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by Penelope Hemingway


We heard on passing into Belfast through a most wretched suburb that most disgusting of all noises worse than the Bag Pipe, the laugh of a Monkey, the chatter of women solus the scream of a Macaw – I mean the sound of the Shuttle – What a tremendous difficulty is the improvement of the condition of such people – I cannot conceive how a mind ‘with child’ of Philanthropy could gra[s]p at possibility – with me it is absolute despair.

I stumbled on these words again, recently, re-reading one of my favourite books, Walking North with Keats, by Carol Kyros Walker. I’ve had a lifelong obsession with John Keats, and yet had not been able to weave him into my work, until now. I had somehow forgotten or missed these words in Keats’s letter, from July 1818, when he made his walking tour of Westmorland, Scotland and Ireland, writing home to his brother Tom as he lay dying at Well Walk, Edmonton.  How did I forget this? As soon as I saw this paragraph, I knew I’d have to write about it.

Keats’s published writing career spanned only the four years between Waterloo and Peterloo. A time of economic privation due to the Napoleonic Wars, and huge working-class unrest – the Luddites had been hung like crows on a fence only six years before Keats went on his walking tour.  There is more to unpack in his brief encounter with the Belfast weavers than we might assume. So come with me, Gentle Reader, for a stroll where we will unpack Keats’s brief but startling encounter with the Belfast cotton industry.

Keats came from a middle-class background, unlike the distinctly aristocratic Shelley and Byron. He attended the liberal and progressive Clarke’s School, in Enfield, where he first read Leigh Hunt’s Examiner. From the start, Keats’s literary friends were a radical circle; Leigh Hunt, in particular, spent two years in prison for supposed sedition.

Leigh Hunt, Margaret Gillies, NPG London

As Richard Cronin observes, “For the reviewers Keats was guilty by association, and the damning association was with Hunt…”  Tory reviewers made brutal attacks on Keats during his lifetime, most notably John Gibson Lockhart, whose Blackwood’s magazine review was published in Edinburgh the same month Keats was on his walking tour, and came out in London only days after his return home. He dismissed Keats’s latest published poem, Endymion as “drivelling idiocy”, and Keats himself condemned as a member of the ‘Cockney School’: “it is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop, Mr John.”

This then, is the backdrop for Keats’s brief visit to Ireland.

These days, if we think of Belfast textiles at all, we probably think of linen. But it wasn’t always so. From the 1770s to the 1830s, the North-Eastern part of Ireland was pre-eminent in cotton production. And this was what Keats will have seen on his (brief) sojourn in Ireland. The industry that offended Keats’s ears – and politics –  seems to have had a rapid decline after the depression of 1825, and the removal of trade protections. In its heyday, the Irish trade exported large quantities to America and South America and produced some of the finest cotton threads in the world.

In the late eighteenth century, textile production across the British Isles shifted from cottages to manufactories. What had started as one woman spinning flax or wool on a simple spinning wheel to make a single cop (cone) of yarn, evolved into groups of unskilled workers – usually children – supervising rows of water, which were later replaced by steam-powered ‘spinning jenny’ machines.  Child labour was cheaper than adult labour, so children as young as six were used to work 16-hour days in factories. In fact, by the time Keats encountered the shadow of the dark satanic mills, there was already a parliamentary inquiry underway into working conditions for children in cotton mills. Specifically cotton mills, because they were thought to be more “barbaric” than wool, flax or hemp manufactories.

A spinning jenny

Sometimes, we forget that Romanticism was born in the same moment as industrialisation, and was itself a response to the burgeoning world of machines, and their dehumanising effect on people and despoliation of the natural world.

Decades later, in the 1880s, Wordsworth’s fan Albert Fleming revived the traditional craft of linen-making in Westmorland and Cumberland. He was inspired by an encounter with an elderly lady in his village – she would have been a little younger than Keats, had he lived – who remembered how to use an old-fashioned spinning wheel.  Recalling how Wordsworth had praised the art of hand-spinning, Fleming set about reviving the craft:

“ ‘In mother’s day,’ said my old friend, ‘every woman spun but when t’wheels died out the gude times went too; m’appen they’d come back if t’wheels did.’ Then and there I determined that the wheels should come back. ‘The venerable art torn from the poor’, should, God helping us, be given back to them.”

By the late eighteenth century, linen – which had been ubiquitous for shirts and underwear for centuries – was making way for cotton. New inventions like Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin, as well as the cheap labour provided by slave plantations in  America, made cotton cheap and increasingly fashionable. With its history of expertise in linen production, Belfast was well placed to be the centre of a new cotton industry. Thomas McCabe and Robert Joy are credited with introducing cotton to Ireland, as a textile product. Joy was inspired “by a desire to render service to the lower orders of the working poor, particularly linen spinners and weavers…” by providing a source of employment. Likewise McCabe believed cotton spinning would be a “fit and profitable employment for children in the Belfast Poor House”, but though several children were taught to spin cotton on a wheel McCabe soon decided that machinery was a better option.

