John Nicholson: Unpublished Poems

James Ogden M.A. B.LITT

(First published in 1976 in volume 9, pp. 37-44, of the second series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

In a previous article1 I presented some unpublished documents about the life of John Nicholson, the Airedale poet. I have since examined manuscripts of seven of his poems. Two are now in Saltaire Public Library, and five are in Keighley Public Library2 The two Saltaire manuscripts, and two of the Keighley ones, have not been published. Three of the poems are of considerable interest to local historians, and in the present article I give complete transcripts3 and some comments.

Lines written after a fire at Mrs Scott's maltkiln at Bingley.

Old Bingley seated in the Vale
With many a pleasant view:

Whatever ills our land assail
Yet Bingley youths are true.

True to their Country, and their Crown,
And faithful to their King:

Their friendship has for ages grown,
There is no chance for "Swing".

For if the raging flames ascend,
And redden all the sky,

Old Bingley's there from end to end
To drain the river dry.

The lovely lasses tripped along -
The river stopped to gaze -

Kissed their white hands and with them ran
To stop the raging blaze.

And this shall long remembered be;
When we are in the tomb,

Our sons shall sing with ecstasy,
They saved the widow's home!

Verse 2. "Swing": a name given to Incendiaries at that time.

Verses 3 & 4. In allusion to the two lines of men and women formed to pass buckets from hand to hand from the scene of the fire (above the King's Head Inn) to the river at Watering-well Hill.

The manuscript of this poem was formerly in the possession of Mrs E. Wild of Saltaire, whose husband was a descendant of the family of Nicholson's second wife, Martha Wild. The handwriting is not Nicholson's, but the poem's style and subject strongly support its attribution to him. It can be dated with certainty between 1828 and 1837. Mrs Scott was widowed in 1828,4 and after 1837 Bingley youths were faithful to their Queen. The allusion to "Swing" makes it virtually certain that the poem was written in 1830 or soon after. "Captain Swing" was the signature most often attached to threatening letters sent to landowners, parsons and wealthy farmers during the agricultural riots of that year.

This allusion also gives the poem its interest to historians. Nicholson says that in Bingley there is no chance for "Swing", a view consistent with the generally conservative cast of his thinking on social problems,5 though it is tinged with wishful thinking. E.J. Hobsbawn and George Rude6 have shown how and why the agricultural riots of 1830 were largely confined to the Southern and Eastern counties; there was comparitively little trouble in Yorkshire, where poverty among agricultural labourers was less severe. But Bingley youths were not quite so true to their country and crown a few years later, when they played a prominent part in the Cahrtist agitation

"Swing" is associated, not only in the footnote (clearly a later addition) but also in the poem itself, with incendiarism. Hobsbawn and Rude contend that this association was a journalistic error, since incendiarism played only a small part in the 1830 riots, and only became prevalent later. However, they mention instances of incendiarism at Farnley and Hawkesworth in December 1830, and these may have been in Nicholson's mind. And it is a curious fact that in Disraeli's novel Sybil (1845), the setting of which is largely inspired by the scenery of the Bingley area, there is a description .of rick-burning, and the farmer concerned is a Mr Bingley.

Journalists and middle-class commentators often attributed the "Swing" riots to the licensing of beerhouses in 1830. These, unlike the old inns, were not much frequented by the gentry and were therefore suspected of being centres of revolutionary plotting. Nicholson perhaps wished to allay such fears. Bingley lads and lasses, he says, so far from plotting incendiary outbreaks in their beerhouses, are more characteristically occupied in putting out a maltkiln fire. Nicholson's poem "The Maltkiln Fire", said to be about a maltkiln at Harden,' describes the cheerful gossip "when friends with home-brewed drink are met7 around the maltkiln fire". It seems a beerhouse was attached to the maltkiln.

Otter hunting near Bingley.

The bugle sounds, our otter hounds,
At 3 o'clock in the morning -

Left Bingley fair, for the Bridge on the Air,
With a loud Talihoo, as a warning.

