albion. Holberry said that he and eighty-three picked men were to go after the soldiers when they were called out and fire the straw chamber. One of them was to do it by climbing the spout and throwing a fire-ball in it. That, it was said, would set fire to the Riding School. The ones and twos who came up were to assassinate all the soldiers and watchmen they met … Holberry said in the event of their being baffled, they must ‘Moscow the town’.’

Unsurprisingly, it was as a result of his own candour as regards his offences that Samuel received a guilty verdict (along with twenty-nine others – six were acquitted) and he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Sent to the gaol at Northallerton, he was illegally placed upon the treadmill, a form of punishment banned by the government in 1902 forcing the prisoner to walk  for extremely lengthy periods as a means of powering equipment or producing some kind of energy. Samuel also underwent what was termed the ‘silent system,’ a combination of stringent diet, extended periods on the above machinery and solitary confinement.

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‘Prisoners Working At The Tread-wheel, And Others Exercising,’ by Henry Mayhew & John Binny is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Whilst confined in that place, Mary was only able to visit her husband once, afflicted by grief at the death of their only son in October 1840. Indeed, she had suffered a breakdown and was supported by the National Charter Association. She was, however, a continuous advocate on Samuel’s behalf and wrote a number of letters to him in prison, often enclosing care packages filled with requested items. In this epistle, held in the Sheffield Archives, Mary lists such articles, including here a comb and a brush and two stocking needles:

Indeed, during his incarceration, Samuel received many other letters from supporters and associates, of which fifteen (including that above) survive in the collection of the above-named Sheffield Archives.

Following Samuel’s move from Northallerton Gaol to the hospital at York castle in September 1841, his already fragile health seriously deteriorated. On the 21st of June 1842 he succumbed to inflammation of the liver, brought about by the devastating advance of tuberculosis. The appalling state of the conditions in which Samuel had been imprisoned was revealed in the aftermath of the furore surrounding his death, when the House of Commons requested copies of all the correspondence relating to the prisoner between the Home Secretary and the prison authorities. In  reading these dispatches, it is clear that those involved in his care were well-aware of Samuel’s disproportionate suffering. Such missives were published at length in the newspaper, as seen here in a selection from the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser of the 30th of July 1842:

Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated July 6, 1842, for a copy of all communications that have passed between the Secretary of State for the Home Department and the authorities of York Castle, from the beginning of September, 1841, to the present time, relative to the state of heath and death of Samuel Holberry.

Whitehall, 16th September, 1841

Gentlemen- Secretary Sir James Graham having deemed it expedient to give directions for the removal of Samuel Holberry from Northallerton Gaol to the York Castle, there to undergo the remaining term of his imprisonment, I am directed to request you to call upon the surgeon of the latter prison to pay constant and particular attention to the prisoner’s health, and to report theron to Sir James Graham from time to time.

I am, &c.,

(Signed) S.M.PHILLIPPS

The Visiting Magistrates of York Castle

[…]

Samuel Holberry, the Chartist prisoner in York Castle, is suffering from severe pain in the left side, the effect of chronic inflammation of the left lobe of the liver, extending to to [sic] the stomach, and, perhaps, the colon, which, from his having had former attacks, I believe to be organic disease. His digestion is very bad, and he is very weak; and I consider him to be in great danger. I am of an opinion that his symptoms have increased, and his health has been impaired, of late, by the length of the confinement, and the great anxiety of mind he appears to have suffered since his imprisonment.

(Signed)

                                                                                                                GEORGE CHAMPNEY.

Surgeon to the York Castle

7th June 1842.

York Castle, 21st June, 1842.

SIR, – As the gaoler of this prison is unavoidably absent at the Insolvent Sessions at Wakefield, I have to report the death of Samuel Holberry, the Chartist, who died this morning rather suddenly.

Such were the sympathies for his widow Mary Cooper in the aftermath of his death and such was the outrage at his fate, that a rousing call to obtain support for Mary was published in the Chartist Northern Star of the 16th July 1842, entitled ‘AN APPEAL TO THE CHARTISTS OF GREAT BRITAIN, IN BEHALF OF THE WIDOW OF SAMUEL HOLBERRY:’

BRETHREN.- We appeal to you in behalf of the widow of one of nature’s nobles, who has at last fallen a martyr for the rights and liberties of mankind. Samuel Holberry is no more, but oh could his dungeon walls find tongues to describe the anguish they have witnessed, the painful agony they endured, and the acute torture of his mind, when bursting the portals of a prison’s gloom, his soul left its clay tenement,without the kind assistance of a fond wife to minister to his wants, or to close his dying eyes. Who can pourtray [sic] the agony of his sufferings?…

Brethren, that wife he has left for your protection.

