From April-June 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown period, the ‘Piston, Pen & Press’ team is delighted to be hosting an online reading project featuring some of the poems and songs we’ve been working on recently, and in the spirit of the Literary and Mutual Improvement Societies we’ve been researching (our flyer references the ‘Shoddy Court Literary and Scientific’ in Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, and is modelled after the selection of flyers we studied in Keighley Library, Yorkshire). Reading materials will be posted here and on Facebook, and you’ll be able to watch our short introductory videos to each week on Youtube. Readers can join the discussion by posting their thoughts on our Facebook page, commenting and tagging us on Twitter (@PistonPen) or by joining live Zoom discussions, held fortnightly, Tuesdays at 8pm BST (British Summer Time). All welcome, no prior knowledge necessary!

To receive the link and password for our Zoom meetings, please email

First Discussion: Tuesday 28th April, 8pm BST.

“Rights and Liberty”: John Stafford’s songs celebrating forty years of freedom struggles.

Despite being illiterate, John Stafford (1790-c.1840s) composed many songs celebrating and commemorating the radical causes in which he played an active role.  These songs were frequently sung at radical gatherings around the Ashton-under-Lyne area where Stafford lived and worked.  The selection of songs we’ve chosen deal with the most important working-class struggles of the first half of the Nineteenth Century – Luddism, Reform, Peterloo, the Factory Movement and Chartism.

Mike introduces John Stafford and his poems

Second Discussion: Tuesday 12th May, 8pm BST. [International participants, please note that Zoom is confused by British Summer Time, you may need to add an hour to its calculations for your time-zone]

“We work for our bread in the caverns below”: Poetry from the Pits.

Kirstie and Mike discuss their choices of miners’ poems and songs

Led by Mike and Kirstie and featuring mining songs and poems from Scotland and the North, this highlights the topics and themes of miner’s poetry in the long Victorian period. Mike has selected four Northern mining songs and poems from the 1840s. Kirstie has picked four Scottish poems: one each by miner-poets David Wingate (1828-1892) and Arthur Wilson (1864-1947) and two poems or songs by Sarah Moore (1873-1947) a Labour activist and councillor from West Lothian, whose poems are unpublished. Download a Word file containing the poems below (any access problems, email us!) Zoom meeting link same as before if you had it previously, if not email and we will supply it.

Third Discussion: Tuesday 26th May, 8pm BST.

“A factory girl can ne’er be free”: Songs from the Shuttles and Spindles.

For this week Mike and Kirstie focus on two late-century Lancashire poets, Sam Fitton and Sarah A. Robinson, and their writings in the Cotton Factory Times and Yorkshire Factory Times. Kirstie has written a short article on Robinson for History Workshop Online, which has some information about what we know so far about her life and works. You can download the poems for discussion below. Our project partner Jennifer Reid has also recorded two of Fitton’s songs for us, to accompany our discussion.

Jennifer sings Fitton’s ‘Shuttle-Kissin”
Jennifer sings Fitton’s ‘Mule-Gate Musing’ or ‘Paradise as Pictured by a Piecer’

Fourth Discussion: Tuesday 9th June, 8pm BST.

“The spring and ring of the bending rail”: Lines from the Railways.

Here Mike, Kirstie and Oli will consider some of the poems by railway poets we have been investigating, with a selection of poems about life in this new and growing industry, and its hazards and pleasures.

Kirstie introduces this week’s railway poets and poems