For the otter, to be away that day;
For the hounds to loose their track,

And like a game, that will not pay,
Empty-handed to come back.


No such intention, I beg to mention
Had our brother Tomas will'd,

See him dress'd up smart, to watch them start
With sportive spirit fill'd.

For his sole desire, was noble sport,
That drove him out so early

To make aquaintance, who would have thought.
With petty coat Rose from Burly.


He meet her soon, while the wandering moon
Peep down upon the pair,

And he took her hand, you must understand
She was a lady charming fair,

And he told her, as they watch'd the hound
At that Monday morning early,

There isn't a prettyer creature found
Then petty coat Rose from Burly;


If Bingley Punch, had been at the lunch,
Had seen them tease and kissing,

A gay cartoon, he would have drawn.
What a shouting and a hissing,

For Bingley folks to see their Tom
Take an advantage bold so early

And through the town, escourting home
The petty coat Rose from Burly.

Again the manuscript was formerly in the possession of Mrs Wild. The handwriting differs from that of "Lines written after a fire", and may be Nicholson's own. The poem's attribution to him is virtually confirmed by the reference to "our brother Tomas" and the affectionately humorous account of his courtship; Nicholson had a younger brother Thomas of whom he was especially fond. It is, however, just possible that the poem was written by another brother, Richard, who was an occasional poet.8

' "Otter hunting near Bingley" is a humorous title. If we want detailed descriptions of the sport we can consult Walton's Compleat Angler (1653) or Somerville's The Chase (1735); Nicholson's poem illuminates the lighter side of social life in Bingley in the early nineteenth century. Descriptions of hunting by local authors seem to refer chiefly to fox hunting; Speight for instance says:

Jeremiah Scott... is . . . well remembered as the Bingley "huntsman". A pack of hounds was kept in the town in the early part of the [nineteenth] century. They were what is known as "trencher fed", that is, each person maintained his own dog. "Jer Scott", as he was familiarly called, used to come down into the Main Street, and with several blasts of his horn call the hounds together for a merry spin over the moors.

This Jeremiah Scott was the son of the Mrs Scott referred to in "Lines written after a fire at Mrs Scott's maltkiln,"9 and presumably his pack is the one mentioned by Nicholson. "Our otter hounds" sound like a local pack, which doubtless took to otter hunting during the summer, when the fox hunting season was over. Otter hunters have to make an early start to have any hope of catching their prey, which nevertheless often escapes. The parallel between the sports of hunting and courting is quite nicely maintained through the poem, and in the first line of the third stanza the word "meet" is perhaps wrongly inflected for the sake of a pun.

Lines on the bog bursting in Yorkshire. September 12 1824.

What gigs what carts what marvelling hearts

Are pressing the mountain brown

To see a bog the valley clog

And in a deluge tumble down

Old trees which sprung when Homer sung

And wither'd heath and wither'd bent

Which bloom'd, as it may be presum'd

When Roman hosts were hither sent

But the summer's heat the heaps of peat

Had dry'd in many a gaping chink

And when so dry the clouds on high

Send down a flood to give it drink

And as each flaw with greedy jaw

Quaft with unsatiated thirst

The lightnings flasht, the thunders crasht

And its tremendous bowels burst

Charybdys' shore should never rore

Nor Cylla murmer half so hoarse

Its works gave way & could not stay

But join'd the deluge in its course

The scaly fry in myriads die

And eels full half a century old

No more can creep amid the deep

But helpless on the flood are roll'd

Leeds folks amaz'd in terror gaz'd

The river's contents beat their skill

But news went down to that great town

A bog had burst upon a hill.

The learned men were eager then

That chymists to the hill should fly

For if the bog kept running still

Their trade must cease-they could not dye

So many went-the heath & bent

Were by their footsteps worn away

When they were there what did appear

For Crowhill bog had run away!

