Fish in a Tree

Chapter Thirteen

Thirteen: The Bard


The internet engines had some more nuggets to throw out of its throat.

I had just begun to get a grip of my great-great-great-grandfather's brother, George. He turned up in a brief history of the Churches of Christ in Ballarat, his last posting in Australia, and the information in it turned out largely to have come from an obituary written by a former friend and colleague in Lancashire. His personality began to resonate. Until now he had been successively a footnote in Laura Greenwell's letters to my grandfather, a familiar but wrongly identified picture on a wall in my parents' hall, and then a photograph from Australia, a strident voice against millionaires in a commentary on Renan, and a fleeting mention in the second-hand memory of a great-grand-daughter (Alice Brown). He appeared on marriage certificates and death certificates. But there was more in store.

The British Library's catalogue went on-line. I suddenly remembered the book of poems to which Laura Greenwell had alluded, the one with the “very dry” classical allusions. Perhaps there would have been a copy lodged at the British Library. I imagined that it would have been published in later life, and that it would consist of brief pieties. And also that it would have eluded the British Library. Wrong on both counts. There it was, clearly indexed, and published in Sunderland by George Richmond in 1839 - published therefore, when he was only 23, and presumably written when he was 22, assuming normal delays. It was also 73 pages long, and apparently a single poem, in six cantos.

The photograph on my British Library pass is preternaturally cheerful. It says “I'm about to make an extraordinary discovery, and I have happiness wiped all over my face, and you could not wipe it off if you tried”. I took the volume of poetry - it was called The Bard - to a softly upholstered seat, and began to read. The book was previously unread. Its pages were still uncut. And besides, I was at first taking very little of it in, other than that here was the work of a highly literate young man, that the book was dedicated to his brother Robert.

It did in fact transpire later that Bob Greenwell Knight in Illinois had had a copy of the book all along (“Oh, that book”), very well thumbed, and just possibly Robert's own copy. I had to wait for the microfiche to read it properly, although I had spotted one simple detail that unravelled in an instant all the years of searching my grandfather and his hunter-gatherer genealogists had undertaken. Which was this: George and Robert's father was dead and buried before The Bard was written. The fact that he had not been credited with passing on, over or upwards on either of the brothers' marriage certificates was as significant as what cowboys sometimes call diddly-squat.


After the dedication (TO MR. ROBERT GREENWELL, AS A TRIBUTE OF LOVE, WHICH IS DAILY RIPENING, AS CIRCUMSTANCES DEVELOPE CHARACTER, THE FOLLOWING POEM IS INSCRIBED BY YOUR AFFECTIONATE BROTHER, THE AUTHOR), The Bard features an introduction by the publisher. I knew a little about George Richmond already, since it was Richmond with whom John Candlish had collaborated on his brief newspaper venture in the early 1840s, during Candlish's most hyper-active period. Richmond was supposed to be a conservative thinker by Candlish's biographer, but there is not much sign of that in his altruistic preface (in the light of what it says, one must presume that Richmond put up the money). He claims to be “an intimate friend” of George Greenwell's, although this may be slight hype. Nevertheless, it is the only book held in the British Library under his imprint.

Richmond firstly explains what is unusual about The Bard - its “moral and discussional character”. We are not going to be pestered with pastorals or bothered with bombast about “the great events of history”; nor is this poem going to be a piece of devotional praise. No, Poetry is going here to “intrude herself into the province of the philosopher, and, by engaging in the discussion of moral truths, endeavour to bring the charms of fancy and imagination to illustrate the dry reasonings of the philosopher and the moralist”. He cites some precedents - Cowper, Young - and goes on:

With such precedents before him, the author of The Bard saw no impropriety in making Poetry the vehicle, through which he should spread before the minds of all who may honour his work with a perusal, such views as have occurred to him of the political and religious aspect of the times. If the writer of these observations may be permitted, for a moment, to speak of his friend without reserve, he would inform the reader that the peculiar turn of Mr. Greenwell's mind is such as to lead him to delight more in the contemplations of moral scenery, than in the common, though certainly not exhausted theme of Poetry - the glories of external nature: not that he is incapable of relishing these; far from it; he is able to appreciate, and to describe, both the August and the minutely beautiful, in the construction and decoration of the universe; but still, his highest delight is to turn the page of human history, and to pry into the diversities of human character - to distinguish what is true and beautiful, from what is false and corrupt in the political and politico-religious institutions of the world; and he only throws his imagination over the phenomena of nature, to furnish him with imagery,
by which to elucidate and adorn the subjects of his severe thought.”

