Workers’ words: exploring literary experiences

Reading Room for Drivers at the Great Eastern Railway’s Staff Domitory at Stratford, 1911. Photo copyright Science Museum Group, courtesy of National Railway Museum

The literary experiences of industrial workers in the 19th and early 20th centuries are being explored in a multimedia project led at the University of Strathclyde.

A specially-commissioned play, a touring exhibition, talks, music performances and workshops will form part of the project, along with research into the part literature played in the lives of workers from the 1840s to the First World War.   

The project will focus on miners, railway workers, and textile factory workers to investigate how their activities as authors, performers and readers were shaped by their profession, the places where they lived and perceptions of their workforce community. It will be concentrated on Scotland and the north of England.

Playwright Martin Travers will write a new play in Scots, called A Daurk Maiter, based on Lanarkshire miners' and steelworkers’ lives and writing. Guy Hollands, Associate Director, Learning at the Citizens Theatre, will direct a rehearsed reading of the play with drama students from New College Lanarkshire. Researchers will make an audio recording of the reading of the play and it will be posted online.

So far, the project has discovered works by writers with family links to Robert Burns, including a factory poet who was his grandson, and a miner poet who married Burns’ granddaughter.

The project, entitled Piston, Pen & Press, has received a grant of £659,816 from the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

 Staff at Ripon railway station, Yorkshire, 1895. Photo copyright Science Museum Group, courtesy of National Railway Museum

Professor Kirstie Blair, Head of Strathclyde’s School of Humanities, is leading the project in collaboration with Dr Mike Sanders of the University of Manchester and Dr Oliver Betts of the National Railway Museum. She said: “When we think about industrial heritage, we don’t always think about literature, yet every industry – factories, mills, mines, railways – had people writing and reading works of literature. Sometimes the literature that workers produced is the only evidence we have about how they themselves thought about their work and their lives.  

“Recent historical work on Britain's industrial revolution has given more consideration to workers' writings but research in this area is still dominated by accounts of observers or employers, rather than considering how workers themselves represented their labour and presented themselves as a cultured workforce.

“Interest in working-class reading is growing. Much of the evidence of workers' cultural investments and literacy, however, is scattered across local and regional archives. What we currently know, or hypothesise, about what Victorian workers wrote, read or sung, and how they accessed literary works, is a fraction of what we could know through in-depth research and analysis of findings.

“We also aim to increase public awareness of this heritage by working with national and local museums and through the play and songs which will be produced.”

Dr Sanders, Senior Lecturer in 19th Century Writing at Manchester’s School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, said: "The Piston, Pen and Press project is an opportunity to recover the story of the cultural activities and aspirations of the men and women of the mines, factories, and railways who, through their labour, made Victorian Britain. 

“This is a story that has rarely been told and we're pleased that the project will provide a platform which will allow these lost voices to sing again!"

The researchers will examine newspaper and periodical databases and local archives to find poems, songs, and prose writings by industrial workers. The results will provide the material for Martin Travers’ play.

He said: “My grandfathers were both miners, so if it wasn’t for coal, I wouldn’t be here. I hope the research will help to dig up the voice of these workers and inspire people to look into their own personal and cultural heritage.


“We walk around this heritage all the time – it’s in our breath and our blood. In Lanarkshire, there are still remnants of coal bings visible in places - the shale is still there and there are miles and miles of mine tunnels underground. It’s almost like lost treasure, an echo of the sweat and tears of the men and women that powered the industry.”

Four museums are partners in the project: the Finnish Labour Museum; the National Coal Mining Museum for England; the National Mining Museum Scotland and the National Railway Museum. Other partners include: Dundee Heritage Trust; the National Trust; the Working Class Movement Library; New Lanark World Heritage Site; Historic Scotland; the General Federation of Trade Unions and Glasgow Life.

Andrew McLean, Assistant Director and Head Curator, of the National Railway Museum, said: “We are very excited about the opportunity to expand its knowledge of Victorian railway workers through participation in this project.

“With material in our archive illuminating the social lives and cultural activities of workers of all grades from the 1830s onwards, being part of this collaboration is a welcome chance to explore the contexts in which these men and women lived and worked. Building long-term relationships such as these, with Universities like Strathclyde, are essential to our ambitions to explore the past, present and future of life and innovation on the railways.”