Piston, Pen & Press

An AHRC-funded project which aims to understand how industrial workers, from the 1840s to the 1910s, engaged with literary culture through writing, reading, and participation in wider cultural activities.

As the newspaper poetry columns, workers’ periodicals, surviving records of local libraries and reading rooms, and society accounts show, industrial workers spent substantial amounts of their working lives and brief leisure time in writing, reading, and discussing works of literature.

Image: Workers on the second Tay Bridge, Dundee. Copyright of the Wilson Collection, Dundee Central Library, Wellgate, Dundee. Reproduced with permission.

Every industrial workplace had its writer in this period. Most had more than one, like poets and journalists ‘Nisbet Noble’ (James Ferguson) and ‘Will Harrow’ (John Stanley) at Stanley Mills in Perthshire, or autobiographers and poets ‘Rustic Rhymer’ (Thomas Stewart) and ‘Davie’ (David Wingate) in the same Lanarkshire mine. Piston, Pen & Pressrecovers the forgotten ways in which these industrial workers engaged with literary culture from the 1840s to the First World War. By focusing on miners, railway workers, and textile factory workers it will investigate how profession, location, and the perception of being part of a specific workforce community influenced workers’ activities as authors, performers and readers.

Our concentration is on Scotland and the North of England, with Britain’s two greatest Victorian industrial cities, Manchester and Glasgow, as centres of interest. We will use archival research and scoping studies of newspaper and periodical databases to uncover the poems, songs, periodical and newspaper writings and other prose writings (including autobiography and biography) of workers in these industries. We will additionally work with the preserved records of nineteenth-century libraries and reading rooms to trace a history of reading through borrowers’ records, and to study records of ‘literary’ associations (minute books, members’ directories, manuscript magazines) linked to specific workplaces or operating in their vicinity.

No previous project or published work has attempted to reflect on working-class literary cultures in the long Victorian period in terms of both profession and location. Further, existing studies and anthologies do not provide our interdisciplinary focus on the history of reading, the history of associational culture, and the literary analysis of workers’ writings. Although recent historical work on Britain’s industrial revolution has shifted towards a greater consideration of workers’ writings, research into literary representations of Victorian industry is still dominated by accounts of observers or employers, not by how workers themselves represented their labour and presented themselves as a cultured workforce with investments in established as well as popular literature. Despite growing interest in working-class reading, much evidence of workers’ cultural investments and cultural literacy remains scattered in local and regional archives. What we currently know or hypothesize about what Victorian workers (like those listed above) wrote, read or sung, and how they accessed literary works, is a fraction of what we could know through in-depth archival research and a careful and comparative analysis of findings.

While the academic outcomes of this project will contribute significantly to the study of working-class culture, history and literature, and to our scholarly perceptions of Victorian industrialism, we also seek to create public awareness of this neglected aspect of industrial heritage. Building on our existing connections and developing new ones, we will work with selected museums and non-academic partners, both national and local, on ways to include this vital intangible heritage in their collections and outreach activities. In doing so we hope to foster fruitful discussions between institutions and individuals in the heritage sector in Scotland and the North of England about the status and significance of literary cultures in Britain’s industrial past. Through our connections to the General Federation of Trades Unions and potentially other unions, ‘Piston, Pen & Press’ will also incorporate reflection on the 21st century workplace and historical workplace culture.

 

Website

 

Project Team

  • Prof. Kirstie Blair (Principal Investigator – University of Strathclyde)
  • Dr Michael Sanders (Co-Investigator – University of Manchester)
  • Dr Oliver Betts (Co-Investigator – National Railway Museum)
  • Dr Lauren Weiss (Research Associate – University of Strathclyde)
  • George-Andrei Ionita (Developer – The Digital Humanities Institute)