Rural Happiness. To a Friend and Moonlight: in the Country

Image: View of Birmingham from Aston Wharf Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham (Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808)

Birmingham is presented across a series of fields populated by sheep and cows. The most prominent buildings are St Philip’s Church in the centre and the cone of a glass house to the right.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Rural Happiness. To a Friend

Hail! Fair Abodes of Freedom, Joy, and Peace!

Where Treasure flows, and useful Arts increase, 12


Moonlight: in the Country

……  the hurrying scenes of busy life,

Where sons of riot, waste the midnight hours;

Plung’d in the dang’rous ways of guilt and strife,


‘Mong noise and smoak, or swallow’d up in care,

Fam’d Vulcan’s rustic sons with Bacchus reign.


While copious draughts inflame their growing zeal ……13

These final two extracts are placed together for two main reasons.   The first is that William Shenstone, in his role as a ‘Maecenas of the Midlands’, included among the several  local minor poets he advised and assisted both Mary Whateley and Joseph Giles, a sometime engraver.   Another of his proteges, James Woodhouse, has already been mentioned.   Without Shenstone’s patronage and connections, it is probable that none of these three would have had their early volumes of poetry published.

The second reason for placing these two extracts together is that, while both are about Birmingham, the tone and content of each are markedly different from those of the other.   Miss Whateley’s lines on Birmingham, from a poem in which she also describes the immediate golden agricultural landscape, are simple, bright and positive about the town and its skills.   In contrast, Giles’s description of the town is much darker.   He sees ‘sons of riot’ plotting.   Indeed, there was rioting in the region several times during the second half of the eighteenth century.  The 1760s, for example, saw several outbreaks because of shortages or the high prices of food.   The phrases ‘with Bacchus reign’ and ‘copious draughts inflame’ suggest overindulgence and drunkenness.   While there were contemporary reports and complaints of drunkenness, it should be remembered that in many areas at this time it was still safer to drink beer than possibly-contaminated water.   And in one of his songs, John Freeth wrote in praise of ‘Birmingham Beer’.

The most striking line from Giles is: ‘Fam’d Vulcan’s rustic sons with Bacchus reign’.   ‘Reign’ with the Classical god of wine could connote being inebriated and/or powerful.   Yet whichever, ‘Fam’d Vulcan’s rustic sons’ makes clear that these are renowned metalworkers, who labour ‘Mong noise and smoak’, as did the ancient smith-god.

Although so different, both Whateley’s and Giles’s descriptions of Birmingham could be true, according to the perspective of each writer.

2 Mary Whateley, Rural Happiness.  To a Friend, pages 29-32, Original Poems on Several Occasions, R.& J. Dodsley, London, 1764.

3 Joseph Giles, Moonlight: in the Country, pages 17-21, Miscellaneous Poems on Various Subjects and Occasions, J. Godwin, London, 1771.

Ramble of the Gods through Birmingham. A Tale, James Bisset

Image: Blacksmith, N Whittock et al, The Complete Book of Trades (London, Marshall and Co., 1837)

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

…… Apollo, God of Song and Wit;
…… Mercury, and …… Bacchus ……
…… leave of absence ask’d of Jove, ……
To Britain’s Isle, with speed, they bent their flight,
And lighted here, ……
Old Vulcan’s Smithy soon, with ease, they found,
Directed by the thund’ring anvil’s sound; …… (pages 21-22) 11

James Bisset, museum owner and entrepreneur, published his Ramble of the Gods in 1800. It is to be found in the same volume as his A Poetic Survey Round Birmingham, acompanied by a Magnificent Directory; with the Names, Professions, & c. superbly engraved in Emblematic Plates. This last is a trade directory for Birmingham. Both poems, and their footnotes, further advertise the town.

In Ramble of the Gods, Vulcan shows his Olympian visitors around Birmingham. He tells them details of the constables, the courts, churches, charities, hackney coaches, banks, fairs and markets. Various manufacturing industries are described and products praised, and the factory locations and names of some owners are given. Despite the great use of coal, ‘Old Vulcan’ insists: ‘The atmosphere we breathe is clear and pure. / The num’rous Fires … / expel all Vapours, purify the Air’.

