Master of cotton famine folklore headed to coast

From The Gazette Lost Archives, Samuel Laycock, "Laureate of Lancashire" (white beard, centre), on Blackpool Promenade. He died in 1893 and is buried in Layton Cemetery.
From The Gazette Lost Archives, Samuel Laycock, "Laureate of Lancashire" (white beard, centre), on Blackpool Promenade. He died in 1893 and is buried in Layton Cemetery.
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Lancashire based writer and speaker, and folklore correspondent with BBC Radio Cumbria, BARRY MCCANN looks at the life of poet Samuel Laycock and how he came to live in the resort.

In a corner of Layton Cemetery stands the headstone of Samuel Laycock (1826–1893), a 19th century poet renowned for writing verse in the Lancashire dialect.

But how did this Yorkshire-born, cotton-town-bred scribe come to make his home in Blackpool?

He came into the world on 17 January 1826, at Intake Head in Marsden, West Yorkshire, being the son of a hand loom weaver. From the age of six, he was educated at a day school run by the Rev Jonathan Bond, which fitted around part time work. This ended at age nine, when he commenced full-time work at Robert Bowers’ Woollen Mill, Marsden, for a weekly wage of two shillings. 

Two years later, the family moved to Stalybridge at the centre of the cotton industry. He became a power loom weaver, before rising to foreman and began writing poetry during the 1850s. A turning point came, in 1862 when supplies of raw cotton from the Confederate states of America were blockaded by the North during the Civil War. This impacted dramatically on the industry, a period termed as the Cotton Famine or Cotton Panic.

It was this crisis which inspired Laycock’s songs and poems of famine. He was one of thousands to lose his job, as supplies of raw material dried up, and earned a meagre living by writing verses known as the Lancashire Lyrics, which were published in single broadsheet form for a penny a time. They sold in their thousands, some being set to music which unemployed workers could sing in the streets for pennies.

In 1864, he published Lancashire Rhymes and in 1866, Lancashire Songs.

These verses documented working-class life in all its gloom – the domestic problems and misery caused by hard times, but also extolled standing up to hardship and not be reduced to complaining about it.

Laycock later gave up his career in the cotton mills, to become librarian and hall keeper for Stalybridge Mechanic’s Institute, and curator to the Addison Literary Club.

He also set up a bookselling business in Oldham Market Place, but the venture failed. 

In 1867, he moved to the Lancashire coast for health reasons where, for a short time, he was Curator of the Whitworth Institute at Fleetwood (later Fleetwood Library). In 1868, he moved down the coast to Blackpool and worked as a photographer, while his wife ran a boarding house. Though his health improved, failing eyesight forced him to give up the photographic business in 1887.

He continued writing and publishing broadsheets, now largely about the Fylde coast such as Come to Blackpool (later used as a railway advertisement), and Mr Sopkin’s Misadventures in Blackpool. There were also more serious verses calling for temperance in an age of distress caused by excess drinking. How times have not changed!

Laycock also became an honorary member of the Manchester Literary Club, along with the Burnley Literary and Philosophical Society. He was elected a member of the Blackpool Free Library Committee just six weeks before his death. 

Samuel Laycock died of influenza and pneumonia, aged 67, at his Foxhall Road home, on December 15, 1893. He was survived by his third wife, Eliza Pontefract, who he married in 1864 having been twice widowed.

Martha Broadbent, a cotton weaver he wed in 1850, had died two years after their marriage. He remarried in 1858 to Hannah Woolley, who died in 1863. He had several children by Hannah and two by Eliza, including Arthur, who became a novelist.

A portrait of Laycock painted in oils by Mr S Lawson Booth, JP of Southport was presented to the Grundy Art Gallery on September 7, 1920, with an unveiling ceremony at the Town Hall by Mr Hall Caine. The portrait remains part of the gallery’s collection.