Today we take news almost for granted, expecting immediate television, radio or newspaper reports on the day's events. Two hundred years ago, detailed news of major happenings was much more difficult to acquire. Few people could read, and even then newspapers were rare. The main source of information available to the mass of the public were the itinerant merchants, or chapmen, who travelled the country selling their wares. Songs and poems, usually of standard format and adapted to local events telling people about individual items of news, were included in their wares. They were printed, enabling them to be read aloud, especially in pubs and inns, by those capable of reading. In effect they were an early form of mass media, and many have been preserved in 'chapbooks'.

The promotion of canals was one of the major topics of the late eighteenth century, and many pamphlets and broadsheets were published extolling their virtues. Among these is the following, taken from a chapbook containing items printed circa 1770, and almost certainly referring to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

A New Song in Honour of the Proprietors of the Navigation

Come all you Britons Old and Young
Who love to see this great work done
That is in England now begun,
This noble Navigation

Where you have all things at command
See vessels sailing thro' the land,
The richness of your lab'ring hand
Will bring Honour and Glory.

This work begun in Yorkshire,
Were you to see you'd then admire,
Hundreds of lab'ring men they hire
For this noble navigation.

If a man he be in want,
And for Money have great occasion,
Be not afraid but take a spade,
There's money at th'Navigation.

Britons rejoice do not lament,
But praise the king and Parliament,
Brings every true subject content,
For this act of Navigation.

God bless George the third our king,
The lab'ring men rejoice and sing,
That'ell make the hills and valley's ring,
For this act of Navigation.

Where you may sail from shore to shore,
To every part the world o'er,
From other lands may bring their store,
To every part of England.

You misers that does lay up gold,
I would have you to be so bold,
For 'tis as good as the freehold,
If you lay it o'th Navigation.

But what think you by those brave men,
Who subscribe their money and take it again,
Are they worthy of any fame,
Or to live in Great Britain.

No more I'll add, but ever praise,
And with them happy days,
Glory and honour give always,
To these noble Undertakers.

The idea of using poetry to inform the mass of the public continued to be used throughout the nineteenth century. The promotion of the Manchester ship Canal resulted in many poems and songs, both, glorifying and ridiculing the idea. The following verses form part of a song performed by a Mr.Hammond at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, in 1827.

The Manchester Ship Canal

I sing a theme deserving praise, a theme of great renown, sir,
The Ship Canal in Manchester, that rich and trading town, sir
I mean to say, it once was rich, ere these bad times came on. sir,
But good times will come back, you know - when these bad times are gone sir.

In 1825, when we were speculating all, sir,
We wise folks club'd together and we made this Ship Canal, sir,
I should have said we meant to do so, for we'd schemes laid down, sir,
That would have made this Manchester a first rate seaport town, sir.

Instead of lazy Old Quay flats, that crawls three miles an hour, sir,
We'd fine three-masted steam-ships, some of ninety horse's power, sir;
That is, had it been made we would, and, Lord how fine 'twould be, sir!
When all beyond St. Peter's Church, was open to the sea, sir.

Success, then, unto Manchester, and joking all aside, sir,
Her trade will flourish as before, and be her country's pride, sir,
That is to say, if speculation can but be kept down, sir,
And sure we've had enough of that - at least within this town, sir.

Poetry was also used to criticise local events. During the 1850s and 1860s the Bradford Canal had become extremely polluted and was regarded as a major health hazard. There had been several epidemics in the area for which the canal had been blamed. On 29th June 1865 the Bradford Observer published the following poem. As a result of such propaganda, the canal was closed until its water supply was improved. It had originally been supplied from the Bradford Beck which had become polluted by the numerous textile works along its banks. The poem shows the increasing awareness of environmental and health problems in the late nineteenth century.

The Bradford Beck, the Canal, and the Smoke Nuisance.

Yea 'tis strange, " 'tis strange but true,"
We had once as bright a dream
As e'er burst upon the view
In some sweet celestial stream.

Nothing in this vale of ours
Riveted the stranger's eye,
With its banks all fringed with flowers,
Like that stream in days gone by.

