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Interesting Roytonians

James Taylor ‘The Royton Poet’ 1794-1863

James Taylor was born in an old house situated in what is now Middleton Road, near to the corner of High Street. His parents were handloom weavers and he learnt to weave at home. When the handloom weaving trade declined he worked in a steam powered cotton mill until he was nearly 60 years of age. He then opened a shop selling his own manufactured shoe blacking at his house at Peter Row, just off Middleton Road behind the present Church Inn.

His parents did not send him to school so he did not learn to read until after he was 24 years old. Taylor once admitted that his parents ‘indulged’ him too much, allowing him to idle away his childhood instead of sending him to school. It was also said at the time that his parents ‘neglected’ his education, but friends later disclosed that his mother did not want him to learn to read or write lest he turn out like his ‘atheistic’ uncle Thomas, a political writer and versifier, and leading light of the Royton Jacobins. Ironically, when he later learnt to read he became a radical and stopped going to church. The Taylors were a notorious radical family and well known as political agitators.

Embarrassed by his poor grammar and the mistakes in speech he made to his political friends, particularly to his cousin Dr William Fitton the parliamentary reformer, he attended small ‘dame schools’ in the evening, learning to write and read in the company of young children. He used the Bible and books belonging to an illegal radical reading room in Cotton Street to practice his letters and also borrowed books of poetry, particularly works of Lord Byron and Oliver Goldsmith. He also attended the Village School on Chapel Lane in the evenings. By the late 1820s he was writing poetry and contributed to various magazines under the title ‘poor poet’. In the meantime he had almost become what his mother feared - a political radical and atheist - until he was taken under the wing of the Rev Dawson, Vicar of St Paul’s, a man Taylor never forgot, and rediscovered his faith.

His most noted work was the poem ‘On My Native Village’ which gives a brief description of Royton during the economic depression of the 1820s when many people in Royton were receiving help from the parish poor relief fund. Taylor himself was out of work during this period and for a while worked as a labourer constructing roads. He contrasts the Royton of his day, with it’s smoky mill chimneys and polluted streams, with the rural days of his own childhood and the older past when the Byrons, and later the Pickfords, owned Royton Hall, and hunting, fishing, farming, and handloom weaving were part of everyday life. He praises the Vicar of Royton, the Reverend Dawson, who also ran a school at the vicarage and was instrumental in distributing help to the poor. He also laments the loss of many friends, some of whom were killed in the Napoleonic Wars, and some who did not survive hard times and lie buried in the churchyard.

When stating his occupation for the 1861 Census he declared himself a ‘poet’, which the enumerator duly wrote after his name and details. Later someone has crossed out the word ‘poet’ and replaced it with ‘manufacturer of shoe blacking’.

After his death in 1863 a public subscription was raised to publish a collection of his poems and provide for his widow. All the main families of Royton subscribed and his work became widespread round the area. The work includes, among many pieces, a poem on the old summer house of Royton Hall, an elegiac poem on Royton Churchyard, and epitaphs of worthy Roytonians of the day. This book is available in the local history collection of Royton Library.

by Michael Higgins

Sources James Taylor, Collected Poems, 1861 Census, Oldham Chronicle Oct 24, 1863. Alpha, Notes on Old Royton.