In a summer break largely consumed by traditional conference duties (Victorian Periodicals in Ghent in July, more periodicals in Stockholm in September) it has been a relief to step out a little from normal scholarly events. In late July, on the strength of a long standing interest in writing by labouring class men and women in the nineteenth century, I was invited by a radio producer based in Manchester to contribute to a programme on the popular literature of the industrial revolution to be broadcast on Radio 4. The great attraction, apart from the fascination of seeing how something like this is put together, was that the presenter of the programme is Eliza Carthy, one of Britain’s leading traditional singers. I had heard Eliza and her father Martin sing and play together a few weeks previously, and I was very interested to meet her.
The programme was put together in Chetham’s Library in Manchester, a library based in beautiful medieval buildings near Victoria station which holds extremely large and significant collections of broadside ballads, song sheets and other rare material related to popular culture in Victorian Manchester. It was also extensively used by Marx and Engels during their time in Manchester studying industrial culture.
After talking through the shape of the programme, we (the producer, Eliza Carthy and a Professor from MMU as well as me) walked to the site of Manchester’s most infamous Victorian slum, known as Little Ireland, but now the site of offices and flats built over the notoriously contaminated river Medlock. We talked about the conditions and hardships endured by the inhabitants before returning to Chetham’s where we talked together about the kinds of songs that the urban poor might have heard and sung in the early Victorian period, looking through the library’s collection for examples as we continued. The producer will clearly cut together the programme not just from our conversations, but also from performances by both Eliza Carthy and a local singer, Jennifer Reid.
It was disappointing not to get to hear Eliza sing, but it was a pleasure to talk to her about the ways in which she found, arranged and performed the songs in her repertoire. Her commitment to bringing to light the history of ordinary people and their struggles was particularly impressive. It was also good to be reminded of the magnificent collections available in regional libraries, especially collections of ephemeral material related to the history of industrialism. I don’t have a date for the broadcast yet, and I suspect I will end up with a single sentence if I’m lucky, but it was enjoyable and rewarding – to contribute.