National Poetry Day – the 18th century Birmingham way

The bustle and confusion of 18th and early 19th century Birmingham is not usually associated with works of literature but two objects on display in the Stranger’s Guide section of Birmingham: its people its history point towards a particular interest in verse.

The painting 'John Freeth and His Circle' by Johannes Eckstein

The painting by Johannes Eckstein ‘John Freeth and His Circle’ shows a group of men gathered around a table with their drink and pipes. These are members of the Jacobin Club who meet to discuss news and listen to Birmingham’s great celebrity performance poet of the day, John Freeth. In the picture he is sitting at the front, second from the left.  John Freeth (1731-1808), combined ballad writing and performance with running a Coffee House / Inn called the Leicester Arms in Bell Street an area which has now been re-developed as part of the Bullring.

He published a number of collections of his works and several of his ballads were well known outside Birmingham. Politics provided the inspiration for his writing and the tumultuous times of the American and French Revolutions gave him plenty of ammunition to criticize the government. Naturally, much of his work has a Birmingham slant. In this ballad from 1776 called “Birmingham Tranquillity” he pokes fun at London’s handling of its mayoral elections whilst at the same time making the acerbic point that Birmingham for all its 60,000 inhabitants still does not have the right to return a Member of Parliament – a situation which would not be remedied until 1832.

Birmingham Tranquillity

In England’s fair capital, every year
A tumult is raised about choosing Lord Mayor;
Each party engages, with fury and spleen,
And nothing but strife and contention is seen.

Ye wrangling old cits, let me beg you’d look down,
And copy from Birmingham’s peaceable town,
Where souls sixty thousand or more you may view,
No justice dwells here, and but constables two.

In no place besides that’s so populous grown,
Was ever less noise or disturbances known:
All hands find employment, and when their work’s done,
Are happy as any souls under the sun.

With hammer and file time is carefully beat,
For such is the music of every street;
The anvil’s sharp sound is the artist’s delight,
And stamps, lathes and presses in concert unite.

Let cities and boroughs for contest prepare,
In choosing of sheriffs, recorder or mayor,
With most kinds of titles they’ve nothing to do,
Nor discord in choosing of officers shew

The envy and hatred that elections bring on,
Their hearty intention is always to shun;
No polling, no scratching, no scrutinies rise,
Who friendship esteem must such measures despise.

To far distant climes doth her commerce extend;
Her channels of traffic admit of no end;
And Birmingham, whilst there is trade in the land,
In brightest invention unrivalled shall stand.

The second object does not paint such a flattering picture of Birmingham.

Souvenir jug with poem, 1817

This jug was presumably sold as a souvenir of a bare-knuckle boxing match fought on Billesley Common in 1817. It tells the story of how Sam Scott, a boatman from the Black Country defeated his Birmingham opponent, the prize fighter Granby. The poet in this case is unknown.

Sam Scott the fly boatman a chap of renown
Beat Granby the boxer of Birmingham town
He beat him so much with his great clumsy fist
That poor Granby the boxer could scarcely exist

It was on a large common near Mosely way green
That combatants meet too were plain to be seen
The first setting too it were not much amiss
But Sam made poor Granby near ready to p-s

The second set too bets went five to one
For the company knew Granby soon would be done
And in the third bout Sam turned him quite round
He said shall I kick his a-e or knock him quite down

The forth round when they met Granby laugh’d in his face
Sam Scott said d-m thee that shall be to thy disgrace
He gave him such thumps he was forced to come down
So thus with Sam’s heavy blows ended this round

The fifth and last round showed but little sport
Sam pelted poor Granby about his poor throate
He fell muzzle upwards as tho he was dead
And out of the ring he was forced to be led

So this was the way that the battle ended
And I think that poor Granby was not much befriended
For instead as he expected to have beaten bold Scott
To Sam’s satisfaction it was his own lot.

Both objects, and much more besides, are on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Sylvia Crawley,
Curator (Applied Art)

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