The Shoddy Court Literary & Mutual Improvement Society

Our very good friend, Dr Michael Sanders, Senior Lecturer in C19th Writing at the University of Manchester, is running a virtual reading group via Zoom during the COVID-19 lockdown period.

The Piston, Pen & Press team has been working on a number of poems and songs and, in the spirit of the Literary and Mutual Improvement Societies they’ve been researching, their flyer references the ‘Shoddy Court Literary and Scientific’ in Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil. It is modelled after the selection of flyers they studied in Keighley Library, Yorkshire.

Piston, Pen & Press is an AHRC-funded project which aims to understand how industrial workers in Scotland and the North of England, from the 1840s to the 1910s, engaged with literary culture through writing, reading, and participation in wider cultural activities. Reading materials will be posted here and on Facebook, and you’ll be able to watch short introductory videos to each week on Youtube. Readers can join the discussion by posting their thoughts on the Facebook page, commenting and tagging @PistonPen on Twitter or by joining live Zoom discussions, held fortnightly, Tuesdays at 8pm GMT. All welcome, no prior knowledge necessary!

To receive the link and password for the Zoom meetings, please email .

First Discussion: Tuesday 28th April, 8pm GMT.
“Rights and Liberty”: John Stafford’s songs celebrating forty years of freedom struggles.

Despite being illiterate, John Stafford (1790-c.1840s) composed many songs celebrating and commemorating the radical causes in which he played an active role.  These songs were frequently sung at radical gatherings around the Ashton-under-Lyne area where Stafford lived and worked.  The selection of songs deals with the most important working-class struggles of the first half of the Nineteenth Century – Luddism, Reform, Peterloo, the Factory Movement and Chartism.

Second Discussion: Tuesday 12th May, 8pm GMT.
“We work for our bread in the caverns below”: Poetry from the Pits.

Led by Mike and Kirstie and featuring mining songs and poems from Scotland and the North, this highlights the topics and themes of miner’s poetry in the long Victorian period.

Third Discussion: Tuesday 26th May, 8pm GMT.
“A factory girl can ne’er be free”: Songs from the Shuttles and Spindles.

For this week Mike and Kirstie focus on two late-century Lancashire poets, Sam Fitton and Sarah A. Robinson, and their writings in the Cotton Factory Times and Yorkshire Factory Times.

Fourth Discussion: Tuesday 9th June, 8pm GMT.
“The spring and ring of the bending rail”: Lines from the Railways.

Here Mike, Kirstie and Oli will consider some of the poems by railway poets we have been investigating, from stationmasters to surfacemen.