The Dialect Monument 2 : John Trafford Clegg

Rochdale has a wonderful heritage when it comes to dialect writers and the best four of them are memorialised in Broadfield Park on a monument, agreed by the council in April 1896 and designed by the sculptor Edwin Sykes with bronze portraits by John Cassidy.

One of the four writers is John Trafford Clegg, also known through his writing as ‘The Owd Weighver.’ Clegg was born in Milnrow on the 22nd January 1857. The second son of John Clegg, a grocer in the village, the family lived at Meadows Head before moving to Rochdale in 1859. Three of Clegg’s brothers died in infancy but two survived. Often asked if he had known Tim Bobbin, another literary figure from Milnrow, he would answer that their family cow and Tim Bobbin’s family cow used to drink from the same stream !

In Rochdale Clegg attended the Grammar School under Mr R R Grey the headmaster and there studied general subjects but also science and Latin. It is recorded that he excelled in the English classics and was at an early age recognised for his style in composition. Following his Grammar School education John followed his older brother James into an apprenticeship as a printer at the Aldine Press which was then at 124 Drake Street although he stayed there for only a short time before moving to Glossop to work in a cotton mill which his father had bought and was managing. Many believe that this experience gave him many of the characters and much material for his later work. His father’s textile business did not thrive however, and John returned to Rochdale and printing, first at the Aldine and then with E Wrigley and Sons, letterpress and lithograph printers.

Although Clegg wrote poetry from a young age he never felt it was good enough to publish. However, two humorous letters that he wrote to the Rochdale Observer in defence of the Lancashire dialect and in dialect, brought his talents to the attention of the editorial staff who asked that he write more for the local paper. Clegg responded by contributing dialect sketches and stories on a regular basis under his pseudonym ‘Th’Owd Weighver,’ the series ‘Reaund bit Derby’ about the Derby Bar a moorland inn, being particularly well-received. Spreading his talent ever wider, Clegg later submitted material to the Chambers Journal and to the Manchester Weekly Times.

At the age of 24 in 1881 Clegg married a Miss Hannah Flinton from York and they had three children. John Trafford Clegg had talents outside of the literary world, being choirmaster and organist at St Mary’s Church at Wardleworth but it is through his publications that we know him today, not simply filling the columns of the Observer with his sketches but writing an early novel ‘The Milnes of Whiteacre’ which was serialised in the same newspaper.

Some claim that his time in the cotton mills and at the printing press affected his health and certainly Clegg it seems had such a predisposition to consumption that his doctors advised him to stop work and to seek a more favourable climate. Taking this advice Clegg and his family moved to Bournemouth where he continued to write in his beloved Lancashire dialect, coming back to the town at regular intervals. A letter written by Clegg from the south of England suggested that whilst he was ‘struggling to make literature pay’ he notes that Longmans Green and Company had agreed to publish one of his novels. This turned out to be ‘David’s Loom’ which gained critical national acclaim.

However, his health slowly deteriorated and though he was still writing a piece entitled ‘The Flagged Yard’ in March of 1895 he succumbed to a bout of pleurisy and pneumonia. He was only 38 years of age. A Mason’s badge, sent by the lodge of St Chad’s Freemasons for whom he wrote and composed hymns, was laid in the coffin at his burial on 22nd March.

Shortly after his death ‘Stories, Sketches and Rhymes in the Rochdale Dialect’ was published containing Clegg’s poetry and prose and fittingly printed by The Aldine Press, the company with which he had an early apprenticeship, his works selling for one or two pennies depending on the number of pages. It is felt that the literary style of John Trafford Clegg has a wider sweep of imagination than Edwin Waugh and is peppered with biting Rochdale humour. His quotation on the Broadfield Park monument speaks of his love of the town and its working people :

 ‘Festin the e’en on th’sky                                            ‘Fasten your eyes to the skies

It’s as yessy to look up as deawn                               It’s as easy to look up as down

An it makes a vast difference in a mon.’                 And it makes a vast difference in a man.’