Sister democrats, do you do your duty. Your sister, though young in years, has drunk deeply of the cup of affliction. It is for you to administer the balm of consolation – to sympathise with the afflicted, and to comfort the heartbroken…

Sheffield has promptly and nobly come forward to assist in the good work, and to our townsmen we return our thanks for their hearty and generous sympathy so well proven upon this melancholy occasion. To the Chartists of York we also return our warmest thanks for their timely and patriotic aid, and to our brother democrats in other parts of the country who without waiting for this appeal have already commenced collecting monies for the support of Mrs Holberry. We have purchased the ground where the  remains of the martyr repose, and intend to erect a plain monument over the grave. To accomplish this, and secure for the widow a maintenance for the future, we expect the cooperation and assistance of every Chartist in the kingdom…’

The ensuing funeral on the 27th of June 1842 was a very public affair, attended by between 20,000 to 50,000 people who lined the route of the procession from Attercliffe all the way to Sheffield General Cemetery. The cortege was led by a band of musicians playing Pleyell’s German Hymn and festooned with a large black banner, on one side of which read ‘Thou shalt do no murder’ and on the other ‘Vengeance is mine, and I will repay it, saith the Lord.’ All the funeral trappings of an affluent send-off were present, most notably the elaborate hearse and the mourning coaches. On the name-plate of the coffin itself was the following inscription: ‘Samuel Holberry, died a martyr to the cause of democracy, June 21, 1842, aged 27.’

Once the line had reached the burial plot, a hymn composed especially for the occasion was sung, ‘Great God! Is this the patriot’s doom!’ by John Henry Bramwich, a Chartist hymn writer from Leicestershire:

Great God! Is this the patriot’s doom!

Shall they who dare defend the slave

Be hurled within a prison’s gloom,

To fit them for an early grave!

Shall victim after victim fall

A prey to cruel class-made laws?

Forbid it, Lord! on Thee we call,

Protect us, and defend our cause!

In vain we prayed the powers that be,

to burst the drooping captive’s chain;

But mercy, Lord, belongs to Thee,

For Thou hast freed him from all pain.

Is this the price of liberty!

Must martyrs fail to gain the prize?

Then be it so; we will be free,

Or all become a sacrifice.

Tho’ freedom mourns her murder’d son,

And weeping friends surround his bier;

Tho’ tears like mountain torrents run,

Our cause is watered by each tear.

Oh! may his fate cement the bond

That binds us to our glorious cause!

Raise, raise the cry, let all respond,

Justice, and pure and equal laws.

Those assembled were then addressed by George Harvey, a National Charter Association leader, in a speech which served as a call to arms, vowing that Chartists will ‘annihilate forever the blood-stained despotism which has slain its thousands of martyrs, and tens of thousands of patriots, and immolated at its shrine the lovers of liberty and truth.’ Samuel was also commemorated throughout the nation by local Chartist meetings, his sacrifice lauded and confirmed.

Samuel Holberry’s Sheffield legacy lives on. In 1998, the Holberry Cascades were named in his memory, located in the Peace Gardens next to the Town Hall.

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‘Holberry Cascades’ by Derek Harper is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This designation was also marked with a plaque, asserting that Holberry ‘gave his life for what he believed to be the true interest of the people of England – a democratic society that would guarantee freedom, equality and security for all.’ There could be no more fitting tribute to the struggle and activism of the man.

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‘Holberry Plaque, Peace Gardens, Sheffield’ by Chemical Engineer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As for his widow Mary Cooper, she continued to campaign alongside the movement until it was disbanded in the 1850s. She had remarried a widower, Charles Pearson, in 1845 who worked as a publican. Three children subsequently followed. The first was named Holberry in homage to Mary’s first husband, in what was also a powerful reminder of her own duty and sacrifice in pursuit of the Chartist cause.

