Robert Anderson, "The Cumberland Bard": an overlooked source for sporting life in the rural margins of late eighteenth century England.
Few key works on leisure in this early modern period have focused upon sport. (6) Robert Malcolmson's Popular Leisure in English Society 1700-1850 (Cambridge: CUP, 1971) provided an early useful foray into the field in the E.P. Thompson tradition, using a mixture of local and county records and histories of varying reliability, and very conscious that "the experiences of the common people were not usually worthy of notice". (7) Denis Brailsford was another figure early into the field, while Derek Birley provided a perceptive but limited overview based largely on secondary sources. (8) Two recent major works have extended a still limited historiography. Emma Griffin, in England's Revelry, A History of Popular Sports and Pastimes 1660-1830 (Oxford: OUP, 2005), focused largely on the key issue of the relationship between popular recreations and space, although also providing a cultural history of wakes, fairs, feasts and various athletic sports, most especially in the West Midlands, but also in South Yorkshire and Cambridge. She concentrated on the contested space for sports, such as bull baiting in market towns, industrial towns and townships, although one chapter examined rural villages, in which, she argued, there was some continuity in popular recreations despite rapid agricultural and social changes, and a degree of accommodation between the poor and landowners. However, given the focus on uses of space, much of her discussion here concentrated on enclosure and the village green, partly because of the scarcity of evidence for rural recreations.
Adrian Harvey's The Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture in England 1793-1850 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004) adopted a more quantitative approach, analysing newspapers from London, Oxford and Manchester, but largely avoiding rural field sports, instead concentrating his attention on the particular forms of sport popular with newspaper readers. His sources revealed that in urban areas horse race meetings, cricket, pedestrianism and pugilism were the most commonly reported events, and that coverage of some sports increased.
Where Malcolmson had argued for a "trend" of decline in patterns of recreation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, albeit with significant regional variation, Harvey posited that in 1815 there was substantial growth and that "Britain had become far more culturally homogenous," quoting a newspaper editorial as noting that "the fashions in the most remote parts of the country are quite the same as London". (9) The awareness that London editors and their readers had of cultural practice in remote counties well outside the world of the London season, London leisure and life on gentlemen's country estates, however, is unclear. Harvey's data suggested a major regional divide, with London and the Home Counties enjoying a greater variety and volume of organized sporting events, both annual and weekly, while northern counties were still largely dependent on annual events.
Although all the authors above wrote about "England", their focus was largely on London, the midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire. Revisionist works suggested that traditional cultural practices continued in newly industrializing districts, but what of areas distant from the centres of industrialization? Rural areas in general, and those in the far north of England in particular, continued to be neglected. Griffin's work, for example, made only limited reference to the north of England, and contained no index references to Cumberland, in the then remote north-west. Were the village sports of Cumberland similar to sports elsewhere in England? What was happening in a region which was economically dominated by the west Cumberland coal industry, but whose agrarian, scattered rural villages and small hill farms were outside of the heartlands of the industrial revolution?
