The Dialect Monument 1 : Edwin Waugh

Literacy amongst the working class in the 19th century grew as a result of the demands of industrialisation although parents often had to choose between educating a child and having them go to work. Historians suggest that literacy was at an all-time low around 1820 but rose steadily with the work of charity and Sunday schools. In 1840 one third of grooms at their wedding could not sign their name though by the end of the century 97% could. One result of this increase in literacy was an interest in dialect poetry.   

Edwin Waugh was born in a small cottage in Rochdale in 1817 the son of a clog and shoemaker. Because of his father’s trade, his family could afford only two years of formal schooling for him alongside Sunday school although tragedy struck early with his father’s death when he was 7 years old and for a time Waugh and his mother lived in a cellar. Though he was brought up in poor circumstances there were always books around – The Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, Wesley’s Hymns and Pilgrim’s Progress amongst them and this suggests what some see as a ‘genteel’ working class background.

His mother, a strong Methodist, noted for her fine singing voice and love of poetry became his role model encouraging young Edwin’s interest in poetry and song and it was she who provided enough education to get him work as a shop boy for Thomas Holden, the Rochdale bookseller and printer, running business errands and serving in the shop before eventually taking on an apprenticeship with him in 1829 at the age of 12.  His job at Holden’s meant being surrounded by books and Edwin took every opportunity to read them, two of his favourites being the dialect poets Robert Burns and Tim Bobbin. Eventually although still young, Waugh left Holden’s and set up as a journeyman printer which entailed travelling all over the country advising and setting up letterpress printing machines.

1847 was a big year for Waugh. Not only was he made Assistant Secretary to the Lancashire Public School Association in Manchester but he also married Mary Anne Hill and moved to Manchester. The marriage was not a success however as she didn’t appreciate his constant debt and he – in return – thought her sluttish. They argued constantly until she went back to her mother’s in Littleborough. During these years, Waugh though writing, knew it to be a precarious living so continued in trade as a printer whilst reaching the public with non-dialect prose sketches for the Manchester Examiner such as ‘Factory Folk’, ‘Besom Ben Stories’ and ‘The Chimney Corner.’ These were hard-hitting accounts of working class life but it was his ‘Sketches of Lancashire Life’ and in 1859 ‘Poems and Songs’ that best captured in dialect poetry the sensitivity and heart of poor families. Never vulgar, the poems were rooted in the voice of the people and he became known as the Lancashire Burns, his hero and took to wearing plaid over rough tweed suits like Robert Burns. It was during this period that Waugh wrote his most famous poem, “Come whoam to thi childer an’ me” which sold 20,000 on fly-sheets from the publisher’s shop alone. From this point, he was known as a great dialect poet.   

In later life Waugh wrote from his home in New Brighton about the life and language of the people of Lancashire in both dialect and non-dialect forms. Perhaps, however, his best work was behind him with such poems as ‘I’ve worn my bits o’ shoon away’, ‘Night Fo’ and ‘Todlin Whoam,’ work which made him a household name across the north west of England. Waugh’s private life was an active one – he went on a cruise of the Scottish islands in 1888 at the age of 71 and seems to have had something of a fling with one of the lady passengers although this came to nothing in the end. The following year Waugh’s health deteriorated and he died on April 30th 1890, the Lord Mayors of Manchester and Salford attending the funeral. He was buried at Kersal Moor near Prestwich but is remembered by the Edwin Waugh Society in Rochdale, the Dialect monument in Broadfield Park and also with Waugh’s Well on the moors above Edenfield.