Manchester Worthies

Ben Brierley



“Ben Brierley” as the subject of our sketch is best known, is a  "Lancashire Lad"-getting on now to the "sere and yellow," but a Lancashire Lad notwithstanding. Old "Ab’.o’-th’-Yate" is a name which sticks to him like a burr; but it is a compliment, paid in Lancashire form, which he appreciates. It is a name which he has made familiar by his writings. His" Ab’-o’-th’-Yate papers on Times and Things" are treasured in many Lancashire homes. The success of these papers, in fact, led him to adopt -the quaint name as a nom de plume. He is an author whose writings have a great hold on the Lancashire people, because, like Waugh, he thoroughly understands the idiosyncrasies of the Lancashire dialect, and is imbued with the sentiments, the humour, the mode of thought, the racy expression and the entire characteristics of the working element of Lancashire people. As the "working element" is the major portion of Lancashire life of all ranks, it follows that "Ben Brierley" is as popular as a Lancashire author can well be. Besides which his social and personal traits entitle him to a regard which is generally the reward of genial good fellowship. It is a noteworthy tribute to his general ability that he has been adopted, as it were, as Waugh’s legitimate successor. His name has succeeded Waugh’s upon the Royal Bounty List, and he is now, upon the united representation of the Lancashire Members of Parliament, placed in possession of an income of £150 a year. Bestowed at a time when, in the evening of life, the workman is entitled to his leisure, and when bodily illness causes some concern to his friends, this acknowledgment by the nation is undoubtedly as acceptable as a provision for comfort as it is honourable as a recognition of merit.

Mr. Brierley has written his autobiography, which is almost as suggestive as the story of "From Log Cabin to White House" and Presidential chair, with this difference: that his struggle was from " Rock" cabin and the loom to sub-editorial chair, and the thorny pursuit of authorship. His very humble birthplace was in a small tenement in what he calls the "Rocks," at Failsworth. His father was a hand-loom weaver, who had been a soldier; his mother, as with most sensitive lads, was the first guiding element of love in its earliest stages, and he speaks in affectionate remembrance of her sweet voice, her gentle manner, her heroic suffering-" dying daily, like the mother of Malcolm, in Macbeth "-and of her deep religious feeling. He passed through the varied phases of a school life which, to most youths now-a-days, would be alarming; braved the penances of an exacting factory system, from many of the worst features of which the present generation is happily exempt; and gradually with the spreading of a dawn of enlightenment which bad been encouraged by the favouring influences of Mechanics’ Institutes, village dramatic societies, and the broaching effervescence of youthful ambition, began to find a modest daybreak in the field of literature.

When Mr. Brierley returned from a visit to America for the benefit of his health a few years ago, he had a flattering reception from his many friends in Manchester and district. A public testimonial was set on foot, which was handsomely subscribed to, and the presentation proceedings in the Mayor’s parlour of the Town Hall were of a memorable character. He was feted not only as a fellow-citizen and a writer, but as one of the original founders of the Manchester Literary Club. Mr. George Milner, the President of the Club, made a speech on the occasion in praise of his writings. It was true, he said, that Mr. Brierley was what was called a " provincial" writer, but he would like to know how much of the very finest literature of the country was not provincial; he would like to know how much of it had not been drawn from provincial sources. Let them take the case, for instance, of such a. great writer as George Eliot. How much in her novels was there which was not provincial? He sometimes heard it urged against such writing as that of Mr. Brierley’s that it was in a dialect which was not common to the whole of this country, and it was not at all unusual to hear observations of a depreciatory nature with regard to the Lancashire dialect. But the Lancashire dialect drew its words from the most ancient English sources; it was full of words of great beauty and strength, and it was only those who knew it thoroughly, and who had also some philological information, who were able to judge how very many of its words were to be found w our earliest and finest poetic writing. Therefore Mr. Brierley need not be ashamed of having spoken in a tongue which was and is "understanded of the people" to whom it is addressed. Alluding to his early struggles in pursuit of education, to the fact that at seven years of age he had read through the Bible, to his passing on to the study of such writers as Shakespeare, Shelley, Burns, Milton, and Keats, he remarked how strange a thing it was that a lad born under such conditions had such tastes, and such predelictions developing within him. What could it have been but native genius? Native genius it certainly was. Not only had Mr. Brierley written that which had amused and profited many of his fellow townsmen and others who were familiar with his works, but he had always written on the side of right, as he had conceived it, of truth as he knew it, and of honourable and honest living. He quoted the verse written by Burns to John Lapraik as applicable to Mr. Brierley:

Gie me ae spark o’ Nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire;
Then, tho’ I drudge thro’ dub and mire,
At plough or cart,
My muse, tho’ hamely in attire
May touch the heart.