O'er the glittering pebbles there,
How we watched the fishes glide,
(Free from every anxious care)
In that gently flowing tide.

But how changed that stream at last,
Who exults to see it now?
Who as in the years long past,
Cares its winding course to show.

On its banks no verdure springs,
Not a floweret blossoms there,
No melodious warbler sings
To beguile our daily care.

Not a trout is to be seen
Glittering in the midday sun;
Not a daisy decks the green
Where my infant sports begun.

Tainted is the very breeze
As it sweeps along the vale,
And amidst the leafless trees
Makes its soft but mournful wail.

Sickening, too, the very sight
Of our pestilent canal,
Where diseases day and night
Hold their rendezvous, and shall

Still continue, for who cares
For the poor man's dying lay,
Whilst the plague creating shares
Still so well, so nobly pay?

Still continue? no, not so,–
Fate at last has sealed its doom,
Justice must heaven's bidding do,
Shut the floodgates of the tomb.

Such a doom awaits the smoke,
Long its tried and constant friend,
Making earth and heaven look
As if both were at an end.

Yes, ere long shall dawn the day
When that needless curse shall be
Banished from our land away
Plunged into oblivion’s sea!

During the nineteenth century people became better educated and newspapers proliferated. Poetry continued to be used, not just to inform, but increasingly to amuse. The Ship Canal remained one of the subjects for poets in South Lancashire particularly in the 1880s when the canal was again being promoted. The following offering puts Manchester's view.

The Manchester Ship Canal

Hip! Hip! Huzza! for the Ship Canal!
Do the work quickly! do the work well!
The money will come like the flowing tide-
All that is wanted and more beside.
The men of Manchester, a sturdy race,
Fought Liverpool's champions face to face:
Fought for the sea to be brought inland,
For cotton direct to the workers hand.
So the mighty waters to us shall glide
The locks shall capture the rolling tide;
And there big ships shall safely ride
Freighted with cotton and lots beside.
The millions working the cotton you see,
Want to save the extra fee,
A little saved on every bale,
At the end of the year will tell a tale
We'll have it direct from the fields where it grew
Then show the world what we can do
For of all the world we must stand abreast
For we are free-traders, but none of the rest.
So Liverpool be easy, don't be troublesome and teasy,
Yield gracefully now beaten, that will failure sweeten,
Hip! Hip! Huzza! for the Ship Canal!
It will help the national wealth to swell,
Help toilers and moilers and all the rest
Old men and maidens and baby at breast.

Poetry was also widely used for advertising, with a Manchester tobacconist offering to give away 5000 ship Canal pipes. I wonder where they've all gone.

Come and see the gaffer of the gang,
Ready for work with spade in hand.
His pipe, so long, he smokes at will,
At Jones' stick shop, 75 Shudehill.

The landlord of the Unicorn Hotel also broke into verse.

They'll cover the river with boats and barges,
Men-of-war ships that ever so large is,
Steamers back and forward towing,
You may ride for nothing and they'll pay you for going,
Sailors swearing, spars a-batting,
Heave-ye-hoing, handspikes clattering,
Strange sails crowding every day, sirs,
Anchoring in Victoria Bay, sirs.
The Liverpool gents will all be undone,
Here there will be nought but fun done,
Pats, half wild, running their rigs, sirs,
Landing butter there, bullocks and pigs, sirs.
Then to make us jolly and friskey,
Mealy potatoes and barrels of "Unicorn" whiskey,
New laid eggs a twelve month taken,
Then all will feed on eggs and bacon

Informative and advertising verse virtually disappears from the pages of newspapers around 1920. Perhaps the Great War and it's poets had changed people's ideas about poetry. Perhaps politics became too serious, with those in authority considering that such verse trivialised their work. What ever the reason, when we look back at the efforts of earlier generation, perhaps we are the looser.

Canal page

Mike Clarke, 8 Green Bank, BARNOLDSWICK, BB18 6HX

tel: +44 (0)1282 850430

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last revised: 29 March 2014