Laboring-Class Poets Online

Posts Tagged ‘edward rushton

Biographical details about each individual poet, such as birthplace, occupation, associated locations and emigration patterns, form an important structural/organizing feature of the LCPO database. One might wonder why these entry fields are necessary for a project that specifically focuses on poetry, an aesthetic medium that certain theorists would argue should be removed from any potential authorial impositions on the text and treated objectively. This begs the daunting question regarding art and biography: can they be considered as a complementary relationship, or should they always be regarded as mutually exclusive? Or, in terms of the database: how does the information available in the database help us understand, or even acquaint ourselves, with the poetry it archives?

Thus begins the story of my love affair with Edward Rushton, an overlooked, turn-of-the-century hero of his time. When I initially approached the database, I knew very little about the poets involved, aside from the time frame they published in and their low socio-economic, “working-class” status. Since working on data entry and carrying out research, however, I discovered that learning about these poets’ lives, the socio-historic context they wrote within, and the geographic location where they wrote from, had a huge impact on their artistic production.

Edward Rushton is one such poet whose work is hard to discuss without recognizing his remarkable life: a sailor from age 11, he single-handedly saved a vessel from shipwreck at the age of 16; at work on the slave vessels, he befriended a young slave and taught him to read; he grew so appalled with the treatment of slaves in transit that he protested, and his captain charged him with mutiny; and in an attempt to feed and tend slaves during a breakout of opthalmia, he went blind, something which eventually led him to open a school for the blind in his hometown of Liverpool. An outspoken slave abolitionist, human rights advocate, transatlantic traveler, journalist and poet, Rushton was a turn-of-the-century radical who gave a voice to the marginalized peoples of society through his poetry. His life experiences directly informed his artistic production, as evidenced by his two most famous publications The Dismember’d Empire (1782) and The West Indian Eclogues (1787), which decry the state of slavery as a consequence of British Imperialism’s capitalist agenda.

Relative to the rest of the poets in the database, a fair number of scholars have written about him – an indicator of his influence and popularity while he was alive. His biography, therefore, informs his bibliography: his work aboard slave ships is the axis of events which informed the opinions, radicalism and published work for which he is still remembered today. A poems such as The Dismember’d Empire demonstrates his disillusionment with the notion of Empire, and the critical eye he viewed it through. His work further documents the difficulties of working within the maritime industry, under the occupation and label of ‘sailor’, and charts the terrible conditions involved in such a life as it was related to the growth of British Imperial capitalism. A poem like ‘Will Clewline’ (1801) reflects his experiences aboard the sea vessels of the time, such as multiple trips across the oceans, shipwrecks, close contact with the slave trade, and the pressing escape from a British society on the cusp of urbanization.

My discovery of Edward Rushton provides an example of how the LCPO database can help a scholar or student use biographic information to inform or offer insight into the poetry it aims to promote.


One of the defining features of the Labouring-Class Poet tradition is the sense of community shared between these poets. Because they were so conscious of their sense of ‘place’, both in society and geographically, common bonds formed between those from similar areas. One of the first things the LCPO Database makes apparent is these specific links: it helps scholars to group the poets from Paisley together, those from Bristol, those from Tyneside. While some categories used for grouping are broader – the ‘Welsh poets’ casts a wider scope than the ‘Paisley poets’, for example – these groupings are typically defined by geography. It makes sense that geography is such a defining, finite factor for poets of low-income and restricted social mobility, and for an era that had yet to feel the full effects of modernity, and its consequent urban migration and travel opportunities.

However, when perusing the database, another type of poet emerges: one who, despite the difficulty of travel at the time, somehow managed to cross the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or even made multiple overseas trips. It is surprising that many of these labouring poets emigrated to the Americas, or to Australia and New Zealand. Many of them were more mobile than the average American worker today, which is a considerable feat considering many of their restraints.

We tentatively called these travellers “Transatlantic Poets.” From the myriad journeys of this eclectic collection of travellers, we can find three clear patterns. The first group are a product of what Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker refer to as “the circular transmission of human experience” (2) that marked “the origins and development of English Atlantic capitalism in the early seventeenth century” (15). Due to burgeoning imperialism and colonialism in England at the time, slaves were a hot commodity, and many of the labouring-class poets who travelled were slaves themselves who remained such until their death. Olaudah Equiano is the most famous example, although he eventually bought his own freedom and used his unique position to draw attention and provide a voice for the slave abolitionist movement in the 1780s. His ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ is his most famous work, but he was also an established poet with such pieces as ‘Reflections On the State of My Mind’. These ‘slave poets’ of the Transatlantic group travelled from the African continent to the United Kingdom, where they were often bartered for and traded, or to the West Indies and Americas to work on sugar and cotton plantations (Equiano went as far as the Arctic on one particular voyage). Edward Rushton and Alexander Wilson, however, provide examples of the more common journey taken by our Transatlantic poets, which originates in the United Kingdom and ends in the Americas.

Rushton’s story informs another subset of the ‘Transatlantic poets’. A former slave ship worker, he openly wrote about his distaste for the slave trade and wrote many pro-abolitionist pieces, most famously The West Indian Eclogues, a long series of narrative poems he published in 1787. His work aboard slave ships enabled him to travel to the Americas, however, and without this he wouldn’t have produced much of the radical work he is remembered for today. Rushton is just one of many different maritime labourers, who worked either on slave ships or as sailors or employees of the large fleet sent across the Atlantic for all manner of trade. With the success of British Imperialism in the New Americas, there was no shortage of opportunity for young men to earn a place aboard any vessel bound for across the pond.

The third subset of ‘Transatlantic poets’ is exemplified by Alexander Wilson, an émigré to America. Originally a weaver from Paisley, Wilson scraped together enough means to board a ferry and move his family to Philadelphia in order to pursue better opportunities, such as teaching. Once there, he befriended the naturalist William Bartram. Their acquaintance encouraged him to follow his love of the wilderness, and in particular to empirically study the behavior, habitats and physical characteristics of birds. Wilson took his passion seriously, alongside painting and poetry, and travelled widely across North America to produce a comprehensive guide to American Ornithology. He is one of many who emigrated overseas in order to escape the limitations of his background, and hopefully provide better opportunities for his family.

A look into the groupings of this fascinating collection of poets points to their diversity. Rather than viewing the entire Labouring-Class oeuvre as a singular tradition of easily-definable poets working within the spheres of 18th and 19th Century Britain, here we have an example of the richness of their individual lives, their added social burdens (especially in the case of the ‘slave poets’), their desire to move beyond their means, and the catalysts that enabled them to discover their voices. These poets lived in the thick of imperialist England in such a way that they were subject to whatever the powers of government and capitalist industry had in store for them. Equiano’s autobiography, Rushton’s abolitionist poetry, and Wilson’s depictions of Scottish working-class life clearly and powerfully respond to the workings, effects and influences of these authorities, and provide a testament to how even laborers still had power – or opportunity – to escape or break beyond the limits set out by these authorities.


Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings:  Revised Edition. ed. V Caretta. (New York: Penguin Classics, 2003).

Goodridge, John (ed.) English-Century English Labouring-Class Poets. Vols. 1- 3. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2003).

Linebaugh, Peter and Rediker, Marcus. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000).

Rushton, Edward. The Dismember’d Empire. (Liverpool: 1782).

Wilson, Alexander. The poetical works of Alexander Wilson. (Belfast: John Henderson, 1844).

Alexander Wilson’s plate 76. Taken from ‘The Alexander Wilson Society’.

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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