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Bibliography

R. G. Gammage, History of the Chartist movement, 1837–1854, new edn. (1894), 173, 175, 213–16

R. Hutchins, ‘Holberry, Samuel (1814-1842)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), pp.

Coming Alive in the City of the Dead (Part 1 – ‘Wee Willie’ Miller)

What a lesson in the tawdriness of all our worldly wealth and earthly ambition does a visit to the old Necropolis afford.’

Glasgow Herald, 14th October 1892

On a balmy July afternoon, I found myself on the path meandering its way towards the summit of the Glaswegian Necropolis. Towering above the cathedral, this spectacular array of funerary monuments is a striking fixture in the skyline of the city. On this day, the weather was capricious and temperamental.  In one sphere of the sky, the clouds loomed low, glowering menacingly. Elsewhere, wispy cumuli drifted shapelessly across the cerulean heavens.

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Image by A Grave Announcement

Upon entry, I passed through a pair of gilded cast iron gates, a beautifully formal way to make one’s acquaintance with a Victorian cemetery.

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Image by A Grave Announcement

After crossing the so-called ‘Bridge of Sighs’ (designed by Glaswegian architect David Hamilton in 1833 in a homage to its Venetian namesake, and traversing the covered stream of the Molendinar Burn, colloquially known as ‘The Styx), scene of many a sombre funeral procession, I took the left path away from the façade of the imposing central archway that divides the route into its two branches. The hill began to ascend, a steep climb but not breathlessly so, the sinuous roaming of its path lined with a miscellany of sepulchral stones, and the layout, lacking a scrupulous and exacting blueprint, charmingly organic. More than 50,000 souls have found their final resting place in this location, and it is difficult not to feel like something of an intruder into their eternal peace when traversing these streets, bringing the land of the living to the city of the dead.

The foundation stone of the Necropolis was laid in 1826, its inaugural interment taking place in May 1833. This occasion was the burial of ‘the Jew Joseph Levy,’ a sixty-two year old quill merchant who had been struck down by cholera. The expanse chosen for the city of the dead had formerly been the Merchants’ Park, an area once bedecked with needled firs, and followed by the languid gestures of planted willows and elms. The transformation of this tract into a place of rest, proposed by John Strang, Chamberlain of the Merchants’ House, was entrusted to a competition launched to find the best design. The work of the winner, David Bryce, was amalgamated with that of four other entrants by the judges and George Mylne was appointed as Superintendent to oversee the execution of the proposed outline, a schematic inspired by the Parisian garden Necropolis Père Lachaise. This spirit of collaboration, of resources combined, can be felt in the eclectic conglomeration of the stone requiems to the dead that came to ordain the place, the finished product a visual representation of our own collective cultural memory, a history no longer merely peopled by the forgotten dead.

As I ambled along the track, my attention was drawn to a rather well-kept monument. Despite not serving as the largest or most imposing of the reliquaries, the obelisk seemed to loudly announce its presence. Its grey surface was speckled and pockmarked, like skin chapped by the wind. The man’s face carved in relief was quietly reflective, seeming to look away from the hill itself and gaze across Glasgow at the city he had left behind. The memorial was crowned by the engraved emblem of a harp and laurel wreath, Apolline tokens of creative endeavour, symbolising the man’s literary craft. Monumentalising a staunch Glaswegian, whose work has taken on global importance, resonating across the decades, in inspecting the monument it seemed as if I could hear the famous verses being spoken, that masterful Scotch dialect crying in the wind: Wee Willie Winkie runs though the town…

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Image by A Grave Announcement

I am speaking, of course, of William Miller, a literary giant, whose death, wretched and in penury, saw the man consigned to the oblivion of an unmarked grave in Glasgow’s Tollcross Cemetery, a state of affairs later rectified by his friends and admirers in financing this lapidary ode to the great man. The inscription reads:

To the Memory of William Miller

The Laureate of the Nursery

Author of Wee Willie Winkie

Born in Glasgow August 1810

Died 20 August 1872

Born in the Bridgegate area of Glasgow, a formerly prosperous merchant district then experiencing a slum-like decline, William Miller spent most of his formative years in the East End of the city, coming of age in the village of Parkhead. Plagued by ill health as an adolescent, he was unable to fulfil his aspiration of becoming a surgeon and settled instead for life as a wood-turner, undergoing an apprenticeship in that skill before achieving great expertise in the intricate craft of cabinet-making. As a youth, he published a number of pieces in various newspapers which, sadly, do not survive. His first poetic appearance was in Whistle Binkie: Stories for the Fireside, a compendium of songs edited by Mr David Robertson in 1841. It was the publication in this volume of the nursery song Wee Willie Winkie, however, the grumpy figure personifying sleep, that brought him fame and admiration, although at first it was received with mixed opinions by Robertson’s friends. To settle the dissent, he dispatched the manuscript to Mr Ballantine of Edinburgh (who had himself contributed much to the publication) who asserted, according to the Perthshire Advertiser on the 29th August 1872) that:

“There is not at this moment in the whole range of Scottish songs, anything more exquisite in its kind than that little Warlock of the Nursery, “Wee Willie Winkie.”

This achievement eventually commanded the attention of such literary connoisseurs as Lord Jeffrey, founder of the prestigious Edinburgh Review. Such notice notwithstanding, William Miller abnegated the kind of literary relationships which were based upon patronage, choosing to hone his craft at home when the honest labour of the day was done. Indeed, such was the hardship he underwent as a consequence of his trade that it was reported by the Glasgow Herald on the 6th February 1846 that the Countess of Selkirk, an admirer, had transferred to the poet the sum of two pounds following a period of ill-health in which he was unable to work:

“We learn that the Countess of Selkirk has transmitted to Mr David Robertson of this city, by the hands of the Rev.Mr Underwood of Kirkeudbright, the sum of £2, for behoof of William Miller, the author ofWee Willie Winkie,” &c.; her Ladyship having been impressed with a favourable opinion of the poet from having perused his Nursery Rhymes. Mr Miller is so much improved, that he is now able to pursue his occupation of a wood-turner.”

The widespread recognition of this talented literary craftsman all took place before William Miller had even published a collection of his works. In fact, this did not occur until 1863, when, prevailed upon by a number of friends, he circulated the volume Nursery Songs and other Poems, an enormously popular offering at the time. This treasure trove was dedicated ‘to Scottish mothers, Gentle and Semple…not fearing that, while in such keeping, they will ever be forgot.’ It included the original Scots version of ‘Wee Willie Winkie,’ a rhyme anglicised very soon after its publication:

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“Wee Willie Winkie” by Thoth, God of Thor is licensed under CC by 2.0

Wee Willie Winkie runs through the toon,

Up stairs and doon stairs, in his nicht-goon,

Tirling at the window, cryin’ at the lock,

Are the weans in their bed, for it’s now ten o’clock?

Hey, Willie Winkie, are ye coming ben?

The cat’s singing grey thrums to the sleeping hen,

The dog’s spelder’d on the floor, and disna gie a cheep,

But here’s a waukrife laddie that winna fa’ asleep.

Onything but sleep, you rogue, glow’ring like the mune,

Rattling in an airn jug wi’ an airn spoone,

Rumbling, tumbling round about, crawing like a cock,

Skirlin’ like a kenna-what, wauk’ning sleeping fock.

Hey, Willie Winkie – the wean’s in a creel,

Wambling aff a bodie’s knee like a very eel,

Ruggin’ at the cat’s lug, and raveling a’ her thrums-

Hey, Willie Winkie – see, there he comes!’

Wearied is the mither that has a stoorie wean,

A wee stumple stoussie, that canna rin his lane,

That has a battle aye wi’ sleep before he’ll close an ee

But a kiss frae aff his rosy lips gies strength anew to me.

In that same volume, we revel in the jubilant celebrations of Hogmanay, commemorate a marriage, wonder at the effect of a sudden flurry of money in the form of an inheritance, list the virtues of ‘my poor old coat,’ and are introduced to the figure of Jack Frost, the hoar-breathing rover whose advent betokens the arrival of spring.

Jack-frost.jpg

“Jack-frost” by Polylerus is licensed under CC by 2.0

In November 1871, an ulceration of the leg forced William to cease his trade. Despite the increasing frailties of his body, his mind remained as sharp as ever and he continued to write and disseminate poetry, works which appeared in publications such as The Scotsman. Learning of his condition as an invalid, The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette on the 1st March 1872 urged its readers to furnish monetary contributions ‘for this deserving old poet:’

WILLIAM MILLER THE POET.