This is ambitious stuff, then, for a young man in his very early twenties. Even making allowances for the constipated turns of phrase that are typical of the time, Richmond is plainly impressed by the morality of his young author. The publisher goes on to make no bones about the direction from which young George Greenwell will be coming: his sentiments are

those of a Christian, a Protestant, a Dissenter, - in politics, a Democrat..... His highest ambition is to be useful to his kind; and what can be more delightful, to an aspiring and ardent mind, than the thought of being employed, in however humble a degree, in emancipating humanity from the shackles of ignorance and servility, and raising it to the rank and happiness, which intelligence, virtue, and freedom can alone confer?

Finally Richmond sketches in the background, the circumstances under which the poem has come to fruition.

The author is a young man, and has passed the most of his days in the severe labour by which the vast proportion of our fellows are compelled to earn the means of a humble and unostentatious subsistence - his studies have, therefore, been pursued, and his poetical talent cultivated, in the brief intervals of fatiguing exertion, and with the scanty means which so humble an individual may be supposed to command. He lays his work before the public, not as the elaborate production of a secluded and scholastic Poet; but as the result of the severe midnight amusements of one who prefers waking reveries to sleepy dreams.

So the poem has been composed at night, after a hard day's work - one must presume that the working day would have been ten to twelve hours long - as a dyer. It has also been written in the early months of his marriage, since George Greenwell married Jane Redman in the autumn of 1837, after meeting her, indeed growing up with her in the squabbling Baptist chapel now presided over by his uncle, Alexander Wilson. Someone somewhere has recognised in the young George the capacity to read and to absorb and to understand (1). The Bard is the work of someone who is at home with most contemporary poets, and with a variety of classical (and of course, biblical) sources. He is also very much at home with the scope of contemporary political thought - this is a poem written in the first year of Queen Victoria's reign, after a period in which the monarchy had fallen into considerable disrepute. One thing is for sure: kings and queens featured prominently on George Greenwell's hit-list.

The poem is written in blank verse faintly reminiscent of Wordsworth - blank verse that is more than metrically sound. George Greenwell has a good sense of iambic rhythm, and his only faults as a poet are tendencies to archaism and adjectivitis. If he has a lily, he doesn't gild it so much as coat it three inches thick. The first canto - about 200 lines long, the whole poem coming in at about 1,200 lines - begins by asking the reader why it is possible to be happy, no matter what the season. The unexceptionable and, given what we know about him, unsurprising answer is the existence of God. However, George has more to load on our collective plate than a few platitudes about faith. Within a few lines, “wintry poverty” and “grim disease” and “withering embrace” are summoned up. They are pale antipasti to the feast of horror he is about to serve us.

History, writes George Greenwell, has had a golden age, but since then Molech and Mammon have driven a chariot and horses through human happiness - and worse than that, the masochistic multitudes have given them a hearty welcome.

...though [Molech] crushed their bones, and drank their blood,

They hailed him with enthusiastic shout,
And worshipped him as God! Mammon has rode
Upon the ocean's wave, and travelled o'er
Deserts of perilous and dreadful shade,
In search of free-born savages, and dragged
The unskilled wretches from their cherished homes;
And urged them on, with whips of scorpion power,
To toil of agony - to chains and death!
Intoxication, with her charmed cup,
Has called upon mankind to drink and live;
And they, unheedful of her evil eye,
Her palsied limbs, foul breath, and rotting bones,
Have quaffed with eagerness each deadly draught,
Till reverence, chastity, and truth have bled;
While malice, lewdness, and profanity,
‘Mid wild and madd'ning revelry have reared
The brazen pillars of their infamy!

