A thousand years ago the ancient kingdom of Northumbria stretched from the Humber/Mersey to the Scottish Lowlands. Little is known about it but scholars believe that its language survived in the Northern English Dialects. The ones heard today from Westmorland, Cumberland, Durham, Northumberland, Tyneside, Lancashire and Yorkshire are distant echoes, fading memories of an ancient tongue.
J. O. Halliwell in his splendidly titled ‘Dictionary of Archaic & Provincial Words’ , offers the song ‘Warrikin Fair’as an example of early Lancashire dialect, dating it at 1548. If he’s right it’s our oldest dialect song by a couple of centuries, though why one comic song from Warrington should survive in isolation for so long is a mystery to me.
It was not until the middle of the 18th century that dialect writing as we know it began. Enter John Collier, better known as Tim Bobbin, born in Urmston in December 1708 the son of a curate and educated by his father for a life in the church. He became a schoolmaster at Milnrow teaching the 3 R’s and music. He was a a competent artist and a sharp satirist with a lightning wit. In 1746 he published ‘The Adventures of a Lancashire Clown’, a comic dialogue between Tummus o’Williams o’Margit’s o’Roaph’s and Meary o’Dick’s o’ Tummy o’ Peggy’s, written in the dialect of the old folk of Milnrow. No one had ever tried to do this before and he even provided a glossary of words and phrases used. We owe it all to him. The story is funny and daft and as such becomes very popular. Within 50 years we get more jolly pieces from the Wilsons of Manchester and then in 1805 Joseph Lees of Glodwick near Oldham writes ‘Jone o’Grinfilt’ and everyone starts singing it.More ‘Jo’G’ songs are written by persons unknown, lighthearted silly songs for 20 years until, around 1825, something changed and serious songs appear. This change is a by-product of the Industrial Revolution – life in Lancashire has its dark side!
With this came a huge population increase which provided a wider market for more authors and there was an explosion of dialect writing in the latter half of the 19th century.Waugh, Laycock and Brierley lead the field as hundreds of authors produce thousands of broadsides, newspaper columns and books of every size from tuppenny pamphlets to bound volumes of collected works.
The authors take their inspiration from their surroundings and leave us with a unique record of day to day living in Victorian Lancashire. It’s a social history written, not by historians, but by men (and some women) who were there. Has any other county got such a store? Dialect writing is taken up by Hartley in Yorkshire and spreads north to Newcastle and the Music Halls.
In Broadfield Park in Rochdale there stands a memorial, around twenty feet in height, erected by public subscription in 1900. It bears the names of Edwin Waugh, John Trafford Clegg, Margaret Rebecca Lahee and Oliver Ormerod. The inscription reads:
” In grateful memory of four Rochdale writers of the Lancashire Dialect who have preserved, for our children, in verse and prose that will not die, the strength and tenderness, the gravity and humours of the folk of our day, in the tongue and talk of the people. ”
We – you and I – all of us, are those children they were talking about 100 years ago…….then in 1914 it all changed again……..