A complete collection of poems written during the historic cotton famine of the 19th century and rediscovered after more than 150 years has been published for the first time.

The work of William Cunliffe, a Burnley blacksmith who wrote under the pen name of Williffe Cunliam, has been released in its entirety after being found in the holdings of the town’s Central Library.

Cunliffe was among scores of Lancashire poets whose ‘dialect poems’ were published in local papers and letters at the time of the famine and subsequently ‘lost’ to literary critics, remaining hidden in archives and libraries.

But thanks to a research project led by the University of Exeter, hundreds have been unearthed and made available online. And now, in the form of The Collected Poems of Williffe Cunliam, the first complete collection has been preserved in print, with many of Cunliffe’s poems being seen for the first time by contemporary audiences.

“We are delighted to be able to bring these remarkable poems to broader public attention and to give them the platform they deserve,” says Professor Simon Rennie, Associate Professor of Victorian Poetry in the Department of English and Creative Writing, and the book’s editor. “Cunliffe’s work stands out as extraordinary and remarkably varied in its topics and styles and is testament to the wit and skill of working people’s engagement with literature. It provides a unique insight into working-class northern English culture in the 1860s.”

The 54 poems written by Cunliffe and printed in newspapers between 1863-66 were among hundreds found by the Poetry of the Lancashire Cotton Famine project in 2017, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Together, these writers who were connected to the cotton industry wrote about the extreme hardship experienced by the industrial north, which had been precipitated by the Union’s blockade of Confederate-controlled ports during the American Civil War. This strangled the export of cotton into the mills of Europe, and Lancashire in particular, and with entire families dependent upon these mills for their livelihoods, mass unemployment followed as well as starvation and migration.

Professor Rennie said the poetry reflected not just the poverty, hunger, and homelessness of the time, but also war, slavery, and Victorian globalisation. Many were written in Lancashire dialect and were published in hundreds of local newspapers in existence at the time, as well as in letters and other forms of correspondence.

Among those written by Cunliffe included ‘Settling th’ War‘, ‘Hoamly Chat‘, and ‘Th’ Petched Shirt‘ – some of which have gone on to receive significant national critical and media coverage.

“These poems have an extraordinary range and emotional intensity,” adds Professor Rennie. “Some are in heavy dialect, some are comic, some have high literary ambition and others are satirical. We see Cunliffe reflecting on the role of art in society in some, and playing with form – from sea shanties and narrative poems to gothic tales and deeply metaphorical work.

To celebrate the publication of The Collected Poems of Williffe Cunliam (Knives Forks and Spoons Press), two free public events will be held next month. The first is at Burnley Library on Monday 13 May (5.30-7pm), and the second on Thursday 16 May (4-6pm) on the University’s Streatham campus in Exeter. Professor Rennie will be speaking about the project and the poems’ journey to print.


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