It is easy to see here how going to the theatre might have upset the Sunderland Baptists just a little. Wild and madd'ning revelry, that would be. Nevertheless, this is heartfelt stuff, a tirade of outrage against the oppression of slavery, at home as well as abroad. The description of the demoness of Drink is pleasantly lurid, although you can't help wishing away those surplus descriptors. What kind of bones? Rotting . What kind of draught? Deadly . What kind of pillars? Brazen . There is certainly some pin-the-adjective-on-the-noun to be enjoyed.

At the end of Canto I, our speaker has established only that the world is in a state, and that God is the universal architect who stops the depressed onlooker from packing up entirely. The bard concludes the section at nightfall - or, to dress it up a little

........suddenly old Night, with rapid bound,
Sprung to his ebon throne; and, holding up
His wand of terror, called the raving winds,
And charmed the waters from the pendant clouds.


In the second Canto, George Greenwell's traveller passes through something that feels like a hurricane when suddenly he gains the impression of intense calm, and comes across a solitary, but saintly hermit. The traveller spends a pleasant night, and wakes to find the storm over. So how long has the hermit had his pitch on this mountain? The answer is a long one, and not at all what might be expected. We have here a man who has lived on the wrong side of the moral tracks before beating it to his retreat. The old man tells the younger man what has happened to him when he has had the vigour of youth:

.... when my step was free as thine, and locks
Of raven hue were clust'ring round my brow,
I sat awhile upon the scorner's chair,
And drank a cup of frenzy from that stream
Which laves the shores of hell.

This bodes well for the reader, especially if you like scenes of immorality and mayhem. The hermit admits to having passed through a stage of hating Christianity, through a rejection of its values, through a belief that a godless world would be a good world. Then there is a long - a very long - blinding flash, as a result of which the hermit-to-be has his eyes opened for him. Suddenly he sees the Bosch-like horror of the world around him. George takes the leash off his mastiff metaphors:

Lo! [this is the hermit speaking] I saw
Society in mad convulsion whirl,
While anarchy, with his insatiate jaws,
Mangled and gorged the giddy victims down.
One gloomy group, in shades of deep despair,
Scowled darkly on the wild festivities,
That reigned in uproar round....

They hurried to a forest solitude,
And sternly passed around the poison cup;
Nor spake until the potion rioted With frenzy in their veins; then they did dance
A horrid dance into the vale of death!

There is something very Jonestown about all this - the handing round of the poison cup is stern. You can't help thinking that he actually enjoys writing all these Babylonian scenes, indeed that they have probably run straight on to the page in a ceaseless stream (he tends to be more careless when carried away like this). Anyway, our hermit - presumably George's alter ego - sees less than little hope. Everyone is swept up in the gloom of Gomorrah:

All classes were infected - all corrupt;
The gangrene was immedicable

Not surprisingly, the hermit has gone in for some raving and tearing of hair at what he has seen (at least, until he discovers - phew - it was just a dream). What is more, it occurs to the hermit that there is something of an answer - “democracy's broad tide” and “The people, source of power and majesty”. Nor, says the hermit, is he going to buy History's normal rejoinder, that ignorant serfs were happy serfs, kissing “the barbed point” that pierced their souls (George hasn't thought through the convolutions of this metaphor very well). No, ignorance isn't blissful in the least. What does it bring? He'll tell you. Chance for another violent vignette of horror ahoy:

Wan dissipation, spectral despair,
Famine, with shrivelled face and rayless gaze,
Fell rapine with her lurid bloody eye......

George is unsparing, but it would be a pain to inflict much more of his raving on the reader. What grabbed me was the context: a young man, scribbling into the midnight hours, whilst his new young wife lies sleeping nearby. The words have him by the scruff of his conscience. He is in a delicious rage. What is more, he is contemplating a wild uprising against the legislators and tyrants in the way of democracy (he is several decades ahead of his time, writing when rotten and pocket boroughs had only recently been swept away, and long before the secret ballot or universal franchise). As a matter of fact, he so absorbed in his denunciations that he loses sight of his hermit.

