Laboring-Class Poets Online

Author Archive

Today marks the inaugural post in what we plan to make a regular item: the featured poet. This week, I’ll actually discuss a pair of poets: George Linnaeus Banks and Isabella Varley Banks.

George Linnaeus Banks was born in Birmingham, although he and his wife would later become most closely associated with Manchester (a point I’ll return to in a bit). Banks was born to John Banks, a horticulturist, and his wife, Sarah. According to an anecdotal source, John Banks was a rigid Methodist—once, he took a copy of Robinson Crusoe from young George and threw it into the fire. George Banks dabbled in quite a variety of jobs, including engraving, sales, and cabinet casemaking. He also edited a number of newspapers.

Isabella Varley was born to a chemist and an amateur artist. As a child, her eyesight was damaged by a smoky chimney. Her first poem was published when she was sixteen, and her first collection of poetry in 1843, when she was 22. She ran a school at Cheetham in Lancashire until 1846, when she married George Linnaeus Banks.

George Banks tried his hand at a number of literary genres: he wrote poetry as well as drama; many popular plays and songs were attributed to him, more than he himself likely wrote. Isabella Varley Banks authored The Manchester Man (1876), a popular novel that portrays nineteenth-century Manchester as it becomes a booming industrial city.

The Banks moved around a lot due to George Banks’s frequent job changes; he also suffered from alcoholism and depression. But as I mentioned earlier, the two are often associated with Manchester, as they were both members of one of the most significant English city groups of the nineteenth century: the Manchester poets. Also called the “Sun Inn group,” after the pub they frequented, the Manchester poets contributed to an 1842 anthology, The Festive Wreath and later formed the Lancashire Literary Association. Many laboring-class poets were members, including Banks and his wife, Samuel Bamford, John Critchley Prince, and John Bolton Rogerson.

One of my personal research interests is the Royal Literary Fund, an organization established in 1790 to help writers facing financial problems. Many of the poets we have been researching received assistance from the Fund—including the Banks family. George’s alcoholism and depression contributed to the family’s financial difficulties. Often, Isabella’s writing supported the family, but they were also awarded a great deal of money from the Fund. Over a period of thirty years (1866-1897), Isabella applied to the Fund twenty-one times. She was rejected four times, but in total she received £600.

I point out the surprising fact that it was Isabella and not George who applied to the Fund. Its founder, the minister and political pamphleteer David Williams, published a manifesto around the same time that the Fund was established, The Claims of Literature (1802). Throughout Claims Williams uses androcentric language to discuss his vision of a country bettered by the “men of letters” that his organization, in turn, would hopefully help to thrive. Further, he presents a gendered understanding of genius, such that the very concept of a “female genius” is monstrous. There exists data that supports this androcentrism, too: far fewer women applied to the Fund than men and, more significantly, fewer still actually received financial aid. Many women’s applications were identified as suspect or potentially dubious claims. It is surprising, then, that Isabella Varley Banks not only applied numerous times but applied so successfully, receiving a great deal of money over the course of thirty years. Of course, it is possible that George’s problems rendered him unable to apply. But the data nonetheless makes the Banks’s case appear to be an outlier.

It is difficult for me at this point to do much more than speculate, but I would love to read Isabella’s applications, as well as her poetry, to see how she chooses to present herself, both to readers and to the committee at the Fund. We have discovered through our research on laboring-class manuscripts that many LC manuscripts are located at the British Library—including many poets’, such as Isabella Varley Banks’s, applications to the Royal Literary Fund. I would love to travel there someday and read them!

Next week, expect a post about another featured poet.


One of the more interesting obstacles the team has faced so far in the process of transitioning to Omeka is settling on a controlled vocabulary for occupations. Early on, we decided to establish such a list as a separate field from occupations, which would allow us to narrow the range of terms describing poets’ jobs and thus make tagging and searching simpler. For example, all poets who did any kind of weaving would be called, simply, “weavers,” rather than defining them more specifically (e.g. handloom weaver, powerloom weaver).

But ultimately, creating such a list was an unfeasible task. Even eliminating more specific types of jobs would leave us with a very large list. And dropping such nuances risks ignoring significant historical and social details. Weaving on a handloom isn’t quite the same as weaving on a powerloom. A powerloom is a machine; a poet who operated one would have been active in the late eighteenth century at the earliest. Powerloom weavers likely worked in factories, and for this reason I would guess that there might be more women and children who were powerloom weavers than handloom weavers.

There is also a large group of Paisley weaver-poets (one of our collections on Laboring-Class Poets Online)—a distinct group from those who worked in factories in the nineteenth century!

In short, it is reductive and unhelpful to collapse all of this information into the single occupation “weaver.”

When it came to our controlled vocabulary, we also had to think about the end-user: What kind of searches might she conduct? How can we organize information about poets’ occupations in the most useful and sensible way in order to make searches simpler and more intuitive?

Rather than attempting to make a potentially reductive list of occupations, we decided instead to create a controlled vocabulary of “industries,” a broader categorization that groups together related occupations. And so all weavers fit into the “weaving” industry, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, and silversmiths are collected in “trades,” and so on. There are currently 22 industry categories, and each industry has a corresponding tag. This allows a user to search for all poets whose occupation fits within that particular group.

Now, if somebody is interested in all our powerloom-weaver poets, she can search “handloom weaver” in the occupation field. But she can also glance at the weaving industry tag and see the broader network of all those involved with that occupation. While it would be reductive to classify all weavers in the same way, having the option of searching for specific types of weavers as well as the larger category presents greater search opportunities for future users of the site.

The other day we came across a poet who worked as a milliner—is that classified under “shopkeeping” or “trade”? Does a milliner make hats or sell them (or both)? The OED reveals that the word first meant a seller of fancy accessories and articles of clothing, typically women’s, but that it came also to refer to a designer, maker, or seller of women’s hats. (Fun fact: The word Milliner, with the initial capital, originally referred to a native or inhabitant of Milan.) The same question applies to a haberdasher—is that a dealer or a maker of hats? And how does haberdashery differ from millinery?

As it turns out, there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference. Haberdasher can refer to a dealer in a range of clothing articles, including caps and hats, or a dealer in or maker of caps and hats. It appears that millinery more specifically deals with articles of women’s apparel, but, then again, none of us is sufficiently well-versed in the history of those occupations to say with certainty.

This example is illustrative of the difficulties of creating a controlled vocabulary of occupations that exist outside of our historical context.  Using “industries” instead, while not perfect, results in a smoother and more practical tagging system and, we think, a more useful experience overall for the end-user.

Now, off to research the differences between cobblers and cordwainers!

Information about and updates from the "Laboring-Class Poets Online" project, an in-progress digitization of a database of British and Irish laboring-class poets who wrote between 1700-1900.

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