The poet also reports that when ‘Buckles…/…by Sprigs of Fashion’ were ‘deem’d ‘a Bore’./…/… thousands, by that Word, their bread have lost.’

While loss of the buckle trade is regretted, the poet’s enthusiasm for the great production of other ‘toys’ in this ‘Toyshop of the World’ is partly because it:

Then occupied the time of men and boys,
And blooming girls ……
That twice their ages join’d, was scarce fifteen,
Sent by their parents out, their bread to seek, ……
And many women, too, …
With children on the lap, ……
An honest livelihood intent to gain, …… (page 33)

More than Darwin in his Botanic Garden, Bisset here seems positively enthusiastic about child-labour. In a footnote he writes that five-year-olds were often sent out to work; he regrets the loss of opportunity for education, but adds that for ‘some thousands’ this has now been rectified by the introduction of Sunday Schools. Through Bisset child-labour is also given an Olympian stamp of approval. Having observed the workers, the Gods, ‘Charm’d with the sight’, ‘seem’d, with admiration, quite subdu’d’. This poem by Bisset is, in its detail and overall, an advertisement to promote the industry and commerce of the still-growing Birmingham.

1 James Bisset, Ramble of the Gods through Birmingham, pages 21-36, A Poetic Survey Round Birmingham; accompanied by A Magnificent Directory…’, printed for the Author, Birmingham, 1800.

The Botanic Garden, Erasmus Darwin

Image: Union of England and Ireland, 1801. Medallion struck at Soho Mint. Designed by Hans Kuchler.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office

With iron lips his rapid rollers seize
The lengthening bars, in thin expansion squeeze;
Descending screws with ponderous fly-wheels wound
The tawny plates, the new medallions round;
Hard dyes of steel the cupreous circles cramp,
And with quick fall his massy hammers stamp.
The Harp, the Lily and the Lion join,
And GEORGE and BRITAIN guard the sterling coin.
(pages 33-34, Canto 1, Part 1)10

The Botanic Garden, a long and learned ‘scientific’ poem, first published 1789-91, was written by the polymath Erasmus Darwin. The extract above is in praise of the Birmingham Soho Mint of Matthew Boulton, friend of Darwin, and fellow-member of the Lunar Society.

While in the 1760s Boulton’s mill on the Hockley Brook was water-powered (see Labour and Genius), by the time Darwin is writing of the Soho Mint, ‘the whole machinery is moved by an improved steam-engine’.

Another of Darwin’s footnotes on the above section reads:

“By this machinery four boys of ten or twelve years old are capable of striking thirty thousand guineas in an hour, and the machine itself keeps an unerring account of the pieces struck.”

The tone of this, and surrounding notes, suggests Darwin is reporting factually and enthusiastically on a ‘state-of-the-art’ factory and an efficient method of production. Perhaps one should not expect him to be critical of child labour when this was a norm of his time and vital for many.

0 Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, A Poem. In Two Parts. With Philosophical Notes, fourth edition, J.Johnson, London, 1799.

The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus

Image: Wolverhampton from the Penn Road. William West, Picturesque Views… of Staffordshire. (Birmingham 1830).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Now, see the Sun …………
Exhibits bustling Birmingham to sight,
Its multiplying streets and villas bright – ……
And Wolverhampton’s turrets, fair, unfold,
Near northern boundaries, tipt with burnish’d gold;
Fields, countless cotts and villages, between,
Give life, and lustre to the social Scene; ……
Within this orient Landscape’s ample bound
Each matter, and each manufactury’s found,
Which, wide, unfolding all their wealth, and worth,
Diffuse unnumber’d blessings o’er the Earth!
Here, … Lime-rocks large supplies; ……
There clinging Clay, in shallow lodgment, sleeps, ……
Crude Iron rests within its orey bed; ……
Coal’s black bitumen deeper still retires; ……
In Parts … flickering flames, appear,
Like new volcanoes, ……
…smokey curls … rise, …… all around, red, lurid light, ……
Deep, sullen sounds, thro’ all the region roll,
Shocking, with groans, and sighs, each shuddering Soul!
Here clanking engines vomit scalding streams,
And belch vast volumes of attendant steams –
There thundering forges, with pulsations loud,
Alternate striking, pierce the pendant cloud;
While, to these distant hills, respiring slow,
Furnaces’ iron lungs loud-breathing, blow;
Breaking, abrupt, on Superstition’s ear,
And shrink the shuddering frame with shivering fear;
Obtruding on the heart, each heaving breath,
Some vengeful Fiend, grim delegate of Death! …… (pp.24-25, Vol.1)9