The third canto takes back into the dungeons of George's imagination. An old general snags his synapses on the side-effects of his supposed triumphs. They include all the miserable familiars: faces of blood, shattered limbs, orphans' curses, widows' groans, ghastly corpses, wolves prowling round, and a rather attractive maiden (“with an eye serenely blue, her auburn ringlets waving in the breeze”) tending to the corpse of her young lover, whose name (for reasons unknown) has been Henry. She dies of grief, and is replaced by another “virgin of romance”, who does not weep, but who has watched a bunch of derisive spectres go by, and promises to take Henry away from “this place of desolation.”

The general (who has been having a dream, it seems, rather like the hermit) also sees a bereaved father looking through “each lacerated carcase”, wakes up, and - George is overdoing this device - abruptly suffers another series of visions, which also turn out to be a dream. This time the general rather hopes he will wake in paradise, since he is dreaming that he has died, but no, all he gets is “a barren waste, which I had stained with gore and scorched with fire” out of which a mirror rises to depict his various guilts. He has set a capital city on fire, and his soldiers are forcing the hapless citizens back into the smoke with their bayonets. At this point, as generals doubtless do when they feel on song, he has gone into an ancient hall where the people hold festivals, and, snicker-snack, he causes “carnage, horror, blood, and violation”.

The dreamscape blends and edits into another one. This is George at his grotesque best: his inner eye is completely caked with images of violence:

There was a town, before whose gates I raged,
Until ‘twas filled with living skeletons,
That preyed upon each other's shrivelled flesh,
And sucked their garments till they hung in rags.

Since then, the general has been a changed man. If he had to give a painter a commission, it would be the way history raves about “the dignity of war”. He certainly wouldn't visit the gorgeous dome and pealing organ with which the church celebrates such victories. In fact, this regretful and homicidal tyrant has been on the rampage when Roman times (he is also “born” later, but let that inconsistency pass). Christ and the apostles have kyboshed his progress for a while, but his chance has come again when the “sons of Christ” have swapped their lofty ideas for fading honours, corrupting gold, crimson vestures studded with diamonds..... in other words, the weird general with the colliding dreams has become the embodiment of medieval, jiggery-popery.

Popes, at least in the fervid mental recesses of a dissenting Baptist from Sunderland, were nourished on human blood, given - them bones again - skeletons as play-pals, and provided with the jolly muzak of skinny victims chewing their manacles in underground cells. After their coronation, all pomp and purples, they asked themselves how they could hang on to all this power. Answer, delude them like Gadarene pigs, until

from the horrent brow
Of jagged precipice, they staggered o'er
Into the jaws of ruin!

Horrent is a neat word. There is of course plenty more horrent stuff to come, since it is night, and George is racing the clock. His popes ride “on Mammon's shoulders” into heaven, and would be completely in the pink were it not for the peculiar refusal of some to let their foreheads be branded. Because there were some Christians, it transpires, not fooled by the architecture, the sculptors, the painters, the musicians who were roped in to make the Popes look like the bees' knees. Step forward, then, Martin Luther.

The upshot of Luther's challenge to the established order is that ordinary people are unchained and free to speak and think their own minds. Rather curiously, the general who has run up against the moral ramparts of Luther is still very keen to knock them down. George Greenwell recommends constant vigilance, because the power-crazy will always be power-crazy, will itch to use the church as a vehicle for their blood lust, for “the groans of those that hug the stake”.

This part of the poem starts to collapse under its own weight. The general, who has been depicted as something of a changed man, turns out not to have changed. However, whilst insisting that he would use the church to depose monarchs and cause riot, he also admits that his eagerness to crush and crumble any vestiges of human independence is a waste of time. Retribution is at hand. The heavens are about to burst above his “devoted” (wrong word, one feels) head. After the general swears to perish in a glorious convulsion, George fades him out. We get the gist. We understand the moral. Men in charge of armies are violently corrupt, even if George cannot resist giving them a romantic aura, a “wild and haggard mien”. This canto concludes with the hope that the depiction of the general has not been in vain.


