These past two weeks conducting research in the libraries and archives in the Borders have been really exciting. In addition to finding materials on little-known millworker poets like John Singer (b. 1861), who was working as a spinner in a Galashiels factory at the end of the nineteenth century, and John Kelso, a working-class poet and member of his local Mechanics’ Institute in Kelso, we discovered there was also a very dynamic associational culture in the region.
The working-classes in the Borders seemed to have taken up the ‘mutual improvement movement’ with gusto! The existence of this trend started to emerge from my research trips to the local libraries to view their collections of nineteenth-century newspapers. Searching the local news sections revealed that mutual improvement and literary societies – voluntary groups of men (and later women) who met to improve their literacy levels and to become ‘literary’ – were very active at least in the 1870s and 1880s, and reports of their activities regularly featured in the columns of the local newspapers.
Hawick, for example, had a Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society that had been running since the 1870s. At their annual social meeting in 1880 held at Purves’ Temperance Hall, the Secretary, Mr. A. L. Morrison, reported that the past session had been ‘one of the most interesting in its history’ (‘Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Society’, The Hawick Express, 8 May 1880, p. 3). During the session, the group met to hear 12 readings, 12 recitations, 1 dialogue and 14 essays. In addition, there were three contributions to the group’s manuscript magazine. Presumably these were three meetings held for the purpose of hearing the society’s magazine read aloud by its Editor. (To learn more about society manuscript magazines, see the ‘Literary Bonds’ website.)
Prior to this there was the Hawick Literary Society, that was running in the 1860s. It is currently not clear, however, if this was an earlier form of the Mutual Improvement Society. One of its early members was Frank Hogg, who was a clerk for the firm of George & James Oliver, writers. His poem, ‘I Like Auld Hawick’, was written for inclusion the society’s manuscript magazine, two lines of which you can find inscribed in the stones outside the Borders Textile Towerhouse in Hawick.
Jedburgh, another important centre for wool manufacture located to the east of Hawick, also had at least two societies: the Literary Association, and the Mutual Improvement Association, both of which were running in the 1870s and 1880s.
To the north, in Galashiels, the Ladhope Free Church had its own Educational Association as well as a Literary Association. A history of the church published in 1895 by the Literary Association regrets to offer few details on the founding of the Educational Association but lists some of its members. One notable member was Robert Dalgleish, an engineer at an (unnamed) factory in town, who died in 1851 following an accident at work. His fellow members erected a tombstone in his memory.
Down the road was the Melrose Literary Society. Founded in 1863, this group was still running up until 2001, a rare example of a literary group that survived up until the twenty-first century. Unlike these other groups, the minute books and manuscript magazines for this society have survived, and are currently housed in the Heritage Hub in Hawick.
A further search in the earlier and later years of the local newspapers in the Borders will almost certainly reveal additional groups. It remains for us to investigate the biographical details of the members of these societies, to find out where they lived and what they did for work. As the Scottish Borders was an important centre for textile manufacturing, it would not be surprising if some of the members of these ‘improving’ societies worked in their local mills and factories. These groups were popular, and it seems their membership towards the end of the century was growing: as Secretary Morrison said of the Hawick Mutual Improvement Society, the attendance was ‘very gratifying’ — which could also be said of my research on groups in the Borders!