This very long verse-autobiography was written by James Woodhouse about 1795.   The lines above, from a section headed ‘Birmingham and Wolverhampton’, present the towns and many products in a positive light.  Next, the region’s earthbound resources are listed, again with positive commentary.   But then description and landscape become dark and fiery because of human activity.   In the following verse-paragraph the imagery and collocation are interesting.   There is a partial merging of the human animal and the mechanical:  ‘… clanking engines vomit …/And belch…’; ‘Furnaces’ iron lungs loud-breathing, blow’.   And there is fear of death.   Unlike both A Letter from a Mechanick and Colebrook Dale, this poem by Woodhouse goes on to offer the described scene as a focus for Christian interpretation.

James Woodhouse (1735-1820) is himself of interest as an example of one whose life changed much because of his interest in poetry.   Initially a journeyman shoemaker, he became a protégé of William Shenstone.   Woodhouse’s 1764 volume, Poems, was a success.   He later became a bookseller in London.

9 James Woodhouse, The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus, in Vols.1 and 2 of The Life and Poetical Works of James Woodhouse, Edited by The Rev.R.R.Woodhouse, in 2 volumes, The Leadenhall Press, London, 1896.

Colebrook Dale

Image:The Iron Bridge, near Coalbrookdale Shropshire. Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn (1824). Harral’s views were largely based on the account provided by Samuel Ireland when he visited the area in the 1790s. This scene shows an industrial tourist attraction, the Iron Bridge located within a picturesque setting.

Image from: Shropshire Archives

Scene of superfluous grace, and wasted bloom,
O, violated Colebrook! ……
… thy grassy lanes, thy woodwild glens,
Thy knolls and bubbling wells, thy rocks, and streams, ……
The soft, romantic, consecrated scenes;
Haunt of the wood-nymph[s], ……
……Now we view
Their fresh, their fragrant, and their silent reign
Usurpt by Cyclops; ……
… thick, sulphureous smoke … spread[s], like palls, ……
And stain[s] thy glassy waters. ……
Ah! What avails it to the poet’s sense,
That the large stores of thy metallic veins
Gleam over Europe; …… ……
…… expanding Birmingham,
Illum’d by intellect, as gay in wealth,
Commands her aye-accumulating walls,
From month to month, to climb the adjacent hills;
Warn’d by the Muse, if Birmingham should draw,
In future years, from more congenial climes
Her massy ore, her labouring sons recall,
And sylvan Colebrook’s winding vales restore
To beauty and to song, content to draw
From unpoetic scenes her rattling stores,
Massy and dun; if, thence supplied, she fail, ……8

This poem, written by Anna Seward, ‘the Swan of Lichfield’, in about 1785, shares a theme with A Letter from a Mechanick. The earlier poem, in a few words, recognizes the detrimental effects on Wednesbury of being the source of coal for Birmingham industry. Seward’s whole poem mourns the violation of ‘Colebrook’s muse-devoted vales’. Its ‘metallic veins’ are a source of the iron essential to the Industrial Revolution; the natural environment has been ‘outraged’. The Classical nymphs have been ‘Usurpt by Cyclops’.

Seward goes on to muse that, if Birmingham’s industry should falter, that town might be superseded by Wolverhampton or Sheffield. And each of these latter towns has a ‘long-desolate’ or ‘arid’ iron-bearing region nearby which, like Colebrook Dale, could be exploited and spoiled by a more powerful neighbour.

8Anna Seward, Colebrook Dale, pages 314-319, Vol. 2, The Poetical Works of Anna Seward, with Extracts from her Literary Correspondence, Edited by Walter Scott, Esq. in Three Volumes, John Ballantyne and Co., Edinburgh, 1810.