I ever thought it very natural, for the drought of last summer would dry the moor ground till it opened in chinks, and the thunder storm passing over the bog the waters would get into the fissures, or perhaps a water spout might accidently fall upon that particular spot and be the cause of the phenomena.

The manuscripts of this poem and the others in Keighley Public Library seem to have formerly belonged to William Scruton, the well-known local antiquarian. These poems10 were not published in Nicholson's lifetime, _but three of them appeared in collected editions after his death. The two which apparently have not been published are "To a Deist" and "Lines on the bog bursting in Yorkshire". "To a Deist" consists of sixteen fragmentary and unpolished lines, attacking deism from the Christian point of view; unlike the "Lines on the bog bursting" they tell us nothing new about Nicholson and are of no interest to local historians, so they are not transcribed here.

The Crow Hill Bog, on the moors above Haworth, "burst" on 2 September 1824, so the date on Nicholson's manuscript is presumably that of composition. His poem broadly agrees with other contemporary accounts. After a severe thunderstorm the bog erupted, and a torrent of mud descended on the Ponden valley. There was considerable damage but no loss of life. The rivers Worth and Aire were polluted, and at Leeds the water became temporarily unusable for manufacturing purposes. A large crater was left on Crow Hill, and many people came to marvel at it, among them the Revd. Patrick Bronte, who sent a description of the "earthquake", as he called it, to the Leeds Mercury. On 12 September he preached about the earthquake in Haworth Church, seeking both to explain its physical causes and to show that it was God's way of warning sinners to repent. He also wrote a long descriptive and didactic poem, "The Phenomenon", which was "intended as a Reward Book for the Higher Classes in Sunday Schools". It is remarkable that Nicholson's poem was composed on the day the Revd. Bronte's sermon was delivered, but neither the sermon nor "The Phenomenon" seems to have had any literary influence on him. Nicholson does not describe "the phenomena" as an earthquake, and so far from moralising writes about them in a rather whimsical vein. I fancy the Revd. Bronte would have thought "Lines on the bog bursting" frivolous.11

All three poems show something of this whimsical humour; taken together they modify the impression of Nicholson as a grave romantic poet which may be conveyed by the more ambitious pieces in his Poetical Works.


1. The Bradford Antiquary, New Series, Part XLV, 1971. (back)

2. Lines written after a fire at Mrs Scott's maltkiln at Bingley and Otter hunting near Bingley are in Saltaire Library; a paraphrase of Psalm 148, Lines on the bog bursting in Yorkshire, On the death of his favourite child, To a Deist and The Drunkard's Retribution are in Keighley Library. I am indebted to the respective Librarians, Mr David Ogden and Mr Ian Dewhirst, for help in preparing this article. (back)

3. I have had to compromise between reproducing and regularising the erratic punctuation of the manuscripts, but I have left the grammar and spelling untouched. (back)

4. Harry Speight, Chronicles and Stories of Bingley and District (4th edition, 1904), p.295. (back)

5. See my previous article. (back)

6. Captain Swing (1969). Southern and Eastern counties; there was comparatively little trouble in Yorkshire, where poverty among agricultural labourers was less severe. But Bingley youths were not quite so true to their country and crown a few years later, when they played a prominent part in the Chartist agitation. (back)

7. Speight (see note 4), p.372; the poem is in The Poetical Works of John Nicholson (ed. W.G. Mild. 1876), p.194. (back)

8. Hird (see note 7), p.xxvii. (back)

9. Speight (see note 4) p.296. (back)

10. See note 2. (back)

11. The Revd. Bronte's A Sermon ... in reference to an Earthquake and The Phenomenon were separately published at Bradford by T. Inkersley, 1824. They are to be found in Bronteana (ed. J. Horsfall Turner, Bingley (1898), pp.201-19. John Lock and Canon W.T. Dixon, A Man of Sorrow (1965), pp.248-52, ~ve a detailed account of the phenomenon and the Revd. Bronte's interest in it. (back)

© 1976, James Ogden M.A. B.LITT and The Bradford Antiquary