“Perhaps the most delicious nursery song that has been written by a modern minstrel for the delectation of the “bairns” in these northern regions is the song of “Wee Willie Winkie.” We are sorry to hear that the writer of it has for a long time past been an invalid, and that he is in poor circumstances. William Miller has a strong claim on the public for some help to smooth his declining years. He is now upwards of sixty, and at his advanced age, afflicted as he is with serious disease of the limbs, there is no prospect of his ever being able again to resume work. By trade he is a wood turner, and he resides in Glasgow, of which city he is a native. One who knows him says that his heart seems still young, his mind still vigorous; but he feels his position irksome and his spirit galled that he cannot now, as formerly, earn by the swear of his brow the bread of independence.”

The following July, he repaired to Blantyre, hoping that the town’s airs – the settlement was 8 miles from Glasgow – would reinvigorate him. The sojourn proved futile and he was soon returned to his son’s house in the city, having suffered a paralysis of the lower limbs. He passed away, destitute, at the age of 62 on the 20th August, 1872.

The poet subsequently received a number of obituary notices in the newspapers lamenting the loss of this Scottish talent. The account below, in The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette on the 22nd August, 1872), reports the grim news:

DEATH OF WILLIAM MILLER, THE POET

“The death is announced of William Miller, the nursery poet. He was born in Glasgow in August, 1810. He was early apprenticed to a wood turner, and by diligent application to business made himself one of the best workmen of his craft; and even in his later years there were few who could equal him in the quality of his work. It is, however, as a poet that he is known to fame. In his early youth he published several pieces in the Day and other newspapers; but from the fact that no record of these productions was observed, it is impossible to know when they issued from his pen. The first thing that brought him into public notice was the publication of the nursery song “Willie Winkie.” The MS. of this song was sent to Mr. Ballantine in Edinburgh, who gave it unqualified praise, as being the very best poem of its kind that he had ever seen. This led to the publication of the poem, and it at once attracted a large amount of attention. This was followed by a number of other pieces of a similar description, all of which were received with great favour, and led to the author’s acquaintance with Lord Jeffrey and other gentlemen of literary tastes. The best of his nursery songs which have obtained for him the well-earned title of the Laureate of the nursery were all written before he was 36 years of age; but it was not till 1863 that, at the request of several friends, he collected together and published a small volume, entitled “Nursery Songs and other Poems.” It had a wide circulation and has earned for the author a reputation that will never decay.”

Most fulsome in its praise of the deceased was the sketch authored by Robert Buchanan in the St Paul’s Magazine (reproduced here in The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette on the 22nd August 1872), emphasising the global appeal of William’s work – songs now sung from Canadian Manitoba to the sonorous banks of the great Mississippi river:

“St Paul’s Magazine for July contained a notice of Wm. Miller, written by Robert Buchanan, who only knew the subject of his sketch through his writings. He had expressed a desire to make Wm. Miller’s acquaintance, and had arranged to call on him on his first visit to Glasgow, but the death of the poet has prevented that wish being gratified. In the article alluded to Mr Buchanan says – “No eulogy can be too high for one who has afforded such unmixed pleasure to his circle of readers; who, as a master of the Scottish dialect, may certainly be classed alongside of Burns and Tannahill; and whose special claims to be recognised as the Laureate of the Nursery have been admitted by more than one generation in every part of the world where the Doric Scotch is understood and loved. Wherever Scottish foot has trod, wherever Scottish child has been born, the songs of Wm. Miller have been sung. Every corner of the earth knows ‘Willie Winkie’ and ‘Gree Bairnies, Gree.’ Manitoba and the banks of the Mississippi echo the ‘Wonderfu’ Wean’ as often as do Kilmarnock or the Goosedubs. ‘Lady Summer’ will sound as sweet in Rio de Janeiro as on the Banks of the Clyde.” Again – ‘Few poets, however prosperous, are so certain of their immortality. I can scarecely conceive of a period when William Miller will be forgotten; certainly not until the Scotch Doric is obliterated, and the lowly nursery abolished for ever. His lyric note is unmistakeable – true, deep, and sweet. Speaking generally, he is a born singer, worthy to rank with the three or four master-spirits who use the same speech; and I say this while perfectly familiar with the lowly literature of Scotland, from Jean Adams to Janet Hamilton, from the first notes struck by Allan Ramsay down to the warblings of ‘Whistle Binkie.’ Speaking specifically, he is (as I have phrased it) the Laureate of the Nursery, and there, at least, he reigns supreme above all other poets, monarch of all he surveys, and perfect master of his theme. His poems, however, are as distinct from nursery gibberish as the music of Shelley is from the jingle of Ambrose Phillips. They are works of art – tiny paintings on small canvas, limned with all the microscopic care of Meissonier. The highest praise that can be said of them is that they are perfect ‘of their kind.’ That kind is humble enough; but humility may be very strong, as it certainly is here.'”