I remember the lollop of my heart when I started Canto IV. Sitting in that ambient silence in the British Library, where so many readers are lost in soft-spoken study, there might well have been some embarrassment if I had whooped out loud. At first, I thought George Greenwell was off on another encomium to his maker:

My father! O my father! I have called,
But thou hast not responded.

It looked like the prayer of a sinner, looking for an elusive truth. A few lines further, and some brief consideration of the lower case ‘f', and I realised I had walloped a jackpot. George Greenwell wasn't writing about God. He was writing about his own father, the elder George Greenwell, the one my grandfather had sent the Misses Podmore and England his half-crowns to discover. And one thing was immediately obvious. When The Bard had been composed in the long nights of 1838, the missing George Greenwell was already dead. And he had been dead for a while:

My father! O my father! I have called,
But thou hast not responded. Could I hear
Once more thy tones of manly tenderness,
The fountains of my heart that long have been
Iced over with the breath of selfish world,
Would gush in warm relief, and I would feel
Reviving breezes from another land.

I recollect in early boyhood days,
How often and how fondly thou didst clasp
Thy ardent child in arms of fostering love;
And, whilst his eyes were glistening, did impart
Knowledge in garb of novelty, that waked
Such aspirations as can never sleep.

And then I turn and gaze upon the grass,
Waving in bloom above thy mouldered dust.
O God! in mercy give me power to weep.

This is a celebration of his inspiration, a memory of being nurtured as a child, inspired to read, inspired to aspire. What does “early boyhood days” mean? It almost certainly means the age of seven or more. Suddenly, George Greenwell senior, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, had arrived on the scene, in the early 1820s. But he has long since been buried - and, one must presume, in Sunderland. It does not read as if George junior is writing metaphorically, even if he goes on to depict his father as a saint in heaven, “tuning harp, whose chords can never jar... A mild retiring star in beauty robed”.

The biographical passage quickly shifts to the familiar rhetoric about mass moral destruction, in which political revolution (a nearly explicit reference to France and its “histrionic moral schools” and “sentimental slang”) is denounced as no solution at all, but in which America is identified as the beacon of promise. Institutional change is no good, this much he has learned from his father. Moral change is what will determine the common good. The memory of his father moves quickly into the familiar denunciations of despotic rulers and crumbling citadels and skeletal workers, as if his father's memory has dredged these images up. At one point, the imaginary figure is spotted

With chastened aspect ‘mid a reverend group
Of cheerful pilgrims to a better land.

For a moment, I seemed to be seeing his father on the verge of emigration (“a better land”, as in America). This would certainly account for his absence from the public record, but it wouldn't account at all for his son being able to see his father's grave. Besides which, why leave his wife Mary behind? That didn't seem likely at all. It looks like “the better land” is Heaven. And without warning, George Greenwell, poet, suddenly addresses the former Mary Wilson herself:

Dear mother, when I first in helplessness
Was conscious of the throbbings of thy love,
Thine hair was raven; now ‘tis mournful grey;
Thine eyes were lustrous, now they're dull and dim,
But, O, my mother, years have made no change
In thy affections: they have deepened mine.
Pardon the thoughtlessness which oft has pained
Thy yearning spirit. Long mayst thou be spared,
Blessed and blessing with thy sympathies;
And, after we have toiled the weary vale,
We'll meet where farewell-tones are never heard.

So Mary Greenwell, 59 at the time the poem was composed, has grown old. She is suddenly more visible too - raven-haired. It is a smidgen of her physical existence, a glimpse. (2)

That George Greenwell the elder did not move away, and leave his two sons and wife behind becomes clear in Canto V. This Canto, addressed to his dedicatee, his brother Robert, comes up with something even more amazing - a description of his father's death. One wonders what my grandfather would have made of all this. It would have knocked on the head so many of his projects. Our poet begins in familiar, florid form:

Often, my brother, in our joyous youth,
We listened to the soul-awak'ning strains;
And, bounding o'er the softly murmuring burn,
With steps elastic trod the dewy grass,
Fair were the wild flowers which expanded there;
Balmy the gales which rifled all their sweets.

