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This article is taken from PN Review 238, Volume 44 Number 2, November - December 2017.

From Chetham's Library Michael Powell
8: Poets’ Corner, Sun Inn, Long Milgate

Until its demolition in the 1880s, the best known of Manchester’s literary watering holes was the Sun Inn, a timber-framed building located opposite the entrance to Chetham’s Library on Long Millgate. During the early 1840s the upstairs snug bar of the seventeenth-century pub became home to a group of Lancashire writers whose Saturday evening meetings attracted large audiences. So successful were these events that the pub’s landlord took advantage of a branding opportunity and renamed the inn Poets’ Corner, a name that stuck well after the poets had moved on. The Sun Inn Group was headed by John Critchley Prince and its members included, among others, the poets Charles Swain, John Bolton Rogerson, Elijah Ridings, R.W. Procter, Eliza Battye, and Robert Rose. None of these self-taught, mainly working-class poets could make a living from writing. Rogerson worked as a bookseller, Swain, known as Manchester’s Tennyson, escaped the miseries of the dye-house for the more congenial trade of lithographer, while Procter composed his verse during breaks from his job as a barber.

The group saw some merit in cooperation and in 1841 set up the Lancashire Authors’ Association, ‘for the protection and encouragement of British authors’. The following year, on 24 March, the Sun Inn held a soirée for which over a dozen members of the group wrote special poems for the occasion. This resulted in a notice in the Manchester Guardian and an anthology of their work, The Festive Wreath. Few of the poems that were produced for this have lasted well and the group never managed to produce either another anthology or a literary journal that would allow their work to reach a wider audience. Indeed, although the meetings at the Sun Inn provided a forum for poetry, the most celebrated members of the group are now known for other literary forms: Sam Bamford, whose Passages in the Life of a Radical remains a standard work for understanding the history of the working class in the early nineteenth century, and Isabella Varley, who, as Mrs Linnaeus Banks, would go on to publish the Manchester Man, the most famous of Manchester novels. The young Isabella Varley attended the 1842 soirée at the Sun Inn but lacked the confidence to perform alongside her fellow, mostly male poets and listened to their readings whilst hiding behind velvet curtains.

The Sun Inn was by no means the only literary pub in Manchester although it is true to say that Manchester has never developed the sort of literary pub culture that is so much a feature of Dublin or Edinburgh. But, of course, the Poets’ Corner anticipated a late twentieth-century phenomenon where the pub has become a vital space for poetry, a place where young poets can come together, to get on a stage, perform and read their work to a sympathetic audience of fellow writers. Like most pubs, Poets’ Corner was always more a place for companionship and support than a centre for creative writing.

Photograph of Sun Inn, Long Milgate, Manchester

IMAGE: Sun Inn, Long Milgate, Manchester. (© Chetham’s Library, 2017)

This article is taken from PN Review 238, Volume 44 Number 2, November - December 2017.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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