Cumberland, and its county town, Carlisle, is rare in already having, along with its nearby county Westmoreland, some limited coverage of its sport, though Lyn Murfin's Popular Leisure in the Lake Counties (Manchester: MUP, 1990) largely concentrates on the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Leading leisure historian Peter Bailey has summarized village life nationally during the late eighteenth century as still
Integrated in a small-scale communal way of life whose recreations were heavily ritualised and bound by the seasons ... This was a robust and gregarious culture whose major plebeian pleasures were regularly patronized by the gentry until the souring of class relationships in the late eighteenth century when popular recreations came under severe pressure from middle-class evangelicanism, urbanization and a new industrial capitalism. (10)
But how far this was true of Cumberland is less clear. We currently know little of its rural sporting life in the later 1700s. Harvey's data shed little light on the region. He conflated any limited material in his analysis with material on Durham and Northumberland in a "North-East" category, despite Cumberland's location in North-west England. To follow Harvey in using local newspapers proved problematical, since local newspapers of the period, the Cumberland Pacquet (from 1774) and the Carlisle Journal (from 1798), shed little light on sports beyond the annual Carlisle races and the various leading wrestling meets at Carlisle and Penrith. Secondly, as Beck has indicated, there has often been excessive privileging of newspaper texts to the neglect of other sources. (11) Third, historians have tended to eschew those sections of newspapers more consciously literary in favour of those limited sections seen as supposedly more transparently historical. (12)
Another type of source, however, offered an opportunity for historians of sport to broaden a somewhat limited archival repertoire. Between 1780 and 1815, poetry increasingly flourished in the border region, as part of a broader cultural movement, the emblematic interaction of Romantic aesthetic and pride in regional cultural identity. A major and radical departure from the standard Augustan norms of heroic couplets and neo-classical odes could most clearly be seen in the highly successful reinvigoration of the ballad form in the work of the Scot Robbie Burns. Lake District poets and writers such as William Wordsworth and Coleridge became internationally known. Wordsworth, Cumberland born, came to Westmoreland and settled at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, in 1804. Over the border in Scotland worked famous contemporaries, the "Ettrick Shepherd" John Clare and Walter Scott (1771-1832). An English fashion for dialect poetry, in part a response to Burns' success in writing poetry in the "Scottish Dialect" could be seen in the work of several Cumberland poets. James Ruickbie (1757-1829), the fiddler and blind dialect poet John Stagg (1770-1823), the better-known sophisticated female lyric poet, the "Muse of Cumberland" Susanna Blamire (1747-1794) and others gained local reputations. (13) In general such poetry had little if any reference to sporting activity. But Cumberland's leading writer of the time, Robert Anderson (1770-1833), a poet, balladeer and songwriter widely celebrated in the nineteenth century as "the Cumberland bard", provides a much more useful source, one which contains many references to physical activities.
His ascription as "bard" was symbolically important. The term carried a range of meanings in a period with revived antiquarian interest in Celtic Druid religion, and a bard was taken as a man of the people, writing his bards for the people and about the people. This was very suggestive about the way Anderson was perceived: that unlike his contemporary, the middle-class antiquarian and historian Strutt, in his well-known, often quoted and uncritically used text about sport and leisure, Anderson was writing about village life from the inside, and from below, rather than above.
Anderson's status is now little recognized, despite the plaques and memorials to Anderson found in and around Carlisle cathedral, celebrations of his work in his native county at various times since his death, and his recognition in the world of English folk music. (14) His subsequent recent neglect is the more surprising, since he clearly helped to shape subsequent attitudes to Cumberland rural life, as well as being a key figure in an important and interesting literary movement in the eighteenth century and Romantic period. He wrote with considerable power. He was certainly regarded by the mid-Victorian period as offering a very useful insight into formerly popular customs and practices, John Richardson, in a speech to the Cumberland Association for the Advancement of Literature and Science in 1875 argued that:
If anyone wishes to know about the manners and customs of the people who lived in the county towards the latter end of the last and the beginning of the present century, he would do well to read ... the dialect writings of Anderson, Stagg and others. From the songs and ballads of these writers, one may get a far better insight into the peculiar traits and rough manners of the Cumbrians of that time than from any other source whatever. (15)
I will argue that there are strong reasons for privileging Anderson and bringing him back into critical view. He recently featured in the collection by J. Goodridge, Eighteenth Century English Labouring Class Poets Vol. III 1780-1800 (London: L. Pickering and Chatto, 2003), but he should be seen in a wider context than this. Anderson's writing did not just make an important contribution to the British ballad world, but provided for urban contemporaries in the early nineteenth century a window into rural recreations partly through the way he represented sport. Such images helped an often more educated urban readership make sense of, interpret and understand rural lives and feelings. We begin by sketching in what we know of Anderson and his work, and assess the potential utility of his writings. We then move on to analyse and evaluate the picture he paints of Cumberland sport. Finally, brief comparisons are made between Cumbrian and broader British sport.
What do we know about Anderson? He was certainly working-class both in origin and in occupation. From his autobiography, it would appear that he was born into a large but poor family in the city of Carlisle on February 1, 1770. (16) He received a fair education at a charity school. In his later autobiography, he claimed that "From childhood, a love of rural life grew with me, and I let slip few opportunities of spending the Sabbath in some village, particularly during the summer". (17) He spent his working life as a calico printer--mainly in Carlisle, though in his early twenties he spent a short time in London, where he became interested in the urban culture of the day and wrote a few ballads in the mock-pastoral style. One, Lucy Gray of Allendale, enjoyed some success and was set to music by James Hook, composer of Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill. It stood the test of time, ending up on a 78 record well over a hundred years later.
