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Sink the pink: whistling down our most underrated tram line
A tour of Rochdale to Victoria Station in poems
By Ophira Gottlieb
There is only one reason to travel from Rochdale to Manchester by tram, and that's if the railway unions are striking and the trains are simply not running. The journey by train is considerably faster, moderately cheaper, and most importantly, doesn't involve spending an hour hurtling across the Pennines in a rickety, loo-less cart that insists on stopping at every other mill and market town in the North West like a Southerner in a canal boat. But as the rail strikes persist, I have found myself returning time and again to the Pink Line for my Manchester commute, and as if plagued by some transport-specific strain of Stockholm Syndrome, I am starting to actually enjoy it.
At a first glance, the journey may appear uninspiring. When the tram moves, it slips past flat green fields of sheep, cows, perhaps the odd alpaca, and when it loiters, it does so around corner shops and closed-down pubs. But a deeper look through the scratched plexiglass reveals a second layer to the journey. Namely the relics of Lancashire’s industrial past: The pale sandstone cottages stained black with soot, and here and there a chalky red-brick mill, or the remains of one.
But it can be difficult, while rattling through Rochdale running only on the energy of a Morrisons meal deal, to really take in the magnanimity of the north’s industrial heritage, and to comprehend the gravity of its collapse.
Fortunately, I have discovered a solution to this predicament, a method of instantly tapping into the mind, heart, and soul of the mill-workers who inhabited these towns before us. This solution is to spend the entire journey solely reading and listening to Industrial-era poetry and folk and, for your convenience, I have compiled some for you here.
Dialect poets vs. Romantics (vs. Yorkshire)
Lancashire’s industrial-era dialect poetry has, for the most part, suffered the same fate as its mills — that of being largely ignored by the populace and entirely neglected by the council. The most popular English poets of the 1800s were the Romantics, who responded to the Industrial Revolution by glorifying England’s past and making vague references to the dark satanic mills without ever having actually experienced them.
But the dialect poets of the North West who genuinely worked in the mills address the industry with far more nuance. Their poetry reveals a sense of pride in their work, perseverance and wit in the face of brutal conditions, a genuine affection for the Lancashire moors around them — and a wide-spread and inexplicable disliking for Yorkshire.
So I’ll begin our poetry journey as the Pink Line does, in Rochdale. Perhaps the most well-known of the Rochdale dialect poets is the bookseller turned bard Edwin Waugh. Waugh spent a good portion of the 19th century churning out some of the most detailed and heartfelt known accounts of the Lancashire Cotton Famine. He then went on to inspire a long line of Rochdale-based bards who committed their experiences of the mills to pen and paper. One of these poets was Harvey Kershaw. Despite being born nearly a century after Waugh, Kershaw’s Rochdale was strikingly familiar — power looms loomed a little larger perhaps, but the work was the same, the hardships as hard, and clogs remained in fashion.
Kershaw even wrote an ode to the clog as a mill-uniform turned fashion essential:
“Clogs! As soon as aw were owd enough,
Tu toddle on mi own down t’ clough,
They made mi wear, cos lone were rough,
(Harvey Kershaw, ‘Clogs’)
The poem, which Kershaw himself recorded a spoken-word version of, is brilliant for the manner in which it evokes an entire lifetime of an early 20th-century mill worker in Rochdale, and also for the sheer amount of times Kershaw boldly proclaims the word “clogs” in the space of three minutes.
I recommend listening to ‘Clogs’ during the first leg of your journey. As you slide slowly out from under the formidable shadow of Rochdale bus station, try to imagine the children from the early 1900s toddling down what once were cobbled streets, or even better, picture the children at the time of Waugh, who thanks to the Cotton Mill Act had to wait until the ripe age of nine before they could be bestowed with their first pair of clogs, given a cup of old milk and an oatcake, and carted off to work the mills. If that doesn’t make you feel better about your meal deal and your office job, nothing will.
