Piston, Pen & Press: Literary Cultures in the Industrial Workplace from the Factory Acts to the First World War

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: English


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. 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 & Press' recovers 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.

Planned Impact

This project has been conceived and designed in partnership with industrial heritage museums, libraries and trades unions, and largely stems from discussions with museum partners about their desire to incorporate workers' experience and voices in settings that have previously focused on tangible heritage (machinery, objects) and on 'captains of industry' rather than employees. 'Piston, Pen & Press', as our letters of support show, involves collaborative exchanges with museum and other partners, through exhibitions, public events and work with school and community groups; and seeks to model ways for academics and museum professionals to exchange knowledge and expertise. We consider it essential that this project works both with major national museums (e.g. the NRM and the National Mining Museum) and with smaller regional museums, several of which have never previously worked with academic researchers. Via our partners we also have links both to major heritage organizations - the National Trust for England and Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland, the Science Museums Group - and local organizations, such as the Dundee Heritage Trust. Because our research directly features the local areas served by every museum, most of which are located in post-industrial towns or regions, it has immediate relevance to the communities they work with. We seek to involve these communities not simply as audiences, but as interactive participants in our reading project and MOOCs, and as local researchers who can contribute material to the database, during and beyond the project's funded period.

Plans for impact, outlined in the letters of support, include:
- A portable exhibition based on our research, divided into three subsections on textile factory workers, miners and railway workers. The textile workers' exhibition will tour Stanley Mills (Perthshire), Innerleithen Museum (Borders), Verdant Works (Dundee) and Quarry Bank Mill (Cheshire/Greater Manchester). The mining exhibition will tour the National Coal Mining Museum (Wakefield) and the Scottish National Mining Museum (Newtongrange). The railway exhibition will be displayed at events hosted by the National Railway Museum (York/Shildon). At the end of the project, the whole exhibition will be brought together in Manchester. We are also involved in an international digital exhibition and a library exhibition.
- Events linked to these exhibitions: we will have replicable public-facing events hosted by each museum and library partner; these will include talks, readings, song and music, family workshops and schools events.
- Music: our partners include well-known Northern folk and broadside singer Jennifer Reid and Scottish traditional musicians Gillian Frame and Findlay Napier. By incorporating materials from our research into their performances and new songs, these materials will be revived for music audiences. As the letters of support indicate, there are strong possibilities that these songs will be included on future CDs and become part of performance repertoire beyond project-sponsored events.
- Theatre: our partnership with Lanarkshire playwright Martin Travers, producer Guy Hollands and the Citizens' Theatre Glasgow will result in a play, in Scots, based on Scottish miners' lives and writing in our period, 'Sing Up the Songs o' Iron and Coal'. We will record a staged reading of the play, produced with drama students from New College Lanarkshire, for our website.
- Trades union involvement: we will run an educational workshop/course with the GFTU.
We consciously limited our number of project partners, and anticipate working with a number of other interested museums and libraries. Overall, 'Piston, Pen & Press' will have a long-term impact on how industrial heritage museums work with literary materials and represent historical workers' cultural engagements, and on how communities served by these museums view their local literary heritage.


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