Weaving on a handloom

Nicholas Grimshaw, an English cotton and linen spinner who had lived in Ireland for a number of years, supervised the making of the first spinning machine in Ireland –  a spinning jenny made in Belfast. McCabe and Joy, finding the poor house reluctant to fully fund the venture, went into business together, and engaged in a bit of industrial espionage, sending a skilled mechanic to England to gather intelligence about the latest spinning and carding machines in use there, which they promptly copied. The result was a new and improved carding machine and a spinning jenny with 72 spinning heads. Weaving and dyeing soon followed, with designs often printed on the finished cotton fabric in Dublin or Manchester. Soon, Belfast wasn’t just carding and spinning cotton but exporting finished bales of cloth. The new machines could spin 14 times the length of yarn of a competent hand-spinner in one week, and the carding machine could card 20lbs of cotton per day, as opposed to the paltry 1lb per day achieved by hand cards alone.  By 1800, 13,500 workers were working in the Belfast cotton industry. So even if cotton production in Belfast started as a philanthropic affair, it quickly morphed into one driven by industry and enterprise.

York Street Mill, Belfast, 1842

By the 1820s, most cotton mills were moving from water power to steam power, and the jarring sound that irritated Keats is likely to have been from steam-powered looms. And it was loud: the noise in Manchester factories was so deafening workers developed their own sign language to make themselves understood. Known as “mee-mawing”, it was recorded for posterity in Les Dawson’s 1970s’ Cissie and Ada act, where Les and Roy Barraclough played two middle-aged women who mimed the scatalogical content of their conversations – this came directly from Dawson’s observation of women from the Lancashire mills.

Keats’s experience in  Belfast in 1818 was a classic clash between Romanticism and industrialisation. He was not expressing disgust for the weaver or the working classes, but for the exploitation they suffered.  A year after Keats’s walking tour, Samuel Bamford, the politically radical ‘weaver poet’ from Lancashire, was charged with treason after the Peterloo Massacre, and  sentenced to a year in prison for inciting a riot (despite evidence in court suggesting he did no such thing). In that same year, Bamford published a collection of poems, The Weaver Boy, which included poems in a dialect that, for Keats, would have recalled his Lancashire grandmother, Alice Jennings. Like Leigh Hunt, Bamford continued to publish, even in prison.

Samuel Bamford

After their experience in Belfast, it may not be surprising that Keats and his friend and travelling companion, Charles Armitage Brown, decided not to linger in Ireland: “We stopped very little in Ireland… living in Ireland [is] thrice the expence [sic] of Scotland”. They had also found the landscape between Donaghdee and Belfast uninspiring. So they turned round at Belfast and returned to Donaghdee, to get the ferry back to Scotland.  Writing to Tom, Keats described how “…At a miserable house of entertainment half way between Donaghdee and Bellfast [sic] were two men sitting at Whiskey one a Laborer and the other I took to be a drunken Weaver – the Laborer took me for a Frenchman and the other hinted at Bounty Money saying he was ready to take it…”   It’s apparent the weaver thought Keats was from an English pressgang. The fact that he was so willing to consider accepting the apparent offer tells us a lot about the grim nature of working in a cotton manufactory.

In the same letter to Tom, Keats famously said  “We live in a barbarous age”.  There was a stark contrast between the ‘Romantic’ landscapes Keats and Brown had been seeking out on their walking tour, and the noisy, bustling cotton mills of Belfast. Romantic poets were living in the Anthropocene age – one characterised by humanity’s impact on the environment, and they were amongst the first people to realise this and respond to it. To put the jarring encounter with Belfast industry in context,  Keats had just published Endymion, a pastoral idyll which famously begins ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever…’

Keats’s response to the industrial workers  he met in Ireland was very different to Wordsworth’s more ‘Romantic’ encounters with rural leech-gatherers and beggars who were so integral to the poetry of the Lyrical Ballads.

At the end of his tour, Keats decided to sail home without Brown,  on a small vessel called The George, which carried cargo as well as passengers. It’s likely that its hold contained copies of the Blackwood’s magazine, which included Lockhart’s excoriating piece. Keats wouldn’t have been aware of it yet, but returning from his walking tour, he was literally sitting on top of the powder keg that was about to blow his literary life apart. His life would never be the same again.


References and further reading

Cronin, Richard. “Keats and the Politics of Cockney Style.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 36, no. 4, 1996, pp. 785–806.

Geary, Frank. ‘The Belfast Cotton Industry Revisited’. Irish Historical Studies, vol. 26, no. 103, 1989, pp. 250–267.

Gittings, Robert, John Keats, Little Brown & Co, 1968

Keats, John, John Keats Selected Letters, Penguin, Ed. Barnard, John, 2014

Kyros Walker, Carol, Walking North with Keats, Yale University Press, 1992




Penelope Hemingway is an independent historian and Craftsperson in Residence at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming. She is a regular contributor to magazines in the UK and US, and writes regular history columns for “Yorkshire Bylines” and “The Knitter”. She contributed research to the latest edition of the classic book, ‘The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales’, and has published ‘Their Darkest Materials”‘(2020), which covers the dark side of textile history and ‘River Ganseys’. She is currently working on a second edition of ‘River Ganseys’.





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