Upon his return to Carlisle in 1796, Anderson began to write lively poems in a variety of styles, and by late 1801 he was publishing singable ballads in the Cumberland dialect. Around 1800, he argued, "my attention to the manners of the Cumbrian peasantry was now greater than ever" (18) He was a man of the people, and most of his songs were about real individuals, whose names appear in parish registers of the time. Almost certainly he understood rural sport well. Most of the places featured in his poems and ballads, Brough, Cumwinton, Great Orton, Dalston, Blackwell, Kirklinton, Kirkbampton, Brampton, Scaleby or Thursby, made use of Carlisle and its market, its cattle fairs, country carriers and farm hirings, and were within relatively easy walking distance. People seem to have accepted the need to travel ten miles or even more and back, to Durdar and other nearby towns, to enter occasional sporting competitions, such as wrestling or racing. Anderson makes no reference to the coal mining areas of West Cumberland, Whitehaven, Workington, Maryport or to the hinterlands of other market towns like Penrith, suggesting a limited knowledge of anything further afield.
His most fruitful writing period was between 1801 and 1808. In one week in January 1807, he wrote nine songs looking back to the late 1700s. He claimed his "highest ambition has been to paint the simple scenery of nature and describe truly the manners and customs of his native county" (19) He was most productive about the same time as Wordsworth. He left to work in Belfast 1808, and from the time of his return, Anderson seems to have gone into physical and mental decline, indulging in he what he called "weaknesses". His early works continued to be published and republished but his later material tended to remain in manuscript. He followed the road of his hero, Robbie Burns, and spent much of his time "in social glee". Like Clare, he also suffered severe mental problems and, by the end of his life in 1833, he was cutting a sad figure, in poverty, and reliant on the good offices of his friends.
Anderson's exact position in British literary history is difficult to gauge. His dialect material found admirers and critics during his lifetime and afterwards. A handful of his ballads have lasted both in print and in the oral tradition, and were collected by Vaughan Williams, Lucy Broadwood and others in the early years of the last century. Four in particular--Barbary Bell, Sally Gray, The Blackwell Merry Night, and Canny Cumberland--are recognized as classics.
At the outset several problems need to be addressed. First, lacking much of the broader context in which to set his work, much of what we need fully to comprehend its codes and their meanings is now lacking, while his writings are literary sources that are written in a distinctive and very conscious dialect voice. His poetry was socially and politically oriented, and marked by its dialect linguistic range and freedom within a ballad tradition. Indeed the Cumberland dialect hangs heavily on some of his work, making it difficult for Standard English speakers to comprehend. In the later 1700s, many of the intelligentsia often looked down upon dialect. To Thomas Sheridan, writing in 1762, dialects were "sure marks of either a provincial, rustic, pedantic, or mechanic education", and therefore had "some degree of disgrace attached to them". James Beatie, in 1788, believed that "standard" English, used by "approved authors" was the "best English". (20) But regional identity was also strong. Men from Cumberland and Westmoreland living in London worked hard to preserve their identities, creating a wrestling society there with an Easter competition by the start of the nineteenth century. Dialect, and the focus on country life, were both stylistic inversions in terms of the contemporary canon, and were symbols of resistance to metropolitan hegemony. Equally therefore, the inclusion of references to the athletic sports of Cumberland in Anderson's work cannot be read as unwitting testimony. It is far more likely to have been another conscious act, a clear reference to traditional Cumberland cultural life, and may even have deliberately excluded modernizing features.
