Poetry was, in the Victorian and Edwardian periods, a favoured literature among the English working-class. Poetry fitted more easily than prose into the world of song and recitation which characterised working-class sociability. Poems were omnipresent in newspapers and other ephemeral literature of the epoch; it was cheaper than three decker novels, and more easily read in the limited leisure time (and limited lighting) available. So the working classes consumed poetry, and they also produced poetry. The work of dozens of working-class poets from the nineteenth century survives. They include familiar figures such as the ‘peasant poet’ John Clare from Northamptonshire, and John Plummer, a staymaker from Kettering (whose own connections to the lace trade we will explore in a subsequent blog). John Askham known as the ‘shoemaker poet’ of Wellingborough, is now more obscure than either, and whether his poetry is due a revival we will leave the critics to decide. However Askham, like his peers who turned aspects of their working lives into poetry, was also a chronicler of social history. And in Northamptonshire that social history includes not just shoemaking but lacemaking.
Askham was born in 1825 in Wellingborough; the youngest son of a miller who had turned to shoemaking after losing a leg. John followed his father’s new trade from the age of ten. Before then he went to school, but his instruction was, by his own account, less than adequate. ‘I was sent to the Free School of the town, at that time presided over by an ignorant man, who had far more need of teaching himself than capacity to teach others. At this school… I have no recollection of learning anything, my most vivid remembrance being of having to stand up with my legs straddled out to their fullest extent in a window recesss, with a tall foolscap on my devoted head.’ Askham’s education was acquired piecemeal from reading and attending lectures in later life. He was an autodidact, and his poetry bears testimony to his will for self-improvement, including accounts of visits to museums and archaeological digs. However, in his younger years he had little time for such things: ‘I sometimes try to remember the time when I was free to come and go, and indulge in the sweet amenities of boyhood, but for the life of me I cannot. Nothing but one long unbroken perspective of toil presents itselt to my memory when I recall the past, varied now and then by truant wanderings among the fields’.
Aged about twenty-five, Askham started composing poetry ‘for the most part in the comparative quiet of the warehouse of a shoe upper manufactory’, though he was keen to make clear that this was on his own time, not the firm’s. His first published work appeared in the Wellingborough Independent, where it drew the attention of George James De Wilde, editor of the more influential Northampton Mecury and an occasional poet himself. Askham became the Wellinborough correspondent for the Mercury and other Midland papers. About this time too he left shoemaking to work for the Singer sewing-machine company, before returning to shoemaking on his own account. In 1871 he was appointed to the Wellingborough school board (under the new Elementary Education Act), a sign that he was a respected member of the community, and in 1874 he was made sanitory inspector for the town. He was an active member of the Literary Institute, a bulwark of civic self-improvement. Although Askham had started writing at the suggestion of an old employer, an ardent Chartist, he himself was not very radical. He had a keen sense of ‘the dignity of labour’, the subject of his first poem, but his books were paid for by subscription from the rich and well-connected members of Northamptonshire society, including Conservative peers and MPs. His acceptance into the establishment might be indicated by his shift of allegiance from the congregationalist chapel attended by his parents to the Church of England.
Askham published four books of poems: Sonnets on the Months (1863); Descriptive Poems (1866); Judith, and Other Poems (1868) and Poems and Sonnets (1875). His poems are mostly short and cover a range of topics; a lot are about work, though nature and religion also compete for space. The Old Grandame first appeared in the Northampton Mercury for 8 August 1868, and was then reprinted in Judith: it is one of his longer pieces, and the only one that deals directly with lace. One could read this as another contribution to the Romance of the Lace Pillow – the cottage window, the rush-bottomed chair – these are elements found in nineteenth-century chocolate box paintings. On the other hand it offers quite a detailed inventory of the lacemaker’s equipment – her pillow with its pockets, the golden pins, the spangled bobbins – ‘her delight and pride’, the flask and taper, the bobbin winder, the yard-wand for measuring the finished lace. Askham also confirms some of the local terms used in the lace trade, such as ‘down’ for one completed pattern and ‘maid’ for the support that carried the cushion; other terms are less familiar, such as the nicknames ‘Fanny’, ‘Joey’ and ‘Patty’ given to her lace patterns. Askham clearly had some familiarity with lacemaking.
The Old Grandame
The old grandame — over seventy —
With her wrinkled kindly face,
Sits at yon cottage window
Making her pillow-lace.
She weareth an ample bonnet,
And her gown is made of stuff, —
In whose deep, capacious pocket,
Lieth a box of snuff.
She hath used the same great ‘glasses’
More years than I can tell;
Green baize is round the earbits
Of their frame of tortoise-shell.
