Song to the poor
by Gerrard Sables* John Gregory was born in the north Devon town of Bideford on June 14, 1831 — a year of turmoil in rural England and an era that gave rise to the Todpuddle Martyrs. His father was a Methodist lay preacher and, at the age of 11, Gregory was apprenticed to a local shoemaker — he used to read the Northern Star, which was a Chartist publication, aloud to his workmates. On completing his apprenticeship, he became a journeyman, travelling around Bristol and South Wales, obtaining work where he could. He married Ann Arman in 1856, staying at her home in Cardiff, before moving back to Bristol in 1860, where he lived the rest of his extraordinary long life. He was an active trade unionist all his life, becoming president of the Bristol Trades Council. Active in the Boot and Shoe Union, he wrote a marching song in January 1890 for the great strike of shoemakers. Its chorus is interesting. Let the maid, the wife, the mother Scorn the scab that wrongs the brother; Pass their names to one another, Gallant union men. His Miner's Complaint, which was written about the 1874 lock-out of the Welsh miners, graphically tells of the greed of the coal owners. Its third verse cries out: "Twenty per cent!" that's a tremendous cut From Labour's comfort, with no sign of ceasing, The door to labour in our faces shut, Beef up among the clouds, high rents increasing, Famine among us, like a fell invader, And seven million made by one coal trader. Gregory had five books of poetry published in his lifetime and many more of his poems, which have still to be collated, appeared in various newspapers and journals. His poetry gained him good reviews, not only in left-wing publications such as the Clarion and Justice, but also in the Establishment press, including the Times and the Daily Telegraph. He was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by the University of Bristol and a civil-list pension by the Campbell-Bannerman Government. His politics developed in parallel with his poetry. He can be seen as a man in his 20s and 30s simply wanting good men of all classes to act together reasonably to abolish poverty. Indeed, he was imperialist in his view-point and his poem Massacre at Cawnpore, which is to be found in his first volume, Idylls of Labour, is quite a disgrace. However, he developed into a profoundly anti-imperialist activist. He went on to write against war and against British imperialism, with poems on Ireland, Poland and India. He was anti-slavery in the US and anti-wage slavery at home. He was a founder member of the Democratic Federation, which later became the Social Democratic Foundation. And he spoke each Sunday at open-air meetings in Bristol. Trade unionist Ben Tillet regarded Gregory as one of his mentors. And, as a contemporary of William Morris, Gregory wrote a poem of tribute on Morris's death in 1896. Some of Gregory's longer poems look at capitalism and a communist future. His Stories of Labour show Capital to be the sickly malevolent child of Labour and Labour to be the son of the evil witch Want. All the vice and nastiness of capitalism are shown in that epic. His Song to the Poor, written before Morris wrote News from Nowhere, tells the story of the man who came from a communist land to tell the poor of his homeland. No moneymonger with his bond and biding, Or greedy glutton of the golden ground, Did dwell within this heaven of my finding, To blast the beauty of its peace profound. No painful panic, strike, or dire disaster, Harmed its high harmony; within its range There was no mammon love, its weal to master, Or prowling vulture of a stock exchange. And the poem still resonates with the behaviour of the Establishment: They, having gold Within their hands, did all the honours hold, And fulsome tribes of toadies at their feet Did with each other for their gifts compete, Till in the mire they trod their self-respect, And half forgot the way to stand erect. Gregory was utterly opposed to capital punishment and must, surely, be one of the earliest campaigners for its abolition. His poem The Dying Hangman includes this verse of the ghosts that haunt him. Their throats are bound with strangling bands, With bursting eyes they stare; He knows their blood is on his hands, With which he beats the air In a mad strife For further life — It is his curse to bear. It is high time that Gregory, who was famous during his lifetime (1831- 1922) and into the 1930s, should once again be recognised for his contribution to the socialist, trade union and co-operative movements, as well as to the art of poetry.
* * ** Gerrard Sables Morning Star