How far there were elements of cultural nostalgia in Anderson's work remains unclear, but choosing dialect, "vulgar" and not "refined", was certainly deeply political, whilst by paying attention to his work his audience also became complicit in constructing a particular view of Cumberland life. His regional contemporary Wordsworth, whilst choosing to write about the Lake District, deliberately chose a literate, Standard English, "national" voice, and was later granted the "national" title of Poet Laureate. By contrast Anderson chose a distinctively local and regional voice, a dialect form that meant that his work had little if any impact outside Cumberland. As modern Cumbrian writer Melvyn Bragg pointed out in arguing that Anderson's writing was well worthy of "reclamation and rediscovery", the poet's "cleaving to local dialect, local incident and local colour, meant that his reputation has largely stayed put in his own area." (21)
Secondly, Anderson, also like Robert Burns, was a balladeer, and not a reporter. He gained his love of border and Scottish ballads as a young boy in the 1780s from a Scottish neighbour, "a decent, industrious old woman born in the highlands". (22) Almost all his published ballads, for example, include a reference to the traditional tune to which they were to be sung. Like Burns, therefore, his work was music-oriented, using well-known traditional jigs and reels of new tunes created by Anderson himself of others. His work, even in his lifetime, was read but also listened to. The musical element to Anderson's ballads does not, however, mean that his poetry cannot be freestanding. The ballad form also forced a particular "way of telling", a form which appealed to a particular kind of public but which also shaped what he could say and how he could say it.
Thirdly, there is a sense that Anderson might be perceived as a marginal man, espousing aspects of both working-class and middle-class, rural and urban culture, but fully located in neither. Essentially he selected from his experiences of working-class culture those elements most calculated to make money. The paradox was that "rural sketches of Cumberland manners" were written in part to "amuse friends with harmless glee", in part to let "the virtuous ploughman see a portrait true", and in part for the approval of the highest in the county and beyond. (23) His audience remain shadowy figures, since we have no details of how many copies of his works were sold and to whom, although it would seem he was most likely to have been favoured by a literate Cumberland audience, that group he described in his song Canny Aul Cummerlan as "buik-larn'd wise gentry that's seen monie a county", for whom the rural peasantry was remote and therefore appealing, so his material was "spun" for an educated, literate audience. He dedicated his Ballads in the Cumberland Dialect (1815) to the Howards of Corby Castle, "as a proof of gratitude" from their "obedient servant". In the absence of evidence we do not know exactly how his material was received by his audience, but by creating and disseminating such material he helped to inform middle-class attitudes to working-class life and thus shaped future interpretations of the region's past. As he grew older and became more accepted the stock images might have served him even better. An 1820 edition of his work attracted over 1000 subscribers, including literary "lions," such as Wordsworth, Carlyle and Southey, as well as vicars, surgeons, solicitors and others. "An introduction to the work" by Thomas Sanderson, a Cumberland poet and historian, provided a memoir of his life and a essay on the "character, manners and customs of the peasantry of Cumberland" to accompany it.
The strong sense of place in Anderson's work meant that his poems set sport very clearly in its cultural and local context. He did not write poems and ballads about sport, but about Cumberland everyday life, a life into which sport sometimes fitted. Locality was not a backdrop to his poetry. It was central. Cumberland was his home, a place he was proud of, and he celebrated its towns, farms, fairs, markets and landscape that he celebrated. The Cumberland dialect that he deliberately employed was part of that sense of place, while Cumberland people were central to his writing. Wordsworth's focus was on nature, on Lake District landscape, and solitude. Anderson was fond of people, of pleasure and sociability. His ballads were full of human interest, containing apparently real people, men and women, and addressing their work, love, courtship and marriage, spinsterhood, country life, drinking, dancing, other leisure, travel and adventure. Yet his material cannot be taken as plain fact, since there were clear fictive elements.
