Song of Sunrise paints a true social history

Songs of Sunrise by Robert Neill
Songs of Sunrise by Robert Neill

A few weeks ago I indicated that I would let you know which books about the locality I have enjoyed reading over the years, writes local historian Roger Frost.

The next offering was suggested by my mother who was a great reader of fiction. She was, in fact, a member of the Readers Union and the Companion Book Club, both, I suspect, long gone, but their volumes can be found still in second hand bookshops, charity shops and at Sunday Markets.

I have mother’s first edition of Robert Neill’s novel Song of Sunrise, which was published by Hutchinson’s of London in 1958. It appeared, in a paperback edition, as The Mills of Colne published by Black Arrow Books, an imprint of Hutchinson’s, a few years later. It was in this latter version that I first read the book as mother had lent her bound copy to a friend and she did not get it back for a number of years. After that mother always kept this book close to hand.

Song of Sunrise is one of Robert Neill’s historical novels of which his most famous is Mist Over Pendle, the story of the Lancashire Witches of 1612. Whilst that book is a great improvement on Harrison Ainsworth’s The Lancashire Witches, there are too many examples, for me, of historical inaccuracy in Mist Over Pendle for it to be a great book. On the other hand, it is a good read and it should not be dismissed. It is only me, as someone interested in history, being the pedant I can be in these circumstances.

I could extend my pedantry to Song of Sunrise but it would be only to the title. For me, the title should have been Song at Sunrise. The book is set in and around Colne in the years 1837 to 1839 and it tells the story of the town, and its people, at a time of considerable social unrest. I have always taken the title to refer to the spinners and weavers as they got up early in the morning to hear the dawn chorus. In those days some of the spinning machines were known as “throstles” – the local word for the thrush – because, in operation, they sounded like a flock of thrushes singing in the new light of an early morning. The song of the thrush is particularly poignant at dawn. After all, the proper name for the thrush is the “song thrush”, though we also have a “mistle thrush”.

That I have long since had a particular interest for the 1830s, and the 1840s for that matter, I have put down to my first reading of Song of Sunrise. When at University I specialised, in my final year, in what is called the Reform Era, the period from 1830 to 1850.

Only a couple of years into the period the Great Reform Act was passed. There were other important pieces of legislation which improved the lot of the poor, not only in the factory districts but throughout the country. These included the Great Factory Act of 1833, the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 and the Registration of Births, Deaths and Marriages Act of 1837.

However, these were offset by the Poor Law (Amendment) Act of 1834 which introduced the hated Workhouse system which was introduced, first in the south of England. It was not until 1836 that attempts were made to introduce the Act in the north of the country by which time there was great opposition to it. Colne found itself in the Burnley Union, the name given to the local area responsible for the treatment of the poor. The town had one of the three workhouses in the Burnley Union. The others were in Burnley and Padiham.

That was bad enough but there were other things which concerned the people of Colne as they did throughout the Union. One of them was the high price of food. In fact an Act of Parliament of 1815 – the infamous Corn Law – had forced up the price of all the corn crops – wheat, oats and barley. Not only did bread rise to previously unheard of heights but all the foods which were derived from corn rose as well. These included butter, cheese, eggs, meat and beer!

Added to all this unemployment was very high in the manufacturing districts. You will recall I have mentioned, in various articles, that 1826, just before the period I have studied, saw unemployment rise considerably in the handloom weaving trade. It happened again in 1833 to such an extent that many poor weavers were reduced to penury. The government had to act, but not with the extra funding which you might expect. In those days there was no such thing as a social policy. What the government did was set up a Royal Commission to look into the state of the handloom weaving sector, although they did not call it that.

A decade later, in the Hungry Forties, (the 1840s, I mean) there was another crisis. This time it was in Ireland and you will know that it goes by the name of the Irish Potato Famine, a time when thousands of Irish men, women and children died of starvation when, to fulfil contracts, they still had to export food to other parts of Britain. Great numbers of the Irish were forced to flee their country and set off for the New World. Others came to England and Little Ireland, in Manchester, and the Irish Park in Burnley are two of the areas in which they settled. Some historians have identified what happened in Ireland as a form of ethnic cleansing, but the same can be said of some of the manufacturing districts of the north of England in the decade before.

I realise that I have strayed beyond the remit of Robert Neill’s book but I thought that it would help to understand it if the background to it was summarised. That said, don’t get the idea that Song of Sunrise is all doom and gloom. The central character is Robert Shaw, a young clerk with the ambition to own his own mill and to marry Anna, the girl that he loves. Anna, however, is a member of the rich and powerful England family for whom Robert works.

Song of Sunrise is for those of you who like social and economic history but if you are interested in the politics of the period you will find this book interesting as well. If you have an interest in Colne the book mentions many places in and around Colne. One of them, Cumberland House, is now the Union Hotel in Colne town centre and the Admiral Lord Rodney, now one of the great public houses of the area, features in several scenes in the book.

I like Robert Neill’s descriptions of the real places mentioned in the book. The first chapter mentions the Wharf at Wanless. This is obviously the canal wharf near to Colne, where cotton is brought to the town to be unloaded and carted off to one of the great spinning mills. Before I read the book, I knew of Wanless and I was aware that it had once been some kind of inland port for the cotton trade. Reading the book gave me a greater understanding of the place and it was one of the triggers, if that is the right word, which made me realise that history happens everywhere and anywhere. It does not only happen in London, as some historians would have us believe that it does.

Though it deals with serious matters, I found that the reading Song of Sunrise as something of a life affirming experience and, almost 60 years after it was first published, I think that you will too.