Black Country Poems
No, these are not modern Poems praising the achievements of the Black Country, nor is it one about Chain-making or Mining. they are about the people, or rather, in this case, the desperate struggle against poverty. Although the Victorian era saw great leaps forward, and people marveled at the innovations, underneath it all was a great swamp, a cesspit of degradation, that remained ignored by the so called upper classes, who raked in millions and lived a much different lifestyle. The Poems I have chosen, were favourite ballards of my grandparents, indeed, yours may have also had a framed copy, hung on their parlour wall. If anyone needs reminding of the conditions, in almost any Industrial area during the period, please read this one. Back in the 1950s, I heard in recited, without a mistake, in a crowded Public house in the Black Country. There wasn't a dry eye in the house, so have a tissue handy, you may need it.
Billy' dead and gone to glory, So is Billy's sister Nell.
There's a tale I know about them, Were I a poet, I would tell,
Soft it comes with perfume laden, Like a breath of country air,
Wafting down that filthy alley, Bringing fragrant embers there.
In that vile and filthy alley, Long ago -- one winters day,
Dying quick of want and fever, Hapless patient, Billy lay,
And his sister sat beside him, In the Garrett's dismal gloom,
Cheering, with her gentle presence, Billy's pathway to the tomb.
She was eight, this little maiden, And her life had all been spent,
In that garrett in the alley, Where they starved to pay the rent,
Where the drunken fathers curses, and a drunken mother's blows,
Drove them out into the gutter, From the days dawn to its close.
Many a tale of elves and Fairies, Did she tell the dying child,
Till his eyes lost half their anguish, and his worn, wan features smiled,
Tales herself had heard haphazard, Caught amidst the Babel roar,
Lisped about by tiny gossips, Playing round their mothers door.
Then she told some garbled story. Of a kind-eyed Saviours Love,
Who had built for little children. Great big playgrounds up above,
Where they played and laughed at hopscotch, And at horses all the day,
And where Beadle men and policemen, Never frightened them away.
This was Nell's idea of Heaven, Just a bit of what she'd heard,
With a little bit implanted, And a little bit inferred,
But her brother lay and listened, And he seemed to understand,
For he closed his eyes and murmured, He could see the promised land.
I can see it! I can see it! I can see it -- sister Nell!
The children look so happy, And they're all so strong and well,
I can see them there with Jesus, He's a-playing with them too,
Let us run away and join them, If there's room for me and you.
She knew enough -- enough this outcast, Just to tell the sinking boy,
You must die before you're able, All these pleasures to enjoy,
You are dying little Billy, And I am not even ill,
But I'll come to you dear brother, Yes -- I promise that I will.
You are dying, little brother, you are dying -- oh so fast,
I heard father say to mother, that he knew you couldn't last,
Then they'll put you in a coffin, And you'll wake up and be there,
While I'm left down here to suffer, In this garrett bleak and bare.
Yes I know,-- said little billy, But sister, I don't mind,
Gentle Jesus will not beat me, He's not cruel or unkind,
Only Nell, I can't help wishing, I would like to take away,
Something that you gave me, I could look at every day.
In the summer-- you remember, How the mission took us out,
To the great green lovely meadows, where we played and ran about,
The brake that took us halted, By a great green patch of land,
Where bright red blossoms grew, Nell, Half as big as mothers hand.
I asked the good kind teacher, What they called such flowers as those,
And he told me -- I remember, That their pretty name was Rose,
How I wish I had one here, Nell, Just to to take and think of you,
When I wait up there in Heaven, High above the sky of blue.
Not a word spoke Little Nellie, But that night while Billy slept,
On she flung her scanty garments, And down the stairs she crept,
Through the silent streets of darkness, She ran nimbly as a faun,
Running on and running ever, Till the night had changed to dawn.
When the foggy sun had risen, And the mist had passed away,
All around her, wrapped in snowdrift, There the open country lay,
Not a buttercup or daisy, Not a single verdant blade,
Showed its head above its prison, So she knelt her down and prayed.
With her eyes upcast to Heaven, She knelt upon the ground,
And prayed to God to tell her, Where the roses could be found,
Just a rose to take to Bill, And as she prayed a carriage,
Came a-rumbling down the hill.
A lady sat there toying, With a red rose rare and sweet,
And as she passed, she flung it from her, And it fell at Nellies feet.
Just a word her lord had spoken, Caused her ladyship to fret,
And the rose had been his present, so she threw it in a pet.
Threw it out into the snowdrift, Where little Nellie lay,
Half dead from cold and hunger, And searching all the day.
But poor half frozen Nellie, Thought it had fallen from the skies,
And she murmured, -- thank you Jesus, As she clutched her dainty prize.
And that night, from out the alley, Did a childs soul pass away,
From the sin and dirt and mis'ry, To where Gods children play,
Whilst a wild and cruel snowstorm, Fell in fury o'er the land,
And by morn they found Nell frozen, With a red rose in her hand.
Billy's dead and gone to glory, So is Billy's sister Nell,
But I'm bound to say this happened, In a land where "angels " dwell.
The Children met in Heaven, Free from their earthly woes,
And Nellie kissed her brother saying, Billy, Here's Your Rose!
There is no authors name at the end of this ballard, it's just one of hundreds that hit the street during the period. Some time soon, folk will celebrate what they call " Black Country Day ", all I ask, is that you remember the poem, and then give thanks, that we, live in a much better world today.
The second offering is along the same lines, another little tear stained poem from well over a hundred years ago. Written by a local man, Edward Farmer, it proved to be a great hit with Black Country folk, even being taught in the early days of the National Schools, and well into the 20th century. As today, 8th October 2015, is National Poetry day, I will include what he composed. Not exactly I know up to the standards of the purists, nevertheless, it's a moving piece, and will strike a cord or two, even after all the passage of so much time.
The cottage was a thatched one, the outside old and mean,
Yet everything within that cot was wondrous neat and clean,
The night was dark and stormy, the wind was howling wild,
a patient mother watched beside, the deathbed of her child.
A little worn out creature, his once-bright eyes grown dim,
He was a Collier's only son and they called him ' Little Jim'.
And, oh, to see the briny tears, fast hurrying down her cheek,
as she offered up a prayer in thought, she was afraid to speak.
Least she might awaken one she loved, far better than her life,
for there was all a mother's love, in that poor Collier's wife.
With hands uplifted, see she kneels, beside the suffer's bed,
and prays that HE will spare her boy, and take herself instead.
She gets her answer from the child, soft fall these words from him,
" Mother, the angels do so smile, and beckon Little Jim,
I have no pain, dear mother, now but oh, I am so dry.
Just moisten poor Jim's lips again, and Mother, don't you cry".
With gentle trembling hands she held a tea-cup to his lips,
he smiled to thank her as he took, three tiny little sips.
" Tell Father when he comes from work, I said goodnight to him,
and mother, now I'll go to sleep", Alas poor Little Jim.
She saw that he was dying, the child she loved so dear,
had uttered the last words that she might ever hope to hear.
The Cottage door is opened, the Colliers step is heard,
the Father and the Mother meet, yet neither speak a word.
He felt that all was over, he knew his child was dead,
he took the candle in his hand and walked toward the bed.
His quivering lips gave token, of the grief he'd fain conceal,
and see, his wife has joined him, the stricken couple kneel.
With hearts bowed down with sadness, they humble ask of HIM,
in Heaven, once more, to meet again, their own poor Little Jim.
So much for the alleged " hard-man " image of the black country working man then, for prints of this poem sold in thousands, and it was recited in Pubs and homes in every corner of the region. And as my granny would say, " they do pen um like that anymoor".