William Scoresby Jr., Social Reformer

My work on the whaler William Scoresby Jr. centres on his 1822 voyage to Greenland, a small, but significant episode in a very diverse and influential life. Scoresby gave up whaling after his voyage the following year–there were commercial as well as personal reasons in play–and became a clergyman. In the early 1840s he was Vicar of Bradford, and, besides bringing him into contact with the Brontë family at Haworth, his experiences there made him an outspoken social reformer. Scoresby was never less than opinionated, but his dismay at the way workers in the mills and factories of Britain’s industrial towns was enough for him to establish schools for poor children in Bradford, to give lectures on the conditions men and women endured in their employment, and in their lives. Following a visit to Massachusetts in 1844, where he investigated the conditions experienced by American factory workers (better than in Britain, he thought), Scoresby gave a series of lectures about his findings, and collected them into a book, American Factories and their Female Operatives, published the following year in Britain and the US.

When reading this we must bear in mind Scoresby’s paternalistic and moralistic view of the working poor–he was at least as interested in saving souls as saving lives–but there is real concern and forcefulness here:

“The consideration, let it be observed, of the long hours of labor, is one by no means belonging peculiarly to our factory system. The Reports of the Commissioners appointed by the government, ‘for inquiring into the employment of children and young persons in mines and collieries, trades and manufactures,’ have brought to light a most appalling amount of misery induced, as to this one essential element, by over-working. And from hence we find, taking the whole range of the investigations under this humane commission, that the oppression of the laborer is no local or peculiar incident, but an evil of huge magnitude, as a national sin. It is an evil which has grown up insidiously amongst us, the offspring of success in trade and of an excess of laboring population.”

William Scoresby Jr. _American Factories and their Female Operatives_ Boston: Ticknor and Co. 1845.

More on Scoresby here, and here. And a bit more about the 1822 voyage here.

Slave Trading in Liverpool as Late as 1825?

In the eighteenth century, Liverpool was a key port in the “triangular trade” in which ships sailed from Britain to West Africa, collected a cargo of living humans, then crossed the Atlantic to the Americas to sell them on. Many of Liverpool’s wealthiest families were involved in slave trading, or profited from slavery, including several who lived in Abercromby Square, now part of the University of Liverpool. The trade was made illegal in 1807, though of course slavery in the United States and the Caribbean continued for years afterwards.

But what the law says should happen, and what actually happens, are sometimes quite different. Back in 2014, while I was researching a short piece on Henry Howard Brownell, the American Civil War poet and abolitionist, I came across an interesting letter (reproduced below) that is suggestive, to me at least, of slave trading going on in Liverpool as late as 1825. It’s far from definitive–there is no actual mention of slaves, for obvious reasons–but it’s intriguing.

As an abolitionist, Brownell had an interesting background. His mother came from the DeWolf family of Rhode Island so he was a close relative of James DeWolf (sometimes written D’Wolf), a major ship owner, slave trader and privateer. Although based in the North East, the DeWolfs were slave owners in Cuba and the southern US states, and are known to have continued to transport and trade in slaves well into the nineteenth century, and to have used their influence to evade the law. They were immensely rich and often packed the courts with family members, and controlled the excise in Bristol, RI.

The letter itself is from a man called Martin (?) Bennett to John DeWolf (James’s brother I think), dated April 16 (?), 1825, and was written when the ship (owned by DeWolf) arrived in Liverpool with cotton from New Orleans. Apart from revealing the massive profit on cotton, it ends with the following:

I purchased the goods according to your memorandums at this port and at the lowest rate payable. I shall take particular care of the goods and keep them onboard the vessel until I return.

There is no certainty in this of course, but word “them” and the bit about keeping them on the vessel under “particular care,” suggests something alive, which I doubt was sheep.

I’d be interested to know what others think. Hat tip to the Rhode Island Historical Society, which is where this came from.


Cain’s Audio Guide for Liverpool Biennial 2016

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, so it seems appropriate that I should revisit Cain’s: The Story of Liverpool in a Pintthe book I published in 2008 about the Cain’s brewery in Liverpool. After the book was finished the brewery struggled on for a couple of years but has now closed. It is about to be transformed into a centre for independent retailers and an apartment block, but in the mean time it is host to the 2016 Liverpool Biennial. I was asked to produce an audio guide giving some historical background to the brewery, but tying it in to the Biennial’s themes:

Liverpool Biennial 2016 explores fictions, stories and histories, taking viewers on a series of voyages through time and space, drawing on Liverpool’s past, present and future. These journeys take the form of six ‘episodes’: Ancient Greece, Chinatown, Children’s Episode, Software, Monuments from the Future and Flashback. They are sited in galleries, public spaces, unused buildings, through live performance and online. Many of the artists have made work for more than one episode, some works are repeated across different episodes, and some venues host more than one episode.

My audio guide can be downloaded from here.

Listen to Chapter 1 of Cain’s: the Story of Liverpool in a Pint here.

Liverpool Biennial 2016. Download the festival guide from here (pdf).

The Voyage of the Whale Ship Esk in 1816

ESKebookFor several years now I’ve been researching the life and work of William Scoresby Jr., an early nineteenth-century whaler and Arctic explorer who sailed from Whitby, and Liverpool. Of course this has on the whole been a spare time project, and one that is quite a departure from my academic background in American literature, and crime fiction. It has taken quite a while to reach the point where I feel confident about publishing on the subject. I’m working on a full-length book about Scoresby, but in the mean time I have written and self-published a short (~10,000 words) book-let on his once famous voyage of 1816, a voyage which could very easily have ended in tragedy and disaster.

