New book of Scottish Victorian working life in verse

Poets of the People's Journal

Poems depicting the lives of working men and women in 19th-century Scotland – written by the workers themselves – have been collected in a new book edited by a University of Strathclyde academic.

Poets of the People’s Journal: Newspaper Poetry in Victorian Scotland is an anthology of more than 100 poems published between 1858 and 1883. It has been edited by Professor Kirstie Blair, of Strathclyde’s School of Humanities.

Broad range of subjects 

The poems cover a broad range of subjects, including family, politics, work and nature and offer vivid portraits of their writers’ lives. The People’s Journal, which was published in Dundee, was billed in the 19th century as ‘a penny Saturday paper devoted to the interests of the Working Classes’. The anthology also contains selected poems from the People’s Friend, originally a spin-off from the People’s Journal and still published today.  

Professor Blair said: “It was a popular practice for many people in the 19th century to go home after work and write a poem. A lot of them had extremely hard lives but it was an aspirational and highly regarded pursuit. It was also a badge of pride for them to display their literacy skills.

“People in Scotland in this period were very proud of the idea that Scotland had more ‘people’s poets’ than any other nation on earth, and every Scottish town or village had its own bard. There was a great deal of competition between towns and local readers followed the careers of ‘their’ poets. 

“A lot of these poets are entirely forgotten now because they were published in newspapers, rather than in books or magazines, but the poetry is of a far higher quality and far more entertaining than might have been thought. The book includes poems by and about William McGonagall, who has become known as ‘the world’s worst poet’, though I show here that he was actually part of an established culture of deliberately bad newspaper poetry and became a major comic poet through it.

““Most of these poems cover subjects which are surprisingly relevant today. Politics are a major theme and there are poems about Garibaldi, who was a key figure in the unification of Italy and was a hero to many Scots, and about government foreign policy and wars in the East and elsewhere.

“Poets also debated land rights and wrote about strikes, trades unions and the co-operative movement, working women, poverty and homelessness, and the use - or misuse - of public funds.”

Poets of the People’s Journal: Newspaper Poetry in Victorian Scotland has been published by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.