Lancashire’s (and Yorkshire’s) Links to Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman Day in Bolton. A merry band about to set off for Rivington at Adlington Station

The great poet of American democracy, Walt Whitman, had a huge influence on the early British socialist movement, particulalry in the North of England. The man whom many acclaim as the United States’ greatest-ever poet had very close ties with a group of friends, many of whom were Independent Labour Party (ILP) activists, in Lancashire. Each year, on May 31st, they celebrated Whitman’s birthday on the Lancashire moors with readings from his poetry, wearing sprigs of lilac and passing round a loving cup of spiced claret. Since 1985 the tradition has been revived, and has become a popular event for both socialists and the gay community.

The central figure in the Bolton group was J W Wallace (second from right). He was a close friend of Keir Hardie, and a member of the ILP’s National Administrative Council. Wallace used this position to promote his almost fanatical devotion to the prophet of comradeship and the open air and had some measure of success. Most socialist publications in the 1890s carried adverts for ‘Leaves of Grass’, Whitman’s ever-changing collection of his writings, and his poetry featured in most collections of socialist verse. Labour’s Garland – Poems for Socialists, published by The Huddersfield Worker and edited by James Leatham included an excerpt from Whitman’s prose on the cover and part of ‘Song of the Redwood Tree’ and ‘To a Foil’d European Revolutionaire’ amongst the poetry.

What made him so popular? Whitman cut a striking figure, with a shock of white hair and beard, wearing a cap perched at a jaunty angle. He was almost sanctified by the early socialist movement in England, particularly in the North. The Bolton socialist Allen Clarke wrote in 1919 that ‘it is fitting that Bolton should be distinguished above all towns in England by having a group of Whitman enthusiasts, for many years in close touch, by letter and visit, with ‘the Master’, for I am sure Walt Whitman, the singer of out-door life, would have loved to ramble our Lancashire moorlands.’ (‘Moorlands and Memories’, Bolton, 1920).

The correspondence with Whitman (left) started with a birthday greeting sent in 1887, signed by Wallace and his friend Dr John Johnston (pictured extreme right above). Whitman was touched, and there began an exchange of letters which cast a lot of fascinating light on Whitman himself and on life in Lancashire in the late nineteenth century.

Whitman died in 1892, but by then a firm friendship with other American ‘Whitmanites’ had been established with this small group of enthusiasts in the town which was then at the heart of the Lancashire cotton industry. They called themselves ‘The Eagle Street College’ after the modest two-up two-down terraced house where the group’s mentor, J.W. Wallace, lived with his parents in the mid-1880s. They used to meet at Wallace’s home each week to discuss Whitman and other great thinkers and poets of the time. Wallace moved to Adlington, a small village on the edge of the Bolton moors, in the mid-1890s and this encouraged the group to come to visit and explore the magnificent scenery around Rivington and Anglezarke.

Whitman’s Birthday celebrated

The highpoint of the group’s social calendar was the celebration of Whitman’s birthday. The day included a brisk walk up to Rivington where they would be entertained by the Unitarian minister Samuel Thompson (see cover picture of my book below, taken in Rev. Thompson’s garden – Whitman Day 1894). There would be readings from ‘Leaves of Grass’ and the passing round of a ‘loving cup’ containing spiced claret. More of ten than not Wallace would deliver an ‘address’ on the political and spiritual significance of Whitman. But basically they had a good time and were able to work off the claret on the walk back down to the railway station at Adlington.

The group were, at least initially, mainly lower middle-class men who included clerks, a journalist, clergymen and one or two skilled workers. They were not a metropolitan intelligentsia, but neither could they be described as representative of Bolton’s industrial working class. They were probably typical of the sort of person drawn to the young Independent Labour Party with its message of ethical, rather than Marxian, socialism. As Fred Wild, an early member of the group commented ‘these young men were all from the Parish Church and for the most part were engaged as clerks or minor gaffers and were attracted to Wallace by his personality and intellectual powers.

Wallace had a wider circle of friends who were infected by his love for Whitman, including Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party, who frequently visited him in Adlington. Edward Carpenter, Robert Blatchford and the Irish co-operator Horace Plunkett were amongst his friends and correspondents. Whitman and Carpenter were particularly close friends and Carpenter visited the poet in America. Whilst Carpenter was overtly gay, Whitman kept his sexuality something of a mystery, though America’s modern gay community has claimed him as their own. Much of his poetry is a powerful celebration of love between men, with some strongly erotic themes and imagery. Equally, he was the poet of spirituality and comradeship, and love of the open air.

The ‘laureate’ of the group was a Huddersfield man, Walt Hawkins, who composed a suitable poem for each birthday celebration.

And still going….

Today, Lancashire’s Whitman heritage is very much alive. The Whitman Day celebrations were re-established by members of Bolton Socialist Club in 1985. Each year on Whitman’s birthday – May 31st or the nearest Saturday to it – members and friends of the Club, a direct descendant of Bolton radicalism in the 1890s, celebrate his birthday with a walk on the moors and readings from his work. A loving cup containing spiced claret (or a more modest bottle of red) is passed round and participants, wearing sprigs of lilac, take turns to read their favourite Whitman poem. One of the earliest guests at the re-established Whitman Day was socialist and feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham whose recent biography of Edward Carpenter identifies the links between Whitman, Carpenter and English socialism.

Politics needs to be a bit quirky at times and there is no doubt that the annual Whitman Day celebration would fit that description. But it remains a popular with a very diverse mix of participants.  The complex mosaic of regional currents in socialism needs things like Whitman Day.

Copies of  my book on the Bolton Whitmanites – ‘With Walt Whitman in Bolton: spirituality, sex and socialism in a Northern mill town’ – are still available, price £9.90 – see Books pages. A new edition was published in 2016 and I’m doing further research on Charles Sixsmith.