It's interesting immediately that their childhood in Sunderland seems positively rural, however idealised the scene (although of course, there is no proof (3)that they had not moved to Hetton-le-Hole, and returned to Sunderland after the father's death - it's an altogether credible possibility, especially since Mary's brother Alexander would have been her natural protector when widowed with two children). George soon, however, takes his brother Robert back to a more miserable memory:

My brother, mindest thou that solemn time,
When all our vernal fancies spread their wings,
Scared by a scene of awe. ‘Twas terrible
Dimly to mark the sable drapery
Of an invisible and silent foe,
Whose grasp was tearing from our eyes and heart,
Their light and consolation. Strong was death!
But stronger far the deathless principle,
That spread the flush of immortality
Over the pallid cheeks, and gleamed in fire
From sunken eyes, where chilly death-drops hung.

It was, indeed, an overwhelming sight,
Where death and life, decay and youthful bloom
Blended their mystic utterance. "Raise me up,"
Our father said; we raised him, and his eyes
Glared on unveiled eternity. His tones,
Like seraph voicings, fell upon our ears -
Triumph and calm monition mingled there,
Until we inly vowed to follow him
By the same light - that of eternal truth.

“Raise me up”. Is this poetic licence? Or did my great-great-great-great-grandfather genuinely say to his sons, at the point of death, a death that now looks to have occurred in his sons' teenage years, given their responses - did he actually say “Raise me up”? Was I sitting in the British Library reading the last words of my grandfather's grandfather's grandfather? What would Robert have said to George if he had made up their father's last words for the sake of a poem? And what would Mary have said, had her husband's last words been fictionalised? It suddenly seemed to me that, through the opaque window of the poem, I was being allowed to see and hear the first George Greenwell expiring. It was unbelievable.

George goes on to reflect on his father's favourite passages from the Bible, including a version of the Book of Ruth which has more parallels to the writer's own life than the original. What at the least is discovered in The Bard is that the missing George Greenwell was well-read, political, and also that he died at a relatively young age. One possible culprit here is the first cholera epidemic in the country, a cholera epidemic that was hushed up and allowed to proceed at first - the Sunderland cholera epidemic of 1831-2. Robert would then have been 17, and George 15.

Modern Sunderland brings together three communities - Bishopwearmouth, Monkwearmouth (which is to the north of the river Wear), and the original town of Sunderland. Sunderland proper - at the west end of which was Sans Street Baptist Chapel - was a crowded, unsanitary place, with 17,000 people crammed into the buildings - an average of 38 square yards a person. It was not unusual to find between eight and ten people sharing a room, and the poor ventilation was made worse by the removal of the windows to avoid window tax. Only one in ten houses had a water supply; only one in thirteen had privies - for everyone else, it was a case of a communal midden. The town - where the port carried on its considerable trade in coal, flax, iron, liquor and timber - was also home to a great number of slaughterhouses, official or otherwise. In other words, Sunderland, with its network of alleys, and its impoverished people, was a place of horrific squalor, about as receptive as it possibly could be to the contagious “Asiatic” cholera, which had spent the last three years working itself across Europe.

There was one man in Sunderland - an army surgeon at the town's garrison called Kell - who had had experience of treating cholera in Mauritius, and who was convinced that the death of a ship's pilot halfway through August was the contagious variety. He did not run into a brick wall of indifference so much as the thin air of self-interest. For two to three months Kell endeavoured to persuade the local Board of Health that they were not merely dealing with a virulent domestic cholera, about which some were in any case in denial. He convinced the senior physician in Sunderland, William Reid Clanny, but Clanny knew well enough that his colleagues (who were not even reporting the cholera cases they had treated to one another) would need to be coddled along. Clanny engineered a statement in mid-November that admitted the cholera, but went as hazily as possible through all the reasons why it was not contagious.

