The first of the Lancashire dialect poets was John Collier, who is better known by his nom-de-plume ‘Tim Bobbin’. He was born on December 18th 1708 at Harrison Fold, Newton (near Hyde), but his father, an impoverished Church of England clergyman also called John, moved to Flixton, Urmston soon after the birth. Young John was an excellent scholar and was expected to follow his father’s profession, but when John senior went prematurely blind at the age of forty-six, his fourteen-year-old son’s education came to an untimely end and he was apprenticed to Johnson of Newton Moor, a Dutch-loom weaver. The boy did not take to manual labour and persuaded Johnson to free him from his indentures, and then went on to earn a living as an itinerant school-teacher in the villages and hamlets around Oldham, Bury and Rochdale. At the age of twenty-one, he gained a position as assistant schoolmaster to Mr Townley at the free-school Milnrow, near Rochdale, and after the death of Townley he took over the vacant position at a full salary of twenty pounds a year.
In his spare time Collier began to write anonymous satires of local characters, to draw caricatures of them, and to play and teach the hautboy and flute. In 1740, he published his first piece of poetry – The Blackbird – which is, to be honest, pure doggerel. It tells the tale of a local knight and his groom who ride out on a Sunday morning and hear the sound of someone whistling. The knight is convinced that only either an atheist or a papist would do such a thing on the Sabbath, and he sets out to discover the sinner. He enters a house and although the whistling continues, he cannot find the source,
“He stamp'd with foot, and lift his eyes above,As tho' he call'd on thunder-ruling Jove;And then burst out in this emphatic strain:" Ungodly! Wicked! heath'nish, and prophane.To break the sabbath! Whistle against heav’n!The king and me! 'twill never be forgiv'n!”
Eventually he looks upwards and sees a blackbird in a cage, but even then he cannot trust his eyes and ears and accuses the bird’s owner of importing it from Italy, where Jesuits had tutored it to sing thus on Sundays!
Collier was already on his way to becoming a local celebrity. He began to court Miss Mary Clay, who came from Yorkshire to visit her Aunt; she had spent time in London and was both graceful and beautiful. One day, whilst walking out together they came upon a pig-drover with two fine, clean pigs. John bought one and Mary the other, and they pledged that if one broke their engagement they would pay their pig to the other as a forfeit. Collier often said he believed she would never have married him, had she not valued her pig more highly than she did him.
Another Aunt, Mrs Pitt, gave the couple a wedding gift of three hundred pounds (remember, Collier was earning twenty pounds a year, so this was fifteen years salary), but the money went to his head and he quickly drank the lot away. Mary declared she was glad the money was gone, and sober John began to apply himself to provide for his increasingly large family – the couple had nine children together.
|Self Portrait - Tim Bobbin|
He painted altarpieces for local churches, and signs for local inns, and began to gain a reputation with his caricatures of the people of Rochdale. His fame spread to Liverpool, where merchants bought his paintings and exported some to America and the West Indies, and order more – Collier said he regretted having only one pair of hands with which to paint. He started to call himself The Lancashire Hogarth, and with the fame came wealth, which went the way of the wedding gift, as his wit, humour and bonhomie brought him invitations to drink and carouse in Rochdale’s pubs.
|Tim Bobbin - A View of the Lancashire Dialect 1746|
In 1746, he published his most famous work, A View of the Lancashire Dialect which has the subtitle, Dialogue Between Tummus o'Willioms, o'Margit o'Roaf's, an Meary o'Dick's, o’Tummy o'Peggy’s. This subtitle gives two examples of Lancashire speech – the pronunciation, it reads as Thomas of William’s, of Margaret’s, of Ralph’s and Mary of Dick’s, of Tommy, of Peggy’s, and shows how, in places where many people shared the same name, a distinction was made by reference to a person’s genealogy – so Thomas is the son of William, the son of Margaret, the daughter of Ralph. This method of identification is still used today; it shows your relationship to others but also acts as a living reference or pedigree to your standing and reputation. The dialogue between Thomas and Mary is written in broad south-eastern Lancashire dialect, and they relates various adventures and misadventures that have recently befallen them.
To get a feeling of it, here is the Thomas’s opening line,
“Odds me Meary ! whooa the Dickons wou'd o thowt o' leeting o' thee here so soyne this Morning? Where has to bin? Theaw'rt aw on a Swat, I think; for theaw looks primely.”
– which, for the benefit of those who aren’t from around these parts translates as,
“Goodness me Mary! Who the Dickens would have thought of meeting you here so soon in the morning? Where have you been? You are all of a sweat, I think, for you look very well.”
|Tummus and Meary|
The book sold extremely well, and a second edition quickly followed, and when pirated copies began to appear, Tim Bobbin added some idiosyncratic illustrations and a glossary of Lancashire dialect, with reference to the etymology of some words.
|Tim Bobbin's take on literary pirates|
The View and the glossary are tremendously valuable as they give us access to the pronunciation of the dialect and the vocabulary used two hundred and fifty years ago. It must be said, that little has changed much – I use many, many of the words and phrases that Tummus and Meary use, and pronounce them in just the same way, although it is interesting that some variations are due to place – the Blackburn accent is different to that of Rochdale.
In 1773, the Human Passions Delineated appeared, written and illustrated by Tim Bobbin, a collection of grotesque caricatures with added verses, which was again extremely popular in Northern England. A coloured edition of 25 plates was issued in 1810. Many of Bobbin’s writings were collected in a single volume, the prose better than the poetry, but it is all a pleasure to read, although modern research has shown that some of the poems are by other authors. Tim Bobbin died on July 14th 1786 and was buried in St Chad’s churchyard, Rochdale. The gravestone has the words, written by his son,
‘Here lies John, and with him Mary,Cheek-by-jowl, and never varyNo wonder that they so agreeJohn wants no punch, and Moll no tea.’
Regular readers of this blog may be interested to know that this is my two hundredth consecutive post. Thank you for reading.