Rhyme and Reform

Victorian Working-Class Poets Elizabeth Barrett Brownings "The Cry of the Children"

II: “On Joseph Rayner Stephens”

This poem was published in The Northern Star on 18th May 1839, signed “E.H., a Factory Girl of Stalybridge.”  The Northern Star was not only  the leading newspaper of the Chartist movement but also one of the most widely read newspapers in Great Britain at the time.  At the peak of its popularity in 1839, the readership of The Northern Star has been estimated at between 750,000 to 1.5 million people (at a time when the electorate consisted of 500,000 men).  The poem commends the work of the Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens (above), an independent Methodist minister and ardent champion of factory reform.  Stephens’s fiery sermons condemning factory conditions were very popular with Chartist audiences and he was arrested in December 1838 and sentenced to eighteen months’ imprisonment for his activities.  An interesting feature of this poem is the way in which “A Factory Girl” protests against her cultural as well as her economic deprivation.


At Dukinfield Green a man does reside
That preaches against superstition and pride;
The milliners hate him and ministers too
Because he informs us what they ought to do.

He preaches the gospel and Ten Hours’ Bill;
They would have him down if they had their will.
We must have our living, say they to the poor,
But till they preach like Stephens we’ll pay them no more.

[…]

I was sent to the mill at eight years of age,
And for many a year I’d to stand on a stage;
When my limbs were al tir’d and my strength overcome,
I’d often to lay myself down under the loom.

But then in those days no Stephens we knew,
And since he has told us what we are to do,
Let us do as he bids us, then we’ll get our rights,
And I wish in my heart there were more Stephenites.

[…]

But let us all strive to walk in God’s ways,
And from day to day our Saviour to praise.
Let us search the Bible and know the Lord’s will,
And walk in the smile of his countenance still.

We factory lasses have but little time,
So I hope you will pardon my bad written rhyme.
God bless him for striving to get us our rights,
And I wish the world over were true Stephenites.

A Stephenite I am from the ground of my heart,
And I hope from the same I shall never depart.
May God spare your life till the tyrants are ended,
So I bid you good bye, till my verses I’ve mended.

UStrathclyde

erik_swanson • August 14, 2018


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