Edge-Hill: a Poem, in four Books

Image: Coal and Iron Pit. The Useful Arts and Manufacturers of Great Britain of Great Britain Vol. 2 (London, SPCK, 1846?)

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

…… the dusky heath /… no … / …waving woods adorn
Its dreary surface, yet it bears, within,
A richer treasury. ……
Here many a merchant turns adventurer, ……
Hence are the hungry fed, the naked cloath’d,
The wintry damps dispell’d, and social mirth
Exults, and glows before the blazing hearth. (pages 94-95)7

Written by Richard Jago, author also of Labour and Genius this long and wide-ranging poem, first published in 1767, takes an extensive view of areas visible (or visible in imagination) from Edge-Hill, site of a Civil War battle. There are several pages on aspects of Birmingham and the surrounding region. While much of it is descriptive, it is also philosophical, and includes some social comment.

In the above lines, beneath ‘the dusky heath’, which is near to Birmingham, the treasure is coal. The mine-owner employs men in mining. Indirectly the coal provides food and clothing for the poor; directly, it warms and cheers the domestic hearth. But then follows a description of the dangerous and sometimes fatal conditions the miners must endure. This description is more grim than that in A Letter from a Mechanick and the perspective is very different from that expressed in Anna Seward’s Colebrook Dale.

For light relief the scene then changes to the green parishes of Edgbaston and Aston, where the urban workers from adjoining Birmingham (‘Queen of the sounding anvil’) are permitted to wander for rural relaxation. They should, however, be warned ‘Not to molest these peaceful solitudes’.

The next change is to the ‘noise, and hurry all’ of Birmingham, where the ‘Cyclopean chief’ and his ‘lusty fellows’ pursue the work of transforming iron, with the aid of coal, into a multitude of objects. And so the poem continues …

7 Richard Jago, Edge-Hill, a Poem, in four Books, pages 1-140, Poems, Moral and Descriptive, J. Dodsley, London, 1784.

Inland Navigation, An Ode. Humbly Inscribed to The Inhabitants of Birmingham, And Proprietors of the Canal

Image: Factors or Commercial Agents in Birmingham with a view of the Crescent and Wharf. J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham (Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808). J Hancock’s engraving of the Wharf in Birmingham, now Gas Street Basin is dominated by a scroll, supported by a crane, which provides the names of twenty-one businesses. To the left is a view of canal wharves near the Crescent, a distinguished Georgian terrace. The canal basin presents commercial activity including barges, a canal bridge and a lock, which is partly hidden by the scroll. Goods in packages and barrels are shown ready for loading.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

And now behold the vast increase
Of Cuts, fair Commerce to protect,
Nor will the undertakings cease,
‘Till Trent and Severn with the Thames unite.
All hearts fraught with mirth at the Wharf shall appear,
For true-feeling joy on each breast must be wrought,
When Coals under Five-pence per hundred are bought.
But let not the joys be confin’d to the Town;
All over the County shall gladness be shewn;
The Tradesman, Mechanic, and Cottager too,
Shall all share the bounty that soon must ensue,6

The previous poem, Jago’s Labour and Genius compares two natural but adapted waterways. In this poem we have a third type of waterway, planned and completely created for commercial purposes.  Inland Navigation is one of several poems on ‘Cuts’ (i.e. canals) by John Freeth, the prolific and frequently overtly political Birmingham versifier. It was written in 1769, while the Birmingham canal, which ran to join the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal, north of Wolverhampton, was under construction.

While Freeth writes optimistically that all would gain from the canal, apart from the canal owners, the most apparent benefit was to those manufacturers who required large quantities of coal, iron, and other heavy raw materials to be transported. Despite the increase in turnpike roads, travel by road during the eighteenth century, especially in winter, was frequently difficult. With the advent of canals, not only was the transport of heavy raw materials made easier, the costs of transporting some were almost halved.

6John Freeth, Inland Navigation, an Ode. Humbly inscribed to The Inhabitants of Birmingham, and Proprietors of the Canal, printed for the Author, Birmingham, 1769.