This booklet is available as a print copy from Amazon and in due course as an ebook from all the usual outlets and in all the usual formats. In the mean time your one stop shop for the ebook in the right format for you is Smashwords. The cover image is by mixed media artist Caroline Hack, from an original illustration by Scoresby himself.

The Holderness Whale: Exhibition at Burton Constable

BCBT01-300x203I first met artist Caroline Hack at the “Moby Dick on the Mersey” marathon read I organised in Liverpool in 2013. We’ve since worked together on a little book about the 1816 voyage of the Whitby whale ship Esk. Back in 2013 Caroline was already established with a back catalogue of work related to whales and historic whaling and she is currently Artist in Residence at Burton Constable Hall in East Yorkshire, where there is a famous skeleton of a Sperm Whale, washed up on the Holderness coast at Tunstall in 1825. This skeleton featured first in Thomas Beale’s The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839) and later, via Beale, in Moby-Dick (1851) itself.

Caroline has built an exhibition with this skeleton–now in the stables–as its centrepiece, starting from Saturday March 26. If you’re in the area the hall and grounds themselves are a good day out anyway, but this exhibition just makes it all the more worthwhile. Caroline’s work with printed and sewn fabrics is both reminiscent of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, and starkly corporeal in its use of whale bones and historic objects.

The exhibition runs from Easter Saturday to Thursday 28 April 2016. Opening Times: 11am – 5pm, seven days per week (the hall itself is not open on Fridays). The project is funded by the Arts Council England via Grants for the Arts and the Friends of Burton Constable.

See more of Caroline’s work at carolinehack.com

Not the Flying Scotsman

City of Wells

I’m way behind with everything other than setting up the English programme in Continuing Education at the University of Liverpool (I’m behind with that too, but don’t tell anyone), so this blog and several other projects have been neglected for a while. To put that right (a bit), I thought I would make a note that back in January I was lucky enough to be present at one of the Flying Scotsman weekends hosted by the East Lancashire Railway, and to have tickets for the train. These weekends were to celebrate the first outings for the locomotive following a decade-long refurbishment. Large crowds made getting clear pictures of the star of the show difficult, but it meant that other equally impressive machines were not so hemmed in by photographers. Above is City of Wells, which normally lives on the Worth Valley Railway, here leaving Bury station. And below is a photograph of the crowds that followed Flying Scotsman wherever it went.

Flying Scotsman

Melville in Liverpool on BBC Radio 4

On Monday I was interviewed on BBC Radio Four for a programme by poet Paul Farley on Herman Melville and his relationship with England and with Liverpool in particular. Melville came to England three times: as a cabin boy in 1839, as an established, and quite famous writer in 1849, and as a writer facing “annihilation” in 1856. We talked by the side of a breezy, chilly Albert Dock. I’ve done several radio and TV interviews over the years and even though we cowered in an alcove by the entrance to the public toilets, this was, from my point of view at least, the most enjoyable and relaxed. The programme, Herman Melville’s Sea Change, is very atmospheric and thought-provoking. If you are in the UK can be heard at this link until early March.


Philip Hoare Talks About Whales and Moby-Dick

This is a fascinating talk about Melville’s novel in which Philip Hoare touches on his own interest in the book, on perceptions and representations of the whale, and how he came to be so connected with whales.

After the Flood


The River Rothay, back where it should be.

I have many reasons to be thankful and among them last weekend was that the storms and flooding that hit Cumbria on Saturday December 5th did no more than inconvenience my family and me. It’s true, we lost our car, which was already stranded and beyond saving in the early hours of Saturday morning, before “Desmond” actually arrived. The River Rothay finally swept it away up the road just after dark on Saturday evening. But the insurance has already covered that and, well, it was just a car, and not a particularly special one.


Road and river.

Compared with the people of Carlisle, Cockermouth, and many other places, we got off very lightly indeed. Rather unexpectedly we had heat, light and broadband throughout the weekend. Besides a slight worry that the floodwaters would eventually reach our elevated front door, and the frustration of being marooned, all we had to think about was just how extraordinary the rain was, and how awesome, in the proper sense of the word, nature can be. My memory of that Saturday is of darkness, and relentless rain. The air became mostly water. It is also full of the noise the river made as it barrelled down the valley, carrying with it large branches and the root balls of gigantic felled trees. There were few opportunities to take photographs–being outside was just too unpleasant and it was far too dark anyway–so these pictures were taken before the worst of the flood hit.


At its peak the water came up almost to the bottom of the sign on the gate.

That roaring sound was everywhere, all the time. It is no great revelation, but true nonetheless, that the world we make for ourselves–the comfortable, carpeted, indoor world–is a lot more precarious than it seems.


Tourism is a major part of the economy in this beautiful part of the world, but there are businesses of all kinds, from art galleries, gift shops, and shops selling outdoor gear, to cafes, breweries, and of course farming. They are suffering: please use them. Visit if you can: don’t cancel that hotel booking if the hotel is still open. If you can’t visit, why not buy some of your Christmas presents from Cumbrian businesses online?

If you can spare some cash, please also give to the flood appeal.