His references to sport were simply part of his broader exploration of leisure life, and need to be set in the context of a Cumberland that during the French wars was affected by broader social changes. As elsewhere nonconformity, through the extension of Quakerism and Methodism, was making inroads into the region, and attaching secular leisure. The growing impact of Sabbatarianism meant that for some at least, sports were increasingly less commonly being played on Sundays in the first decade of the century. By 1820, a local poet, Thomas Sanderson, could claim that "the Cumberland peasantry were formerly so fond of athletic exercise, such as wrestling, leaping, throwing the stone and playing at foot-ball and quoits that they were frequently practised on the Sabbath", but the "growing piety of the age" had put an end to this. (24)
Anderson's ballads reflect a still vibrant leisure culture, one in which a wide range of physical activities could be engaged in, even if their actual frequency of participation might be less clear. This was a period when the term "sport" was still applied more to the upper-class field sports. Indeed this is the only sense in which Anderson mentions the word. But a variety of physical activities and athletic sports such as cockfighting, fighting, flinging the "geavelick" (a long pole like a javelin), football, foot racing, handball, horse racing, hunting, leaping, quoits, shooting, throwing the stone, trippet and wrestling are also mentioned. Such images can be triangulated with other sources of the period. Jollie's Sketch of Cumberland Manners and Customs (Jollie and Sons, Carlisle 1811), describes how at a wedding there were often rural sports, and horse racing, foot races, leaping, and wrestling for various prizes. Jollie argued that young men's diversions were "of the athletic kind, such as running, leaping, wrestling, foot-ball, trippet, hunting and horse racing". He reported more negatively and condemningly that "the savage sport of cockfighting has also taken deep root in this county and draws together a large collection of rude gamblers once a year at every village alehouse and that about the beginning and the end of Lent". (25)
Jollie, like Anderson, intentionally gave prominence to the male body in sporting terms. Men, especially young men, were consistently represented and examined. Jollie mentioned that girls in the villages "often play handball" but while gender relationships were of fundamental importance to Anderson's writings, this was not so in terms of sporting activity. The absence of women's sport in his writing may have signified the cultural conservatism of a male author, writing through the lens of class and gender. But whilst Anderson covered women's lives in a context of male power, he was capable of taking on a woman's viewpoint. Many of his songs deliberately take the woman's voice, though often the women are talking about men. His work had, for example, references to the role of women in relation to marriage, so successfully dealt with by the women writers of the 19th century. Before the Married Woman's Property Act of the late 19th century, marriage brought the transfer of property from the wife to her husband, a feature well covered in verses from Anderson's Madam Jane.
When I'd ne'er a penny Deil a lad had I Pointing aye at Jenny Laughing they went buy Since old Robin left me Houses, lands--not few The lads come round in clusters I'm a beauty now Money they're all seeking Money they'll get neane Money sends them sneaking After Madam Jane.
How did Anderson represent attributes such as masculinity, physicality, youth and strength? Masculinities, as Weekes has pointed out, are "invented categories". (26) So it is worth exploring the extent to which Anderson represented plural forms of masculinity, and the skills, values and competencies valued in his work. At times, as we shall see, he presented more respectable or middle-class values: elements of the moral earnestness of chapels, societies and clubs, opposed to cruelty and pain, and more centred on family. Yet, far more commonly, activities such as drinking, fighting, running, leaping and winning contests of any sort were foregrounded and sometimes privileged. In The Twee Auld Men, Matthew, well into old age at eighty-five, still boasted that "a hard drinker, a wussler, a feghter, a cocker I've been in my time". (27) All round athleticism was strongly valued, much on the later middle-class Olympian model. One of Anderson's characters, Jack Spang, was a man, others by comparison were young children, because: "At runnin, at russlin, at lowpin, They're nobbut leyke bairns to Jack Spang". (28) "Lowpin" (leaping) was a valued physical skill, one also claimed by others, such as Jeff of Job, another all-round athlete, who also "wan't a foot race tweyce at Carel", and could "fling the geavelick". (29) Matthew Macree could leap "a full yard owre them a". (30)
(1.) Emma Griffin, in England's Revelry, A History of Popular Sports and Pastimes 1660-1830 (Oxford: OUP, 2005), p. 58.
(2.) Griffin, England's Revelry, p. 1.
(3.) Neil Tranter, Sport, Economy and Society in Britain, 1750-1914 (Cambridge: CUP, 1998), pp. 5, 11; Robert Malcolmson, Popular Recreations in English Society 1700-1850 (Cambridge: CUP, 1971), p.2.
(4.) Peter Borsay, A History of Leisure: The British Experience since 1500 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006), pp. 14-15.
(5.) For a summary of such debates see Tranter, Sport, Economy and Society, Chapter 1. See also Emma Griffin, 'Popular Culture in Industrialising England', The Historical Journal 43, 3, (2002), pp. 619-335.