Labour and Genius: or, the Mill-stream, and the Cascade. A Fable

Image: View of Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory in Handsworth near Birmingham. J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham (Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Betwixt two sloping verdant hills,
A Current pour’d its careless rills,
Till rural Genius … / …Remark’d …
… this Rill … / …conducted by my laws,
Shall rise to fame, attract applause; / ……/
Damon …/……/… took his meaning to a tittle.
A bank he rais’d at th’ upper end: / ……/
Preparing here the mazy way,
And there the fall for sportive play.
The precipice abrupt, and steep,
The pebbled road, and cavern deep.
The rooty seat, where best to view
The fairy scene, at distance due.

Not distant far below, a Mill
Was built upon a neighb’ring Rill:
Whose pent-up stream, whene’er let loose,
Impell’d a wheel, close at its sluice,
So strongly, that, by friction’s pow’r,
‘Twou’d grind the firmest grain to flow’r.
Or, …/ With hammers … / … iron-blocks …
… make … as smooth as platters.5

Much of this poem (probably written in the 1760s) is in praise of the ‘cascade’ and the idyllic, pastoral estate through which it ran. The estate was The Leasowes, owned and landscaped by the poet William Shenstone, to whom this poem was inscribed by its writer, his friend, Richard Jago.

However, beginning at ‘Not distant far …’, a second rill – the mill-stream – is introduced. There is an obvious contrast between the physical descriptions and the purposes of these two waterways. Their ‘personal’ characters are also different. The pastoral cascade is philosophical, while the industrial and industrious mill-stream is boastful and ungracious.

The poem names the owner of the mill as ‘Boulton’; a footnote mentions his ‘So-ho Manufactory’. In 1762 Matthew Boulton moved to Soho Mill on the Hockley Brook, where, initially, he used water-power.

5 Richard Jago, Labour, and Genius: or, the Mill-Stream, and the Cascade. A Fable, pages 141-156, Poems, Moral and Descriptive, J. Dodsley, London, 1784.

Industry and Genius; or, the Origin of Birmingham. A Fable

Image: Portrait of John Baskerville (1706-1775), Type Founder and Printer, painted by James Millar in 1774. Oil on canvas. Industry and Genius was Baskerville’s motto.

Image from: Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

O B——! in whom, tho’ rare, unite,
The Spirit of Industrie and eke the Ray
Of bright inventive Genius; while I write,
Do Thou with Candour listen to the Lay
Which to fair Birmingham the Muse shall pay,
Marking beneath a Fable’s thin Disguise,
The Virtues its Inhabitants display;
Those Virtues, when their Fame, Their Riches rise,
Their nice mechanic Arts, their various Merchandise.
A Town they builden straight, hight Birmingham,
Where still their numerous Offspring dwell combin’d,
Whose useful Thewes, and curious Arts proclaim
To all th’admiring World, from what rare Stock they came.4

This anonymous poem first appeared in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette in 1751 and is reprinted in Langford’s A Century of Birmingham Life. It is written in a style obviously different from the other poems in this selection. This form is known as ‘Spenserian stanza’, one of whose characteristics is the use of archaic vocabulary. It is perhaps an appropriate form for what is a creation-myth for Birmingham.

The tale relates how, on Avon’s winding, flowery bank, lived a ‘thrifty, sober’ young farmer named ‘Industrie’. Nearby, ‘in a Bower of Jessamy / And Roses’, dwelt the beautiful maiden ‘Geniae’, who had ‘A Wit so bright, a Mind with every Part / Of Science so adorn’d, and was a skilful and admired painter. The two meet, fall in love, and marry. They produce ‘a Race / Of docile Sons’, in whom are combined Geniae’s ‘Ingenuity and matchless Grace’ and Industrie’s ‘Perseverance’. Then, ‘A Town they builden straight, …’. Within the flowery, pastoral language of its myth, this poem offers a very simple yet recognizable version of the development of Birmingham.

The opening stanza of this poem begins: ‘O B——! in whom … unite/ … Industrie and … / … inventive Genius’. The ‘B——’ was John Baskerville, renowned Birmingham type-founder and printer. It is perhaps noteworthy that, when Baskerville died, in 1775, his type did not remain in this country. Sold to the highest bidder, it was removed to France.

One further observation regarding this poem : The swain in the fable is ‘Industrie’ and Geniae is an artist. The coat of arms of Birmingham depicts Art and Industry.

