Wo Wo Lol Lol: The Eccentric John Broughton

  • By Ross Horsley, Local and Family History, Leeds Central Library

It’s often via interactions with customers that we come to appreciate the stories behind some of the treasures in our collections. One we’ve recently discovered a little more about – thanks to the correspondence of the author’s great-great-granddaughter – is the 1828 book, Poems; Moral, Sentimental and Satirical.

The poet in question, as you can read on the title page above, hails from Grassington, North Yorkshire. He’s mentioned in Thomas Whitehead’s History of the Dales Congregational Churches (1930), which paints quite a beguiling portrait:

John Broughton, a Scotsman by birth, a stone-mason by trade, and a schoolmaster by profession, was bass-singer at the Congregational Chapel for many years. It is said that his eccentricities caused much amusement to the younger members of the choir. When he lost his word, he substituted, aloud, such monosyllables as “Wo wo lol lol,” etc., in which he could see no impropriety. His grave is said to be in front of the far door of the Chapel, but the burial register contains no date, only the name; no headstone marks his resting-place.

Grassington Chapel, 1930, from A History of Dales Congregational Churches

Broughton’s great-great-granddaughter provided us with a bit more biographical information: “[He] was born in Scotland in 1799 but lived most of his life in Grassington, Yorkshire. He married a lady called Mary Birch, and they had nine children, one of whom, also called John, married Ruth Metcalfe on 25th July 1857 in Linton Parish Church.”

His self-published, 90-page book appears to be rare, and it’s quite likely that we have one of the only copies in existence. The poetry inside covers a range of topics. On the ‘moral and sentimental’ side, we have reflective pieces such as On Hearing Sheep Bleat and To the Rainbow, many extolling good character and the worship of God; in the slimmer ‘satirical’ section, there are titles like Address to Satan and An Address to the House of Commons. Several other poems recount travels and events of the time, including A Walk by the River Wharf, A Tour to Blackpool and On New Year’s Day, 1827 – and it’s these that perhaps hold the most interest from a historical point of view.

A Tour to Blackpool begins with (mostly amusingly bitchy) descriptions of northern towns passed through during the journey:

Soon we arriv’d at Preston proud
In that light dandy coach,
We saw a busy thronging crowd,
The first of our approach.
But in this place we made no stay,
For fear we should be trick’d,
A noise prevailed in the way,
That pockets had been pick’d.

At length in Latham we arriv’d
In front of a great Inn,
Their stinking ale and saucy pride.
That was not worth one pin.

Finally, we reach Blackpool itself, a “vast extensive bounding shore” alive with many interesting sights and sounds:

The sandy beach was crowded throng,
With bucks and blooming lasses,
In gigs and carts they drove along,
With horses, mules, and asses.
A curious, mixed, mottled train,
With baskets carrying fruit,
All crying out with might and main,
To sell the wares they’ve got.

Poetry of this kind is an enjoyably offbeat way of experiencing the geography of the past – completely different to perusing a map and more vivid even than looking through my usual favourite window on history, old newspapers. I’ll leave you with a short critical review of Broughton’s poetry from Rambles in Upper Wharfedale (1869) by Bailey John Harker, who quotes a poem also mentioned in the aforementioned History of the Dales Congregational Churches. Is it, I wonder, Broughton’s most highly-regarded effort? Or simply the only one you’ll come across outside the pages of our treasured little book?

[T]here was one John Broughton, who wrote a book of “Moral, Sentimental, and Satirical” poems, which, though they lack the correctness and elegancies of scholarship, show that the true spirit of a poet was in him; they were published in 1828. The “Farewell to My Lyre” is very affecting; the following are some of its lines:-

One single effort, Lyre, then all is o’er,
And thou and I will calmly sink to rest;
Our loss no tuneful bard will e’er deplore,
Still that shall never rankle in my breast;
What though no minstrel by the muses blest,
Should o’er my grave in silent sorrow mourn,
My soul shall aye possess that cheering zest,
That I shall once again from dust return,
And shall eternally with noblest praises burn.

Poems; Moral, Sentimental and Satirical is kept in our strongroom at shelfmark SR 821.7 BRO. History of the Dales Congregational Churches is in Local and Family History at Yorkshire 285.8 WHI; as is Rambles in Upper Wharfedale, at Yorkshire WHA 942.

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