(6.) See B. Bushaway, By Rite: Custom, Ceremony and Community in England 1700-1800 (London: Junction Books); R. Hutton, The Rise and Fall of Merry England (Oxford: OUP, 1994).
(7.) Malcolmson, Popular Recreations, p. 2. For a recent appreciation of his work see Catriona Parratt, 'Robert W. Malcolmson's Popular Recreations in English Society 1780-1850: An Appreciation', Journal of Sport History 29, 2 (2002), pp. 313-323.
(8.) See, for example, Denis Brailsford, "1784: A Sporting Year", Research Quarterly 52 (1981), pp. 34-45; Derek Birley, 'Bonoparte and the Squire: Chauvinism, Virility and Sport in the Period of the French Wars', in J. A. Mangan, ed., Pleasure, Profit and Proselytism; British Culture at Home and Abroad 1700-1914 (London: Cass, 1988).
(9.) Adrian Harvey, Beginnings of a Commercial Sporting Culture in England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), p. 1, quoting Bell's Weekly Dispatch, 26 November, 1815.
(10.) Peter Bailey, "the Politics and Poetics of Modern British Leisure: A Late Twentieth Century Review", Rethinking History 3, 2 (1999), p.132.
(11.) Peter Beck, Scoring for Britain: International Football and International Politics (London: Cass, 1999), p. vii.
(12.) Jeff Hill, "Anecdotal Evidence: Sport the Newspaper Text and History", in Murray Phillips (ed), Deconstructing Sport History: A Postmodern Analysis (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006), pp. 117-129.
(13.) C. H. Maycock, A Passionate Poet: Susanna Blamire.
(14.) K Gregson Cumbrian Songs and Ballads (Dalesman, Clapham [via Lancaster], 1980); K Gregson "The Cumberland Bard: An anniversary reflection" in Folk Music Journal 4, 4 (1983), pp333-366; K Gregson "Bridging the Gap--A Cumbrian dialect songwriter's success in the north east of England" in Journal of the Lakeland Dialect Society (1981), pp. 7-13; K Gregson "The Cumberland Bard and Cumberland Ballads--Vaughan Williams Memorial Library Lecture" in Journal of the Lakeland Dialect Society ($1982) pp12-22.
(15.) John Richardson, "The Cumbrian Dialect", in Transactions of the Cumberland Association for the Advancement of Literature and Science, Vol. 1 (Keswick: 1875-6).
(16.) Robert Anderson, Cumberland Ballads (London: Bembrose and Sons, 1893).
(17.) Memoir, R Anderson The Poetical Works of Robert Anderson: Vol. I (Carlisle: Scott, 1820), xxii.
(18.) Anderson, Poetical Works: Vol. I, p. xxviii.
(19.) Anderson, Poetical Works: Vol. 1, Introduction, p. x.
(20.) See Thomas Sheridan, A Course of Lectures on Elecution (London: W. Strahan, 1762); James Beatie, The Theory of Language (London: Strathan, 1788).
(21.) Anderson 150th Anniversary celebration booklet, Foreword, produced for a performance of Anderson's works at the Green Room in Carlisle, 24.9.1983, quoted in Gregson "The Cumberland Bard".
(22.) Anderson's 'Memoir of the Author' in Anderson, Poetical Works: Vol. I, p. xvii
(23.) Gregson, 'The Cumberland Bard', p. 344.
(24.) Anderson, Poetical Works: Vol. I, Introduction, p. lviii.
(25.) Jollie's Sketch of Cumberland Manners and Customs: Vol. 1 (Jollie and Sons, Carlisle 1811), pp. 42-4
(26.) Jeffery Weekes, 1991
(27.) T Ellwood (ed.), Anderson's Cumberland Ballads and Songs (Ulverston: Holmes, 1904), p. 68
(28.) Ellwood (ed) Anderson's Cumberland Ballads and Songs, p. 145
(29.) Ellwood (ed.), Anderson's Cumberland Ballads and Songs, p.47; Gregson, Cumbrian Songs and Ballads), p. 18.
(30.) Ellwood (ed.), Anderson's Cumberland Ballads and Songs, p. 61
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|Publication:||Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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