Since first I can remember
I have seen her sitting there —
Working from morn till evening —
In that old rush-bottomed chair.
You may hear a pleasant rattle
As you pass the window by,
As the long thin yellow fingers
Among the bobbins ply.
Her pillow is large and cumbrous,
Pockets on either side;
And her scores of spangled bobbins
Are her delight and pride:
Beads of all shapes and colours,
And bugles old and rare;
Tokens, and groats of silver,
And ancient coins are there;
Making a gentle music,
As beneath her labours grow
‘Downs’ of delicate net-work
White as the winter’s snow.
You would hardly think those fingers —
Fumbling the pins among —
Could weave such a delicate fabric,
So fragile, yet so strong.
She toileth on winter evenings
By the light of her precious flask;
She says it is sin to be idle,
And deems not labour a task.
Then the flame from her twinkling taper
Falls with reflected ray,
As a star in the midnight darkness
Lighteth the traveller’s way.
There she will sit, with her pillow
Propt with a wooden ‘maid’;
All, save the ray on her parchment,
Cast into sombre shade.
Sometimes her wheel she reaches
From the shelf above her head,
And her bobbins she deftly windeth
With spotless gimp and thread:
In its drawers are hanks of cotton,
Spare bobbins and parchment rolls,
‘Fanny’, and ‘Joey’, and ‘Patty’,
Pricked out on the narrow scrolls.
On a card beneath a napkin
Her precious lace is rolled;
And pins stick around by hundreds,
Yellow and bright as gold.
There — standing in the corner
Beneath her crockery shelf —
Is her brown old-fashioned yard-wand,
Honest and true as herself.
The old grandame loves to prattle
Of the good old times gone by,
When lace was worth the making,
And the worker’s wage was high.
No husband now nor children
Hath the worthy grandame got:
All dead save her darling grandson
He gardens her little plot.
She will tell you, aye! to an hour —
Though thirty years have sped,
Since there in the upper chamber
Her dear good man lay dead;
How she mourned from thence a widow;
And of her children twain:
How the lad went for a soldier,
And came not back again;
And how her only daughter
Married, and pined, and died,
Blessing, with dying blessing,
The first-born at her side.
So prattles and toils the grandame,
As she sits in her wonted place
In the old thatched cottage yonder,
Making her pillow-lace.
Askham also wrote a number of prose pieces which appeared in Midlands newspapers and some of which were later collected in Sketches in Prose and Verse (1893). Lacemakers appear, mostly tangentially, in some of these. For instance, he wrote a historical account of the ‘holiday’ held in Wellingborough to celebrate the passing of the Great Reform Act on 6 July 1832. (This was first published in the Northampton Mercury for Saturday 30 June, 1877.) All the local trades joined in the celebrations which culminated in a parade through the town and great communal feast. Although the leather trades were at the head of the procession, naturally given the importance of shoemaking in the town, the blacksmiths, braziers, printers and tailors all joined in. Second in the parade, between the shoemakers and the carpenters, were the lacemakers. ‘The lace-trade (an important one at that time of day) is represented by a posse of the best looking damsels, dressed in their Sunday gowns, with drop curls, stick-up combs, and bishop sleeves. At their head is a damsel handsomely attired in a fancy dress, borne shoulder high, and what do you think she is up to? Why, working at her lace pillow as demure as you please, sticking pins, and rattling spangled bobbins and gimp about, and doing “head” with as much coolness as if there were nobody looking at her, and as if people were not killing themselves by inches shouting “Hurrah! Charlotte Noble!”’ This account of a public display by lacemakers, identified by the tools of their trade, accords with other accounts of processions during elections at Aylesbury and elsewhere. Whether Charlotte Noble champion lacemaker existed, we cannot tell, though a Charlotte Noble served as moniteress of Wellingborough’s infants’ school in the 1880s.
Askham also mentions, in a comical account of a concert put on by the ‘United Warblers’, that the sound of the clarinet ‘always put me in mind of the old lace schools and lace making’. If this is a reference to the chanting of lace tells it’s a bit obscure, but it offers just the faintest scrap of evidence as to how they sounded.
Although Askham has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, information about his life is scant. An article ‘John Askham the Northamptonshire Poet’ in the magazine Leisure Hour for 16 September 1871, is the basis for most subsequent accounts, including the anonymous ‘Biographical Sketch’ that introduces Sketches in Prose and Verse. The Northampton Mercury regularly carried articles not just by but about this local character, including the obituary in the edition of Friday 2 November 1894. But these only add some picturesque details.