The problem was an economic one. Sunderland's principal landowner, and trader in coal was Sir Hedworth Williamson - later an M.P. for the town, and the owner of the family seat at Whitburn Hall (this was where my grandfather rented a wing in the 1960s). Williamson was adamant that the cholera was not contagious. Like others, he subscribed to a really specious argument:

The lower orders will suffer most severely from want of employment and their poverty will be another cause of the increase of sickness and render them turbulent and riotous.

So the cholera could not be allowed to be contagious, in case it caused the town to continue to be quarantined (ships were forbidden to leave the harbour), and thereby caused death! The London and Newcastle press heaped scorn on Sunderland for refusing to admit to the cholera, and eventually, with the death-toll reaching 179 by January (4), the medical establishment relented. The disease carried off, incidentally, one of Sunderland's most celebrated characters, Jack Crawford, who had nailed the colours to the mast of the British flagship at the height of the battle of Camperdown in 1797, and had joined the procession at Nelson's funeral in 1806.

The cholera (which swept England over the next few years) can hardly be blamed upon Sunderland, but it does illustrate the dependence of the townspeople on the shipping industry, and the stark difference between the old town and its more prosperous twin, Bishopwearmouth. In the first place, ships were generally owned by ordinary people, in 1/64 or 1/32 shares: it was true that everyone was hit if the shipping trade was hit. Most of the employment in the town was directly related to shipping. The conditions in Sunderland itself were, however, appalling, while Bishopwearmouth was spacious - 505 square yards per person, thirteen times the figure in Sunderland - and relatively well-heeled. It was to be perhaps another fifty years before the two areas began to come together. The Baptists, sitting on the edge of the divide, must have been acutely aware of the conditions under which their near neighbours suffered, and this can only have fed George Greenwell's awareness of social deprivation. Indeed, Sans Street itself was still the site of a “very dirty” slaughter-house where “they kill bullocks all the day through” in 1851, twenty years later - one witness told the inspector that “in front of the shop in Sans many as thirty or forty children [amused] themselves by looking at the poor animal being knocked down and having its throat cut.” The metaphors he uses have been fed by exposure to scenes of genuine horror.

The desperation and poverty of Sunderland are illustrated by an account Dr. Clanny commissioned from the physician, a Mr. Holmes, whose patient was the first “official” casualty of Asiatic cholera in Great Britain, a sixty-year-old keelman called William Sproat. Sproat had kept working through ten days of diarrhoea, but on Wednesday October 19th, he could not carry on. Kell and Clanny witnessed what Holmes described:

The pulse was natural in force and frequency, the skin of the natural temperature, tongue moist and slightly covered with a white fur, the papillae at the lip and edges not raised, no thirst, and in good spirits; the stools were rather light-coloured but feculent, and neither thin nor frothy.

By Saturday, Sproat seems better, but disobeys Holmes's injunctions about diet and, having eaten toasted cheese the night before, consumes a mutton-chop for dinner, and then sets off for work!

He was absent about twenty minutes, and on his return home, about four o'clock, he became very ill, had a severe shivering fit and giddiness, cramps of the stomach, and
violent vomiting and purging.

On Sunday, Sproat's pulse is imperceptible, his “extremities cold, skin dry, eyes sunk, lips blue, features shrunk, he spoke in whispers, violent vomiting and purging, cramps of the calves of the legs and complete prostration of strength...tongue dry, brown, and cold; the urine was suppressed... the stools were described to me as being like meat washings...” After three enemas, brandy, laudanum, calomel and opium, which seem to have relieved the suffering, Sproat died at noon on the Wednesday.

Whenever George Greenwell's father died, you have to hope it was not from undiagnosed Asiatic cholera (which had certainly spread to the tiny community of Hetton-le-Hole within a couple of months, if that is where his father was). But there is no doubt that George and Robert would, in their teenage years, have been worshipping at the epicentre of the outbreak.