"Ab-o’-th’-Yate" was a household word in Lancashire, and that afternoon they would all say heartily "God bless Old Ab." The Mayor - Mr. (now Sir John Harwood) made the presentation-a silk purse shaped like an old stocking, containing a cheque for ‘£650. His worship traced a similarity between Ben Brierley and Burns in one respect, for Burns said of his father-

He bade me act an honest part .
Though I had ne’er a farthing,
For man without a manly heart
Is never worth regarding.

Mr. Brierley gave on this occasion a pithy account of his career from the time when he took up the pen as a means of earning a living-

"When he essayed to breast the sea of ink,
Unmindful whether he should float or sink."

His first noticeable work was contributed to the Manchester Spectator, published by Mr. Abel Heywood. It was entitled "A Day Out," and a second edition in book form was soon afterwards published by Mr. David Kelly, of Market Street. A sequel to this brochure, entitled "Bunk Ho," also had a good Lancashire reception. The" Daisy Nook Sketches," published by Mr. John Heywood, followed. The author now found his troubles beginning. The Athenaeum gave him a "fearful slating." The Spectator and the Saturday Review, however, gave him a decidedly "favourable notice," and, thus encouraged, he took up his pen again, producing as his next book the "Chronicles of Waverlow." Again the Athenaeum attacked him, and again the Spectator and the Saturday stood up in his defence. Being in London soon afterwards, engaged in "potboiling" literary work, he was received with open arms by the members of the Savage Club, and was selected from among six candidates to write a serial story for a new venture- Colman’s Magazine. He commenced in the columns of that paper "The Layrock of Langleyside," but it was finished in the columns of the Manchester Weekly Times. It was afterwards published in book form, with a frontispiece by Mr. Charles Potter. "Irkdale," written for the same journal, followed: it was afterwards published in two volumes by Messrs; Tinsley Bros., London. This was succeeded by "My Grandmother’s Clock Case," "Red Windows Hall," "The Fratchingtons of Fratchingthorpe," and "Ab-o’-th’-Yate on Times and Things." The latter work led him to adopt the quaint nom de plume by which he has since been known. His " Ab-o’-th’-Yate in London," which succeeded it was the most successful of all his works. In the pages of a short-lived weekly publication, started by the Manchester Literary Club, afterwards appeared the "Marlocks of Meriton," after the production of which he started a journal that ever since has borne the author’s name. It is now published by Messrs. Abel Heywood and Sons. In this have appeared such stories as •• Out of Work," "Cast upon the World," “Under the Berries,"," Fishing for a Husband," "The Cotters of Mossburn," and’ most of the"Ab-o’-th’-Yate" papers. Two visits to America at intervals of five years followed, the literary results being placed before the public in a volume of 320 pages. "I feel now," said honest Ben, "that I am no longer capable of sustained effort, and may exclaim with Byron :-

‘What is writ, is writ.
Would it were worthier! but I am not now
That which I have been, and my visions flit
Less palpably before me-and the glow
Which in my spirit dwelt is flattering faint and low.’

It will ever be a source of satisfaction to me to think that in all that I have written I have striven to rescue the Lancashire character from the erroneous conceptions of’ Tim Bobbin.’ The Lancashire man is not necessarily a representation of clownishness. In matters where sound common sense is required he is capable of holding his own with the natives of any other county. Possibly I may go a little farther than that. In my literary creations I have not marshalled a lot of dummies before the public. There is not one that is upholstered-not one in whose composition the presence of the least stuffing can be detected. They are men. and women as I have known when in life never been set up for angels, nor degraded by being posed for bigger fools than can be found elsewhere. These I leave as a legacy to my native county; it is the only one I can leave and if conscientiousness be any recommendation it may be accepted with every trust."

Mr. Brierley is still occupying some part of his leisure in writing a serial story from his pen entitled "Under the Berries," having recently commenced in the Prestwich and Failsworth News." He also occasionally contributes to the Manchester daily papers. A recent slight attack of paralysis, however, has left him somewhat physically impaired, and his writings are perhaps in a more reflective vein than in the more rollicking "Ab-o’-th’-Yate" days.


Reprinted from Manchester Faces & Places Vol. 1 No. 12 10 September 1890