While our archival research is still on hold due to Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, the ‘Piston, Pen and Press’ team has been very busy adding all the industrial poets and poems that we’ve uncovered so far to our database. When it’s officially launched, it will be an open-access resource and searchable by poet, literary work, industry (i.e. factory, mine or railway) and geographical region. We hope to be going ‘live’ very soon — watch this space!

All this archival, library and museum research has been quite exciting and very fruitful! However, there are times when it is also truly frustrating, as it is not always possible to track down further information on a ‘new’ poet: the census records and electoral registers don’t provide those essential, additional clues, and searches in the local newspapers can draw a blank.

Nevertheless, there are times when we come across a poet we hadn’t heard of before, and whose life and literary work can indeed be recovered through some intense archival and desktop digging. James Milligan is a case in point, and we now present a preview and draft of our database entry on this little-known poet:

James Milligan (1823-?)

James Milligan was a cotton spinner in ‘Shaddongate mill’, Carlisle (‘Spectator’, ‘The Strike and the Protectionists. To the Editor of the Carlisle Patriot’, The Carlisle Patriot, 24 December 1853, p. 8). This was the cotton spinning and weaving mill owned by Peter Dixon and Sons based in Shaddongate in the west end of Carlisle. The census for 1851 records that Milligan was 28 in that year and lived with his wife (née Hannah Smith, of Caldewgate, Carlisle), two young children and father-in-law, who was a retired brewer.

His poems–generally moralistic in tone, and sometimes written for children–were published in the 1850s in The Carlisle Journal. In fact, Milligan’s poems seem to have found favour with its editor who offered his encouragement — in 1852, the paper’s ‘To Correspondents’ section included the following message: ‘The lines of James Milligan and other poetical contributions shall have early attention’ (‘To Correspondents’, The Carlisle Journal, 23 April 1852, p. 2).

Milligan himself was held up as an example in the local press of a case in which ”the manufacturers of Carlisle [were as] equally keen as the mill-owners of Lancashire in glutting the labour market  with “hands”‘. In 1853, a letter to the Editor of The Carlisle Patriot by ‘Spectator’ provides us an insight into the then current pressures on spinners at Dixon’s mill as well as Milligan’s life and motivation for writing poetry. ‘Spectator’ explains that Milligan had three poems–‘Daybreak’, ‘Nightfall’ and ‘A Summer Evening’s Stroll’–published at 2d each in the hope that the subscription money raised from these would allow him to take his family to America. His employer had threatened him with dismissal if he did not employ a third piecer (a person paid by the number of pieces of cloth they produced rather than by an hourly wage) to assist him with his work. Milligan already had two piecers and could not afford another as he already struggled to support his family. As a result he lost his position (‘Spectator’, op. cit., p. 8).

‘Spectator”s intervention appeared to have born some fruit: a few weeks later, Milligan wrote a letter to the Editor and reported that subscriptions had recently been raised from the likes of the Dean of Carlisle (Archibald Campbell Tait), Phillip Henry Howard (formerly Whig MP for Carlisle), the vice-president of the Mechanics’ Institute, as well as from other working-class men including local builders and grocers (James Milligan, ‘To the Editor of the Carlisle Patriot’, The Carlisle Patriot, 7 January 1854, p. 8). It seems that Milligan had by that point not only lost his position but was without prospects in Carlisle as he was then ‘fully at liberty’ to canvas for further subscriptions.

Milligan was able to take his family to America after all, and, it seems to pursue his literary career in earnest: the United States Federal Census for 1870 records that James and his family were living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in that year. He was working as a newspaper editor while his two oldest boys worked in a paper mill, and his next oldest boy was a clerk in (Milligan’s?) newspaper office. In fact, Milligan had started the weekly Chronicle and Advertiser the year before in Manayunk, a manufacturing area in the northeast of Philadelphia. He worked as its editor until at least 1876.

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