William McGonagall, the Mill-Workers Strike, and the People’s Journal

Professor Kirstie Blair of Stirling University is a well-known scholar in the field of Victorian poetry with particular interests in working-class poets. As part of her research for a project on Victorian Scottish poets, and particularly the poetry columns in the newspapers, she came across some early correspondence from our favourite not-yet-poet and tragedian…

In August 1875, Dundee was gripped by the excitement of the mill-workers’ strike, caused by a proposed reduction in wages due to recession in the jute trade. The People’s Journal, Dundee’s leading weekly paper, known for its sympathy for working-class causes, reported on August 14 that 35 works were stopped and 12,000 people were on strike: a mass meeting on Magdalen Green the week before was said to have attracted 20,000, to listen to impassioned speeches and discuss whether any compromise with the mill-owners would be possible. A Relief Committee had been set up to help workers suffering from the loss of their wages, and donations were pouring in from across Scotland and beyond. Feelings in Dundee were running high. And it seems that William McGonagall, whose wife Jean and four children worked in the trade, shared in the excitement and anxiety. On August 7, the People’s Journal devoted a whole page of coverage to the strike, including the following letter:

TO THE EDITOR OF THE PEOPLE’S JOURNAL.

SIR, – Perhaps you would be kind enough to give these few remarks of mine publicity concerning the behaviour of the Relief Committee of the Dundee mill-workers’ strike. I have been informed by good authority that they have refused to give any relief to half-time workers; also to married women whose husbands are working. In my opinion this is an act of injustice, and ought not to be tolerated, because the money that has been collected ought to be given to all workers – married or single, old and young. In my opinion there should be no distinction made in the distribution of the money that has been described. If there is a distinction to be made, I rather fear it will cause a great diminution in the next subscription, for I am certain that many married men will not subscribe when they know that the money is not to be distributed to all workers connected to the present strike. In my opinion they are all entitled to a share of it. If not, I consider it to be an act of injustice the most inhuman and unreasonable. This ought not to be the case, and should not be tolerated. – I am, &c.,

WILLIAM MCGONAGALL, Tragedian.

Was McGonagall’s family suffering because he was in work, but his wife was not? Is he bitter because he had subscribed to the Relief Fund, but had not reaped any benefits from it? This is an odd letter. On the one hand it is literate and clearly written by someone possessing a good vocabulary and command of the English language, but on the other the repetition of ‘In my opinion’ three times as the opening of a sentence is clumsy, and the characterization of the work of the Relief Committee as ‘an act of injustice the most inhuman and unreasonable’ is an exaggeration that significantly undermines McGonagall’s case. It adopts a lofty tone, but it also has a strong air of personal grievance.

McGonagall’s fellow-citizens were seemingly not in agreement with his argument. The following week, a John Phillips wrote in to argue that his statements were factually incorrect. Somewhat unwisely, Phillips then observed that some kind of distinction in distributing funds seemed necessary, given how full the Dundee pubs were of men spending their relief money on drink. In a city riven by the temperance cause, this was throwing fuel on the fire. Phillips’ letter sparked two more responses on August 21 – one objecting to Phillips, one objecting to McGonagall – and another letter by McGonagall himself. This one asserted the truth of his previous claims, and, on the question of whether women whose husbands drink alcohol should be granted relief, McGonagall commented, quoting Shakespeare:

In my opinion, sir, this is nothing short of slander. I leave it to the public to judge for themselves. I would have John Phillips to be more merciful for the future, and not to try and injure every person or persons engaged in the strike. “Treat every man according to his deserts, and who shall scape whipping?” – I am, &c.

Slander against whom? Was McGonagall (who later wrote in support of temperance) upset by a perceived suggestion that he supported strong drink? His letter is certainly far more intemperate than his first. As tensions rose higher and violence loomed in Dundee, with some workers opting to break the strike and accept the modified wage-cuts offered by employers, the letters column in the Journal also became more vitriolic. On August 28, John Phillips responded:

If William McGonagall (who seems to be out of an engagement) is in reality so great an enthusiast as he pretends to be, why not get up a series of dramatic entertainments for the benefit of those on strike? He would do the cause more good in this manner than in any other. […] He may be a tragedian, but I don’t think it.

This was accompanied by another letter, from ‘Young Hamlet, Lochee’ also disagreeing with McGonagall’s original point that women with working husbands were still entitled to relief:

I would advise him to give this question a little more consideration, as it appears to me he knows very little about it, but merely wants to bring his name before the public, never having been able to do so in any other manner. What ‘William’ wants to impress upon your readers is that he is a tragedian. I must confess I never heard of him before, although I have had good opportunities of doing so. However, I will be very happy to come and hear him if he gets up an entertainment for the benefit of the married women.

McGonagall was seemingly incensed by these slurs on his dramatic and personal reputation. The following week, September 4, the editor noted:

We have received another letter from William McGonagall, tragedian, wherein certain parties who have written letters in our columns are described as ‘slanderers’, ‘liars’ &c. We must inform this ‘tragedian’ that while language of this sort may do well enough on the stage, it will not do in the columns of a newspaper […] Another correspondent, who signs himself ‘Jim Crow, no Tragedian’, alleges that Mr McGonagall is not a tragedian at all, being nothing more nor less than a handloom weaver, who tries to act Richard III.

That was McGonagall quashed – for the moment. By January 1876 he was corresponding with the People’s Journal again, this time offering his services in the defence of Shakespeare, and on January 15 1876, the paper printed a poem mocking him, ‘An Old Stager’s ‘Lines on a Well-Known Local “Tragedian”‘. These later instances have been noted, but as far as I am aware, the 1875 correspondence has not been remarked upon. Why is it significant? It shows us that McGonagall was set upon describing himself as a ‘tragedian’, rather than a weaver, even though doing so was clearly a strategic error in a letter designed to elicit sympathy for suffering workers. It implies that he was heavily invested in the outcomes of the strike, perhaps because of personal and familial hardship. Was his interest in writing to the papers also an attempt to drum up publicity for a possible alternative career? It is interesting that neither of the local respondents to McGonagall’s letter had heard of him at this point – though evidently at least one reader knew him personally and was scornful of his talents.

Most importantly, what we also see here is McGonagall developing a reputation in the People’s Journal – which, for a working-class poet, was arguably the top publication venue in Scotland – as an intemperate and indeed abusive correspondent with delusions of grandeur. This may be why, when McGonagall decided to give his poems to a local paper two years later, he chose the main rival of the People’s Journal, the Weekly News. Everyone read the People’s Journal, and its readers had long memories. McGonagall’s friends and colleagues would unquestionably have seen this 1875 exchange and discussed it: to someone less thick-skinned, it could have been devastating. If by January of the following year, ‘An Old Stager’ could describe him, even tongue-in-cheek, as ‘well-known’, it is arguable that he had become better-known locally not for his dramatic performances, but because of his vehement and misguided intervention in a political debate about the Dundee strike.

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