Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
The Cumberland Bard: Robert Anderson of Carlisle 1770-1833 by Sue Allan. Bookcase. £15.
He was born in poverty on Carlisle Dam Side on 1st February, 1770. He was, as he wrote himself, “a poor little tender being scarce the trouble of rearing”. He was the ninth child of indulgent parents and, from an early age, attended a charity school taught by a Mrs Addison, a woman of “neat dress, slow speech and placid countenance”. Another teacher took him away from his studies as an assistant on fishing expeditions up the Caldew. A neighbour, “a decent, industrious old woman” delighted the young boy with old Scottish songs, and one of his teachers, Isaac Ritson, was later celebrated for his writings in the Cumberland dialect.
His mother was suffering from consumption and “reduced to . . .a skeleton by a painful and lingering illness.” She died and, at the age of ten, he started work helping his brother as a calico printer. At thirteen he was bound apprentice to T. Losh and Co. of Denton Home who were a firm of pattern drawers.
Such was the childhood of Robert Anderson, who, after periods in London and later in Belfast, returned to his native city and became celebrated as the Cumberland Bard. In London, at the Vauxhall Gardens, he wrote his first poetry, including Lucy Gray of Allendale, which was set to music by James Hook, one of the most eminent composers of the day.
But it was when he returned home to Carlisle, that he found his true voice, writing in his own native dialect, just as his hero, Robert Burns had done.
He was able to describe the ways of the people he knew, in poems that captured the vigour of popular merry-making. In ‘Bleckell Murry Neet’ he tells how “The dancers they kick’t up a stour i’ the kitchen” when they held a party in Blackwell. He describes the dancing at a ‘Codbeck Wedding’: “The breyde wad dance ‘Coddle me Cuddy;’ / A threesome then caper’d Scotch Reels.”
Anderson’s Cumberland Ballads are a celebration of the common life of the time, by a man who was, despite his drunkenness and poverty, well-respected by his fellow citizens.
For a time he lived out of the city, in Hayton, but he died in Annetwell Street in September, 1833. David Dunbar carved a fine memorial to him, which is still to be seen in Carlisle Cathedral.
Sue Allan, herself a well-known singer of local dialect, has provided a thorough introduction to the life, work and publications of Robert Anderson.
She has also republished in facsimile the 1828 edition of ‘Ballads in the Cumberland Dialect’ This brings Anderson’s work back into print for the first time in a hundred years.
Few people have been more important to the culture of Carlisle and no-one has described the life of the ordinary people of the area in such vivid and lively detail as Robert Anderson. He was a man who was proud to belong to “Canny Aul Cummerlan.”