Kershaw also wrote a number of poems that directly addressed the mills from the perspective of mill workers. A great example of this is his poem ‘Nobbut a Cockstride Away’, which is about the joys of living in the mill in which you work, and thereby skipping the morning commute:
“When aw first geet wed
Aw were lucky, folks said,
For when t’ buzzer for wark went each day,
Aw’d noan furr to goo,
Cos aw lived in t’ mill broo
It were nobbut a cockstride away.”
(Harvey Kershaw, Nobbut a Cockstride Away)
Kershaw then goes on to describe a number of other things that are nobbut a cockstride away: Home (once you’ve finished work, because you live in the mill), the sun after a cloudy spell, summer after winter, fresh moorland air, and God. The poem was put to music, sung, and recorded by the poet’s wife, Mary Kershaw, and is a great song to listen to on the second leg of your journey, as the tram guides you gently through the green and pleasant outskirts of Rochdale and beyond. As you listen, hark back to simpler times, when commutes were measured in cockstrides and didn’t involve spending your morning edging as far away as possible from the man sitting next to you on the tram who keeps breathing very loudly through his mouth.
The only legitimate reason to write poetry: slander
A couple of cockstrides and a handful of tram stops away lies Milnrow, a town nestled in the foothills of the Southern Pennines, once home to the 18th-century poet John Collier who wrote under the alias ‘Tim Bobbin’. Collier lived and worked in a few different towns in the area before settling in Milnrow, where he eventually became known for writing a great deal of anonymous and slanderous poetry about locals who had offended him.
Despite his attempts at anonymity, Collier was quickly identified as the author, not least because the majority of the other town residents were illiterate. Many of his poems were accompanied by unflattering paintings, a famous example of this being the following painting-poem combination concerning a local quack-dentist:
“A Packthread strong he tied in haste
On tooth that sore did wring
He pull’d, the patient follow’d fast,
Like Towzer on a string.
He miss’d at first, but try’d again,
Then clapp’d his foot o’th chin;
He pull’d — the patient roared with pain,
And hideously did grin.”
As you travel between Rochdale and Milnrow, bobbing serenely along the Pink Lines flowing current, take the time to observe your surroundings. Are any of your fellow commuters playing Instagram reels off their phone speaker while wearing wireless headphones around their neck? Why not then, in the spirit of Collier, write a slanderous poem about their incompetence, and pair it with a massively insulting caricature exaggerating your perceived flaws in their appearance? It may make you feel better, it may help you connect with Milnrow’s cultural past, and it will definitely help the journey go faster.
‘Summat in an office’
Skipping over the next stop as I am yet to come across any poets of renown from Newhey, the tram next settles down for a short while in Shaw and Crompton, once home to the beloved poet Sam Fitton. Fitton was, to his detriment, born in Cheshire, but he spent the majority of his life in the locality of High Crompton. There he mastered the Lancashire dialect, and penned a great number of poems over the course of the late 19th century, among which his magnum opus is undoubtedly Eawr Sarah’s Getten a Chap, a poem about a working-class family’s struggle and despair when their daughter begins to date a member of the middle class:
“He comes o’ courtin’ every neet,
He fills eawr cat wi’ dread;
He’s sky-blue gaiters on his feet,
An’ hair-oil on his yed;
He likes to swank about an’ strut
An’ talk abeawt his ‘biz’;
He’s ‘summat in an office,’ but
I don’t know what it is.”
(Sam Fitton, ‘Eawr Sarah’s Getten a chap’)
This poem proved extremely popular throughout Lancashire, and when put to music became something of an industrial folk classic, recorded by The Oldham Tinkers, The Houghton Weavers, and doubtless a great many other industrial folk bands named ‘The Place-Name Craft-ers’ in some other variation. Seeing as you are currently headed towards Oldham, go ahead and listen to The Oldham Tinkers’ version as you pass through the quaint and peaceful towns of Shaw, Crompton, and Derker.