4 Anonymous, Industry and Genius; or, the Origin of Birmingham. A Fable, pages 39-40, Vol.1, John Alfred Langford (Compiled and Edited by), A Century of Birmingham Life, 2 vols, second edition, W.G.Moore & Co., Birmingham, 1870.

Answer to Dardanus’s

Image: Plan of Birmingham, drawn by J. Sherrif of Oldswinford, late of the Crescent Birmingham. J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham… (Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808). The engraving provides several indications of the town’s industrial and commercial significance and importantly, in the context of this poem, no town or guildhall.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

A Bird is a creature I always admire,
In the regions of air, or a castle of wire;
A garden, methinks, had as well have nought in’t,
If some of its beds are not stored with mint,
I’m often delighted when Roger cries G,
And in liking a ham with the fashion agree.
By these, my friend Dardan I guess what you mean,
It is Birmingham, Birmingham! fair to be seen!
A town that in trading excels half the nation,
Because, Jove be thank’d, there is —— no Corporation!3

This anonymous verse, which appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine for March, 1753, in answer to a rebus printed the previous month, is included here as a second, and gleeful, public expression of the benefit to Birmingham of the lack of a corporation.

3 Anonymous, Answer to Dardanus, page 142, Gentleman’s Magazine, London, March, 1753.

A Letter from a Mechanick in the busy Town of Birmingham, to Mr. Stayner, a Carver, Statuary, and Architect, in the sleepy Corporation of Warwick

Image: South-West Prospect of Birmingham, 1829, attributed to Frederick Calvert. Watercolour on Paper.

Image from: Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

If you can leave your Borough, still and fair,
To breathe awhile in more sulphureous Air; / ……
When broad awake, for Vulcan’s Province steer
Each Cyclop will rejoice, to see famed Stayner here, / ……
You’ll see the cloud above, the thund’ring Town below, / ……
You’ll be convinc’d that Vulcan’s Forge is here; / ……2

According to Langford, this poem was first printed in the Birmingham Gazette in February 1751, although it was purported to have been written in 1733. In the title, the contrast between ‘busy’ Birmingham and ‘the sleepy Corporation of Warwick’ is telling. One traditional, although arguable, reason given for Birmingham’s industrial growth and success is that it was not (until the nineteenth century) an incorporated town and was, therefore, free from many restrictions on residents and work-practices, and so could develop more freely. The writer of this poetic ‘Letter’ is gently boasting when contrasting Birmingham’s greater commercial success with incorporated Warwick.

As in The Cyclops there is the metaphor of the Cyclops for the metalworker and, again, Vulcan reigns. Among items listed in the poem are ‘toys’. These were not playthings to amuse children. In the eighteenth century ‘toys’ was a collective term for a wide variety of small, frequently metal, objects such as buttons, shoe buckles, boxes, inkstands and ‘sugar knippers’. Birmingham produced many of these, especially buttons and buckles, in large quantities.

Two-thirds into the poem the scene changes and moves a few miles north-west:

Beneath Old Wedgb-ry’s burning Banks …
… Thousands …, with glaring Eyes,
In Subterraneous Caverns … / … sap like Moles,
Supplying every Smithy Hearth with Coals;
There let them delve, whilst in the growing Town
In jolly Bacchanals our Cares we drown. ………

A footnote to the poem explains that ‘Old Wedgb-ry’ (i.e. Wednesbury) was ‘famous for Coal Mines, and subterraneous Fires’. This hints at one of the very real dangers of sapping like a mole for coal to get one’s daily bread. And whilst there were smithies in the Black Country, much Wednesbury coal fuelled Birmingham’s industry. There was a symbiotic relationship between the suppliers and users of the coal, with, on each side, the owners being the main gainers. The thousands of workers benefited more or less. However, the poet points concisely to a contrast between the effects on urban and rural landscapes and social conditions caused by great exploitation of a natural resource. ‘Whilst in the growing Town’ the fires in the forges of Birmingham were usually under control, in the coalfields were ‘burning Banks’, where the land itself was being consumed.

