Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Waugh, Edwin

WAUGH, EDWIN (1817–1890), Lancashire poet and miscellaneous writer, was born at Rochdale on 29 Jan. 1817. His father, a shoemaker at Rochdale, in decent circumstances, came of a Northumbrian stock, and had received some education at the local grammar school; his mother, a woman of piety and rustic intelligence, was daughter of William Howarth, a stonemason and engraver, who belonged to south-east Lancashire. Edwin was nine when his father died, and during his mother's endeavours to carry on the business in a humble way her poverty was so great that for several years a cellar dwelling was her own and her son's home. She taught him, however, to read. His father had left a few books, and among the first which he read with avidity were Foxe's ‘Book of Martyrs,’ a compendium of English history, and Enfield's ‘Speaker.’ At seven he received some schooling, but it was of a fitful kind. Already he had to assist his mother at a shoe-stall which she kept in Rochdale market. At twelve he earned his first wages as errand-boy to a local preacher and printer, his mother being a zealous Wesleyan. At twelve he entered the service, in the same capacity, of Thomas Holden, a Rochdale bookseller and printer, to whom two years afterwards he was bound apprentice, and under whom he learned to be a printer. Among the books in Holden's shop he found opportunities for reading which he had not known before. He read with eagerness any histories of his native county. From Tim Bobbin, the pseudonym of John Collier [q. v.], he learned something of the literary use that could be made of the Lancashire dialect. Roby's ‘Traditions of Lancashire’ [see Roby, John] introduced him to romantic episodes in Lancashire family history and to the legendary lore of his native county. He is said to have visited in early life every locality which Roby has associated with a legend. He devoured poetry as well as prose. One of the books which most influenced him was a collection of border ballads. Waugh's writings bear abundant testimony to his intimate knowledge of the chief English poets.

His apprenticeship finished, Waugh led a wandering life, finding employment as a journeyman printer, chiefly in the provinces, but for a time in London. At the end of six or seven years he returned to Rochdale, and re-entered Holden's service. It was probably due to the active part which he took in establishing a literary institute in Rochdale that he was appointed about 1847 assistant secretary to the Lancashire Public School Association, the headquarters of which were at Manchester. The association had been recently founded to advocate the establishment in Lancashire of a system of popular and unsectarian education, to be supported by local rates and administered by local boards elected by the ratepayers. The post was a modest one, but afforded him leisure for original composition. The reception of one or two of his attempts in prose, descriptions of rural rambles, which appeared in the ‘Manchester Examiner,’ encouraged him to persevere. In 1855, by which time he had become the town traveller of a Manchester printing firm, a local bookseller published his first book, ‘Sketches of Lancashire Life and Localities’ (reprinted from the ‘Manchester Examiner’). Its most distinctive feature was the racy humour of his reproduction, in their own dialect, of the daily talk of the Lancashire people.

The welcome given to the ‘Sketches’ was chiefly local, but discerning judges out of Lancashire recognised their sterling merit, and Carlyle, into whose hands the volume fell, pronounced its author ‘a man of decided mark.’ In 1856, the year after the ‘Sketches’ was published, Waugh greatly extended his reputation by his song, ‘Come whoam to the childer an' me.’ It was first printed in a Manchester newspaper, and forthwith reprinted, to be given away to his customers, by a Manchester bookseller. It became at once immensely popular, not only in Lancashire but out of it, and even in the colonies. The ‘Saturday Review’ called it ‘one of the most delicious idylls in the world,’ and Miss Coutts (now the Baroness Burdett-Coutts) had some ten or twenty thousand copies of it printed for gratuitous distribution (Milner, p. 29).

The success of this lyric largely influenced Waugh's subsequent career. It sent his ‘Lancashire Sketches’ into a second edition. Many metrical compositions still remained in manuscript. He now prepared some of them for publication, and they appeared, with many additions in the Lancashire dialect, in his ‘Poems and Songs’ (1859). Offers of work poured in on him from local editors and publishers. About 1860 he determined to depend solely on his pen, and for fifteen years, with occasional public readings from his works, he made it suffice for his support. During that period he poured forth prose and verse, songs, tales, and character-sketches, realistic, humorous, pathetic, which were illustrative of Lancashire life in town and country, in the north as well as in the south of the county, and in which abundant use was made of its dialect. Besides these there were more or less picturesquely written narratives of tour and travel outside Lancashire, in the Lake country, in the south of England, in Scotland, in Ireland, and even in Rhineland. They were issued in various forms, from the broadsheet upwards. One of his earlier writings during this prolific period describes in graphic detail the districts most deeply affected by the cotton famine of 1862.

In 1876, on Waugh's health becoming infirm, a committee of his Lancashire admirers took over his copyrights and substituted for his precarious literary gains a fixed annual income. In 1881 Mr. Gladstone conferred on Waugh a civil-list pension of 90l. a year. Between 1881 and 1883 he published a collective edition of his works, in ten volumes, finely and copiously illustrated. Subsequently ‘he sent forth in quick succession a new series of poems.’ They were printed singly in a Manchester newspaper, and in 1889 they and some earlier verses were issued as volume xi. of the collective edition. He died on 30 April 1890 at New Brighton, a watering-place on the Lancashire coast. His remains were brought to Manchester, and on 3 May he was buried with public ceremonial in Kersal church, in the vicinity of his domicile for many years on Kersal Moor.

The popularity of Waugh's writings was increased by his death. A moderately priced edition of his selected writings, in eight volumes, was issued in 1892–3, edited by his friend, Mr. George Milner, who prefixed to vol. i. an instructive and interesting notice of Waugh. Many of Waugh's songs have been set to music, and a list of them occupies several pages of the music catalogue of the British Museum Library.

Personally Waugh was a striking specimen of the sturdy, independent, plain-spoken Lancashire man. His long struggle before he became known did not impair his geniality and cheerfulness, and he was not in the least spoilt by success. Eminently social and convivial—a good singer as well as writer of songs—he was a very pleasant companion and an admirable story-teller, especially if the stories were to be told in his favourite Lancashire dialect. He has been called the ‘Lancashire Burns.’

[Waugh's Works; Milner's Memoir; personal knowledge; ‘Manchester Memories: Edwin Waugh’ in Literary Recollections and Sketches (1893), by the writer of this article.]

F. E.