If you are indeed on the way to your job as “summat in an office”, take pride in the fact that this song is about you and your ability to evoke fear in the hearts of the cats of the working class. Alternatively, if your job involves manual labour, consider banding together your colleagues and forming an industrial-folk-revival group – The Crompton Carpenters, The Derker Dry Stone Wallers – then you can record a cover of this song.
Fighting the French — in Oldham
After Derker, the next stop on the Pink Line is the Oldham Mumps, which gets its name courtesy of being in the ‘Mumps’ area of Oldham. It would be easy to assume that this is a reference to the viral infection — easy but wrong. Mumps gets its name from the term ‘Mumper’, an old 17th-century slang term for a beggar. The name has been around since the late 18th-century, and in 1805 was referenced in the poem Jone o Grinfilt, or John o’ Grinfield, or a host of other minor spelling variations that all mean ‘John of Greenfield’.
The poem was written in Oldham dialect by local poet Joseph Lees, and is about a man, unsurprisingly called John, who lived unsurprisingly in Greenfield during the Napoleonic war. Though Greenfield and Oldham have both long been a part of Greater Manchester, at the time Lees wrote the poem Oldham would have still been in Lancashire, and Greenfield would have been just over the county line, in Yorkshire. This means that our hero John of Greenfield is not only a countryman but a Yorkshireman to boot, and is thereby depicted by Lees as an idiot. John appears to believe that the Yorkshire/Lancashire boundary line is some sort of crossing into Europe, and he resolves to cross the border and head in to Oldham in order to fight and kill the French:
“Then deawn th broo aw coom, for weh livent at top,
Aw thowt awd raich Owdham ere ever aw stop;
Ecod! heaw they staret when aw getten to th Mumps,
Meh owd hat i my hont, unmeh clogs full o stumps;
Boh aw soon towd um, awre gooin to Owdham
Un awd hae a battle wi th French.”
(Joseph Lees, Jone o Grinfilt)
Or, Standard English Translation:
“Then down the brow I came, for we lived at the top,
I thought I'd reach Oldham ere ever I stop;
Egad! How they stared when I got to the Mumps,
My old hat in my hand, and my clogs full of stamps;
But I soon told them, I'm going to Oldham
And I'd have a battle with the French.”
The poem makes fairly plain the poet’s opinion on anyone from the Yorkshire countryside, what with John being a classic clog-wearing, mill-working, ignorant dosser. However Lees also displays a degree of sympathy for his protagonist. The implication in the song is that despite the horrendous conditions offered to soldiers in the army, alongside the obvious risks of injury and death, many factory workers at the time would have still chosen war over the squalor they faced at home.
As the tram charges headlong into the Oldham Mumps, have a listen to Laura Smyth’s musical rendition of the poem. Imagine that you too are crossing over into foreign territory, and consider whether you too would prefer fighting and potentially dying in the Napoleonic war over your day job. A little light perspective on your commute can go a long way.
The Pink Line winds, and you with it, round the various Oldham stops, past takeaways and supermarkets and a few of Oldham’s ubiquitous convenience shops with ominous names like ‘The Mercy of God’. Then, leaving Oldham, the tram picks up pace, and it won’t be long now before it finds itself lingering a little longer than usual at Manchester Victoria, where I and possibly you disembark.
The commute is over: What could have taken fifteen minutes took fifty, but that extra half hour of superfluous meandering and tedious stopping and starting provided a unique opportunity to engage with the literary past of your surroundings, right? And with your newfound knowledge you can now go forth and approach your life and your work with a fresh perspective.
We must take stock from the dialect poets and face life head on, with love and joy for the present no matter how difficult it may be. We must keep trundling on like the tram with unwavering resilience, while still remembering to enjoy the meandering, scenic route through life, and to stop now and again to enjoy the view. Or otherwise, we must keep our fingers crossed that the unions and the rail companies reach an agreement soon, and we can all go back to drinking black coffee and dissociating on the Transpennine Express like we used to.