The news of William Miller’s expiration spread beyond Scotland. The Christchurch Times of Hampshire included a brief notation in its edition on the 31st August 1872:

“The death is announced of William Miller, the nursery poet. Born in Parkhead, in August, 1810, William Miller spent his earliest days in the village, and thereafter resided in Glasgow.”

Similarly, the Cheltenham Chronicle on the 10th September 1872 reported on the event:

“The death is announced of William Miller, the nursery poet. Born in Parkhead, in August, 1810, he subsequently resided in Glasgow. He was author of Wee Willie Winky [sic] and other well-known rhymes.”

William Miller was interred in an unmarked grave near the main entrance to Tollcross Cemetery, a state of affairs over which a great clamour arose, with friends and supporters condemning the inglorious and wretched resting-place of this immortal poet. A campaign was even spearheaded by the Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette, a plea to its readership which descended into sniping bitterness against the merchant class for their perceived meanness in the strength of their donation, as can be seen in the edition on the 29th July 1872:

“There has been a great deal of writing in favour of the proposal to get up a testimony for William Miller, the “laureate of the nursery,” writer of “Wee Willie Winkie” and other immortal lyrics. A brief appeal of our own was not fruitless, provoking at least one handsome subscription, that from Mr Thallon of London; but we regret to say that the merchant princes of Glasgow are contributing (if they contribute at all) on a scale which does not say much for their appreciation of poetry. The great firm of Messrs J. and W. Campbell & Co., one of whose members gave 200 guineas to the Norman Macleod Testimonial, gives to the poor old poet the munificent sum of – twenty shillings! Messrs J. Tennant and Co. also give a pound. In fact a pound seems to be the maximum subscription. And the bard, besides being a genuine poet, has been all his days a decent, hard-working, God-fearing man – paying his way, and even when laid aside by illness asking nobody to help him – nay, so independent in spirit that he begged his friends to make no appeal on his behalf. To this true poet and true man, in his day of trouble, when he can no longer work for his bread. The merchant princes of Glasgow throw a contemptuous trifle which would not keep them in brandy and soda for a day. On the whole, we should prefer to see them give nothing.”

The proposed monument was eventually erected by public subscription through such calls for contributions.

William Miller’s reputation remained that of a consummate and skilled poet throughout the 19th century. Indeed, The National Dictionary of Biography (Vol.13) spoke of the man as follows:

“He has an easy mastery of the Scottish dialect; his sense of fitting maxim and allegory is quick and trustworthy, and his lyrical effects are much helped by the directness and simplicity of his style.”

It was particularly the cultural influence of William Miller’s most famous creation, the figure of Wee Willie Winkie, that had a sizeable impact. Indeed, the character was immortalised further through Rudyard Kipling’s inclusion of the figure in his 1888 Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories, and, in 1937, an eponymous adventure film starring Shirley Temple was made for the big screen.

Cover_to_Wee_Willie_Winkie_and_other_stories“Cover_to_Wee_Willie_Winkie”
by University of California Libraries
is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The German-American painter Lionel Feininger unveiled the cartoon strip “Wee Willie Winkie’s World” in the Chicago Tribune on August 19th, 1906 and this continued in print until February 17th, 1907. Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnights Children, includes the character “Wee Willie Winkie,” a minstrel, in homage to William Miller’s creation.

In 2009, Glasgow City Council unveiled a tribute to the poet at his former dwelling, 4 Ark Lane in Dennistoun, erecting a bronze plaque on the wall of the Tennent’s Brewery which now sits on the site of William Miller’s house. A blue plaque in the Trongate also serves as a quirky tribute to his most famous creation, declaring that ‘Wee Willie Winkie was spotted here in his nightgown’ in 1841.

It is clear that, even now, William Miller’s pyjama-clad figure still urges children to get into their beds and sleep as a nursery song learnt and replayed the world over, one of a number of figures invoked by parents at bedtime, such as Germany’s Das Sandmännchen and Denmark’s Ole Lukøje.