2 Anonymous, A Letter from a Mechanick in the busy Town of Birmingham, to Mr. Stayner, a Carver,
Statuary, and Architect, in the sleepy Corporation of Warwick.
 Pages 41-42, Vol. 1, John Alfred Langford (Compiled and Edited by), A Century of Birmingham Life, 2 vols, second edition, W.G.Moore & Co., Birmingham, 1870.

The Cyclops: Addressed to the Birmingham Artisans, Anonymous

Image: Ironfounder, The Book of Trades or Library of Useful Arts, Part II, third edition (London Tabart and Co, 1806).

Image from: Science, Technology and Management, Birmingham Central Library

……… Vulcan …… His skill exerted …
And with new arms the victor God supply’d.
What skill the sooty artist has reveal’d
Red metal flames, the roaring bellows blow;
Resounding deep at once the blast expires,
And twenty forges catch at once the fires:
Now like a tempest loud, now gentle, …
In hissing flames …
Th’ eternal anvils deeply fix’d behold!
Taught by the God, the mimic tribe below
For meaner use their sweaty toil bestow;
Nor for convenience only are essay’d
The several labours of the swarthy trade;
Did the god-founder of this art design,
And prove the craft a faculty divine.1


This anonymous poem was printed in the March 1738 edition of the monthly, London-based Gentleman’s Magazine. The eighteenth century was part of that period during which Latin and Greek usually formed part of the university and school curriculum for boys whose families could afford such education. One effect of this was the use, in many poems, of classical references. The nom-de-plume at the end of this poem is ‘Polypheme’. The Polyphemus of Classical mythology was a Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, whose home was Etna, the volcano on the east coast of Sicily.

The second verse-paragraph relates how the smith-god, Vulcan, whose forge was beneath Etna, made new weapons for Jove, and so enabled him to defeat and displace the Titans. Then follows praise for the metal-worker, the ‘sooty artist’, who made the hero Achilles’s shield, and praise for the original ‘lofty song’ in which the shield was described. Next we are given an impression of the heat and noise of a forge.

In the second half the poet writes of more mundane metal objects made by humans: the domestic ‘swift-jack’ and ‘spit’; ‘various implements’ for the builder and mechanic; weapons (again); ‘the anchor’; agricultural tools. The last category of manufactures is for personal adornment: ‘the ring’; ‘buckle glitt’ring’; earrings; and ‘locket pendant’. The smith’s work touches many areas of life.

This poem begins with the Classical gods, then ‘descends’ to contemporary, mortal metal-working, in which those of ‘the swarthy trade’ endure ‘sweaty toil’. Yet the final line insists that this craft, practised by ‘the Birmingham Artisans’, is ‘a faculty divine’.

1 Anonymous, The Cyclops, Addressed to the Birmingham Artisans, page 159, The Gentleman’s Magazine,
London, March, 1738.

Poetry and the Industrial Revolution in the West Midlands c. 1730-1800

Image: Rules for Conducting the Insurance Society belonging to the Soho Manufactory. The scene connects wisdom, art, prudence and industry and is a remarkable attempt to marry cultural imagery with 18th century manufacturing activity. The Society was in existence by 1782.

Image from: Birmingham City Archives and Soho House Museum

Text: Anonymous


The thirteen poems discussed here were written between 1730 and 1800. They have been selected because they focus on aspects of industrial development in Birmingham and the West Midlands. In a variety of ways they help illuminate the context in which industrialisation took place.

The poems were originally published either in local newspapers, monthly journals or magazines, books, or privately printed pamphlets. Not unusually for the time, some of the works are anonymous. The named poets include two women, a clergyman, a one-time shoemaker, a prominent member of the Lunar Society, and a well-known Birmingham ‘political songster’.

As these poems are offered in order to cast some light on the society about which they were written, one must ask: how ‘truthful’ are they? Factual reporting, description of real landscapes and towns, imaginative invention, classical allusion and myth will all be found in the following pages – as will the philosophical and emotional responses of the personae in whose voices the poets have chosen to write. One would argue that each of these works has its own integrity and that, although this is not a comprehensive study, considered as a group, these poems offer much from which the interested modern reader might learn.

Readers will recognize that the writers’ eighteenth century spelling, capitalisation and punctuation are reproduced in the quotations. For each poem there will be a necessarily brief illustrative extract followed by comment on that poem.