The sixth and final canto of The Bard is quite unlike its predecessors. Suddenly George Greenwell launches a critical catalogue of poets - twenty-four in all - who have inspired him, even (as is often the case) when they have let the side down. For a man in his early twenties, he is not only well-read (most of the poets cited are contemporary ), but also perfectly unafraid of having a pop at what he sees to be their failings. These failings are invariably ideological - he loves the poetry, and only takes the writers to task when they miss (as he sees it) the point. Once again, we hear that disputatious strain, that Particular Baptist enjoyment of ticking off a refractor. We are also treated to George's habit of going off on whatever track suits him - he is a real midnight rambler, dotting from phantom figures with apocalyptic visions to memories of his father to political and religious pronouncements.

George Greenwell's youthful poem ends very abruptly, almost mid-stream, in fact, perhaps because it has nowhere else to go, or perhaps because Richmond's offer to print it came during its composition. After he has had his say about the two dozen poets who have impressed themselves on his imagination, he has no way to round off his ramble at all. But he hasn't mentioned his new wife, Jane Redman, and that seems like an omission. He adds in, therefore, a love poem to the woman who must certainly have been his first audience:

Come to mine arms, my first and only love;
The beamings of thine eye as sweetly fall
Upon me, as the rays of lunar light,
That kiss the sleeping streams of evening.
Come then in ardour to a beating heart,
That ever throbs in unison with thine;
And find entranced repose upon the breast
Of him that raptly vowed to cherish thee.
Thy blessed smile has cheered me while I sung
The varied musings of a youthful bard:
Now join me in a raptured closing strain.
Blessings for ever wreathe the smiling hearth,
Where in deep music purple fountains play;
Where cherub guardians shake their balmy wings;
Where joy ecstatic, spotless sanctity -
Triumphant hope and tranquil peace are seen,
Sporting ‘mid scenes that bloom like Eden's grove.
Blessings for ever rise unto his name,
Who gave us pilgrims in a desert land,
This green oasis, ever beautiful,
With vistas opening into scenery,
Which sorrow, time, and death, can never waste.

The question was, which way would the new pilgrims go? There is no reason to doubt that his father had been a preacher, and the words were now rushing through his own head with all the urgency of breezes through new trees. It was no surprise when more of his writing turned up.

(1) And this someone was most probably his father. A good idea of the kind of regime both George and his father would have followed as young men occurs in an account of Robert Morrison's daily routine at the age of seventeen in Newcastle in 1799 - working as an apprentice shoemaker from 6 a.m., and continuing till 7 or 8 in the evening, before reading late into the night. Two years later, Morrison was learning Latin, paying a guinea a quarter to the Reverend Adam Laidlaw, a local Presbyterian minister - a sizeable investment for an apprentice patten-maker. The Latin classes were of course in addition to his work.

(2) There is more than a glimpse to be caught of Mary Wilson. A tiny portrait survives in the house in Northern Ireland of Moira Conlan, one of Mary and George's great-great-great-grandchildren, through the younger George's daughter, Elizabeth. Tradition in that family says that it was the great-great-grandmother of Moira's mother, Maisie Magee, on her father's side. There are only four candidates, one of whom certainly died too young. The date of the picture - about 1850 - fits the age and also the known existence of Mary in the early 1850s in Nottingham with her son George. There is a clear family resemblance to her son Robert. The picture seems to have passed as follows - from the younger George Greenwell to his grandson George Collin, from George Collin through his eldest daughter Betty Hinde to her daughter Joyce Hinde, and on her death, across to Maisie Collin, Betty's sister.

(3) It much later (2015) transpired that George had indeed moved to Hetton-le-Hole, and had died there in 1826, when George was an impressionable ten years old. It sems that, after this, Mary, robert and George did indeed return to Sunderland, and lived with their uncle, Alexander Wilson. When he died in 1846, he left his house to Mary for the rest of her life - to be sold for the benefit of missionary societies when she died.

(4) A further outbreak in the summer of 1832 killed another 36 people.

(5) See Appendix One


Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Appendix One
Appendix Two - 1
Appendix Two - 2
Appendix Two - 3
Appendix Two - 4
Appendix Two - 5
Appendix Two - 6
Appendix Three
Appendix Four
Appendix Five
Appendix Six