The Bingley Byron

| October 11, 2013 | 0 Comments

This year marks 170 years since the death of John Nicholson, “The Airedale Poet”. Nicholson was a feted celebrity within his own lifetime, a Romantic poet from the ranks of the working classes. Yet now his lilting, melodic rhymes have been all but forgotten. By Lisa Firth.

“Of all the Airedale-born poets, John Nicholson had the highest endowments of genius,” Ethelbert Binns enthused in the 1892 Wilsden Almanac, 50 years after the poet’s death. Nicholson’s verses were a sell-out hit when they were published in 1824, running to two editions within months. His funeral attracted over a thousand mourners to Bingley churchyard. Yet now you could be forgiven for asking, “John who?”.

Nicholson was born in Leeds in 1790, moving to Eldwick with his family at just a few weeks old. He received his early education at the top of Ilkley Moor, picking ling and heather for the schoolmaster’s part-time broom-making business while he repeated his lessons.

John Nicholson, the Airedale Poet

John Nicholson, painted by his friend William Overend Geller

His schooling was finished off with a year at Bingley Grammar School – considered more than ample for a youth intended as a worsted manufacturer. Young John was apprenticed to his father as a woolsorter at the age of 13. Despite his parents’ ambitions for him to make a name for himself in the worsted business, Nicholson was to remain a lowly woolsorter or comber all his life.

The young man did not relish his woolsorting work, much preferring to bury his nose in a good book. He read voraciously, with Shakespeare, Milton and Pope his authors of choice. But his love of reading late into the night caused great concern to his mother, particularly when it began to affect his work, and she sought to put a stop to it by hiding his supply of candles. However, with the aid of a mustard pot, some of the olive oil used for preparing wool and an old cotton rag, John was able to construct a makeshift lamp and continue his nocturnal studies unabated.

It was this same ingenuity that gained him a reputation as a practical joker in later life. Once, when challenged by a local pub landlady to find a larger punchbowl than the ancient example that took pride of place on her bar, Nicholson had the basin of a large stone baptismal font delivered to the pub with his compliments. Relishing the joke, the landlady filled both punchbowl and font with free drink for her customers.

Unfortunately, Nicholson’s love of drink was to be the bane of his life. His dependence on alcohol grew steadily following the death in childbirth of his first wife aged just 21. Nicholson’s alcoholism eventually affected his work – only the sympathetic employer of his later years, Sir Titus Salt of Saltaire fame, ensured that he remained in a job. An attempt to free himself of “the demon drink” when he signed the Pledge in 1836 sadly failed, and within 17 weeks he had returned to his old habits.

The grave of Mary Driver, Nicholson's first wife, who died during childbirth and was buried at Bingley Parish Church

The grave of Mary Driver, Nicholson’s first wife, who died during childbirth and was buried at Bingley Parish Church

Nicholson and his family – his second wife Martha and their children (eventually numbering nine in total) – lived in a number of locations around Bingley, including Eldwick, Red Beck and Harden Beck. However, it was while working at Hewenden Mill in Wilsden that he shot to fame.

His volume of poetry, Airedale in Ancient Times and other poems, was published in 1824. Nicholson had already made a name for himself as a sharp, almost libellous, verse satirist, and he had written two successful plays, so the work was hotly anticipated. It was so popular that it sold out two editions within just a few months: people queued up at the printers to buy copies as they came off the presses, without even waiting for binding!

One of the poems included in the volume, “The Poacher”, was based on a real-life group of Wilsden pilferers Nicholson had befriended. One of these, Dan Ingham (who inspired the character Ignotus in Nicholson’s poem), bragged that he had bagged enough game in his life to fill Hewenden Mill. His mother was also notorious in the village, distilling moonshine whisky from her home in Harecroft. Her house was known among locals as a “whisht hoil” – a place for wanted felons to hide out.

The publication of Airedale marked a turning point in John Nicholson’s career. Flushed with success, he left his job and started making his living selling volumes of his work door to door. In this he was moderately successful, receiving generous gifts from wealthy patrons, although much of what he earned during this period may have been spent on drink.

In 1827 he made a trip to London, intending to break into literary society there. The Yorkshireman certainly made quite an impression – but perhaps not for the reasons he had hoped. His biographer describes how he arrived in the capital with hair unkempt, in rustic blue coat, corduroy breeches and grey yarn stockings, and was considered rather a clownish bumpkin by the fashionable townies.

It wasn’t long before Nicholson got into a scrape. One night a group of friends took him along to the Drury Lane Theatre after a day-long drinking session, abandoning him in the saloon there. Nicholson began drunkenly haranguing a bust of his hero Shakespeare, soon drawing a mocking crowd, and the next day he found himself up before the beak charged with disorderly conduct. He was let off with a reprimand, but the press had got hold of the story – “The Yorkshire Poet in trouble!” screamed the headlines. Worried his wife would come to fetch him, Nicholson headed home.

His time as a wandering poet ended soon after a second unsuccessful London trip. Nicholson’s publishers went bust, and many unsold copies of his work were seized and auctioned off at half price to pay their debts. The market for his poetry glutted, Nicholson was forced to once more look for work in the wool industry. He moved to Bradford in 1833, and there he remained for the rest of his life.

This was the final foil for Nicholson’s once lofty ambition. He continued to write poetry, but alcoholism had affected his work and he never again scaled the dizzy heights of Airedale. Possibly his most notable writing during this period came when he was commissioned to write some “hearts and minds” pieces raising awareness of the poor treatment of child workers in factories. Many young children were left permanently disabled by the cruelty, long hours and hard labour of the mills, and Nicholson composed an epic poem on the subject, “The Factory Child”.

Nicholson spent the rest of his life working at Sir Titus Salt’s warehouse in Bradford. Every holiday he would take himself off to the moors, “to clear his lungs of the Bradford smoke”.

The Airedale poet met a sad end at the age of 52 when he set out on the eve of Good Friday, 13th April 1843, to visit his aunt in Eldwick.

It was a stormy night and the Aire was violent and swollen. The poet “had made several stops on the way”, as his Victorian biographer primly puts it, and had been well lubricated by the local alehouses when he came to cross the stepping stones in Saltaire at around midnight. Losing his footing, he was caught in the current and swept some way down the river. Although he managed to drag himself to the bank, he was too weak to move any further and was found dead the next morning from exposure to the cold. Nicholson was laid to rest in Bingley Parish Church cemetery on 18th April.

The poet’s work is long out of print, and this may be one reason why it is no longer well-known. Perhaps, too, his romantic style – with its classical pretensions and elaborate language – just isn’t to a modern taste. There is no trace of dialect, no regional wit, even in his light-hearted pieces (although some of his rhymes give him away as a true son of the Dales – who but a Yorkshireman could make a couplet of “clear” and “there”?).

Whatever Nicholson’s shortcomings as a poet, he was a significant figure in Bingley’s literary history. How sad that this once well-known name has now been virtually forgotten.

Lines Written at Goit Stock

Hail! thou sequester’d rural seat,
Which ever beauteous dost appear,
Where the sweet songsters oft repeat
Their varied concerts, wild and clear!

Upon thy crystal-bosom’d lake
Th’ inverted rocks and trees are seen,
Adorn’d with many a snowy flake,
Or in their leafy robes of green.

Here may the contemplative mind
Trace Nature and her beauties o’er
And meditation rest reclin’d,
Lull’d by the neighbouring cataract’s roar.

Extract from “Lines Written at Goit Stock”, 1824

Goit Stock Waterfall

Goit Stock Waterfall

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