Professor Paul Salveson is a historian and writer and lives in Bolton. He is visiting professor in ‘Worktown Studies’ at the University of Bolton and author of several books on Lancashire history

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) is now recognised by many as America’s greatest poet. His Leaves of Grass has been translated into most world languages and literary scholars in his home nation applaud him as the great pioneer of a democratic America.

His close connections with Bolton and the North of England are a fascinating aspect of the life of ‘the good grey poet’.

The Bolton-born writer Allen Clarke wrote a century ago that “It is fitting that Bolton should be distinguished above all towns in England by having a group of Whitman enthusiasts, for many years in touch by letter and visit, with ‘the Master’, for I am sure Walt Whitman, the singer of out-door life, would have loved to ramble our Lancashire moorlands.”

Each year, since 1885, the poet’s birthday – May 31 – has been celebrated by successive generations of Bolton ‘Whitmanites’. Despite all the problems of Covid-19, the tradition is very much alive and a small gathering took place last Saturday.

Why Bolton?

Towards the end of his life, Whitman (1819-1892) developed a close friendship with a small group of admirers in Bolton, which was then at the heart of the Lancashire cotton industry.

They jokingly called themselves ‘The Eagle Street College’ after the modest two-up two-down terraced house on Eagle Street, off Bury Road. The group’s mentor, J.W. Wallace, an architect’s assistant, lived there with his parents in the mid-1880s.

DISTINGUISHED: Portrait of Walt Whitman

DISTINGUISHED: Portrait of Walt Whitman

He worked all his life for the Bolton firm of Bradshaw Gass and Hope which designed many of the town’s finest buildings; a plaque celebrating Wallace’s life is displayed outside the firm’s offices on Silverwell Street.

The ‘Bolton – Whitman connection’ all started with a birthday greeting sent to Whitman in 1885, signed by Wallace and his friend Dr John Johnston, a respected local GP. It grew into a very intense relationship with almost daily correspondence across the Atlantic between Whitman and the Bolton group, above all with Wallace.

The term ‘guru’ could be accurately applied to Wallace. He was a deeply spiritual person and eagerly adopted Whitman’s blend of eastern philosophy and love of nature.

One member of the group, Wentworth Dixon described him as “the very embodiment of the perfect friend” adding “I only wish I had the ability to portray to you the almost unique man he was – the nobility and beauty of his personality, his loving kindness, sympathy and helpfulness to everyone regardless of condition.’”

Wallace moved to a small terraced house at 40 Babylon Lane, Adlington, in the early 1890s to get away from Bolton’s smoke and grime. The house was on the edge of the moorland which he loved so much.

His modest home on Babylon Lane became an international centre of radical politics and culture, with visits from Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party, John and Katherine Bruce Glasier and many other leading figures in the early socialist movement. Visitors from the USA and Canada were not uncommon. Dr Richard Maurice Bucke, a close friend of Whitman’s, came in 1894. In 1913 the American free thinker, poet and anarchist J W Lloyd visited Rivington and met the Whitman group.

Dr John Johnston, the co-founder of the group who co-signed that first letter to Whitman was another remarkable character. Like Wallace he was active in the early Independent Labour Party but also played an active role in a range of local institutions, including Bolton Lads’ Club, civic societies and numerous medical associations.

He found time to be an instructor for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s ambulance classes and during the First World War served at the Whalley Military Hospital, lamenting the appalling injuries of soldiers returning from the trenches.

Another colourful member of the group was Fred Wild, who ran a cotton waste business on Phoenix Street. He was a talented painter, an avid cyclist and raconteur who spoke in ‘broad Lancashire’.

As well as being a successful businessman he was an active member of the Bolton Labour Church and Independent Labour Party. He was a regular cycling companion of Allen Clarke.

Assembling to mark Whitman Day at Rivington Hall on May 31, 1913. The group includes American poet JW Lloyd in foreground

Assembling to mark Whitman Day at Rivington Hall on May 31, 1913. The group includes American poet JW Lloyd in foreground

The highlight of the group’s year was Whitman’s birthday, May 31st. In the early years of the group, a celebration as hosted in the garden of one of the embers – Fred Wild’s house on Dorset Street was a regular venue, as was Dr Johnston’s at 54 Manchester Road. By the mid-1890s it had become traditional to take the train out from Bolton to Adlington and walk up to Rivington for a garden party hosted by the Unitarian vicar, Samuel Thompson.

Readings from Leaves of Grass were followed by a speech from Wallace. A ‘loving cup’, a gift from Whitman’s American friends, was passed around the assemblage, containing ‘spiced claret’.

Members of the party sported lilacs in their jackets, Whitman’s favourite flower immortalised in his elegy on the death of Lincoln, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed’.

Both Johnston and Wallace visited Whitman at his home in New Jersey. Johnston, a skilled photographer, has left an excellent record of his visit. Whitman himself sent regular messages to the Bolton group and described them as ‘staunch tender fellows’.

Another fascinating member of the group, born and bred in Anderton, was Charles Sixmith who rose to a senior position in the Lancashire cotton industry, managing Bentinck Mill in Farnworth, which specialised in the West African trade.

PORTRAIT: The Walt Whitman Group, 1918

PORTRAIT: The Walt Whitman Group, 1918

He became very close to the poet Edward Carpenter following their meeting at a Whitman gathering in Rivington in 1891. He frequently went on holiday with Carpenter and his lover George Merrill and it is possible that they were more than ‘friends’. He married Lucy in 1908 and died at the age of 83 in 1954.

Sixsmith served on Chorley Rural District Council for 37 years, rising to become chairman in the 1940s. He became a distinguished figure in local government. In 1915 he played an active part in the defence of local footpaths when Liverpool Corporation attempted to close some of the reservoir paths around Rivington.

He was an authority on textile design and had progressive views on industrial relations in the textile industry. He built up a large collection of Whitman artefacts and letters which are now available in Manchester’s John Rylands Library.

The group was a cross-section of Bolton society. It began as a small group of lower-middle class men

with ‘progressive’ views and an interest in the arts. Women such as poet and teacher Alice Collinge became part of it, as well as Wallace’s house-keeper Minnie Whiteside, who became the group’s informal secretary in later years. John Ormrod, part of Bolton’s ‘cotton aristocracy’, became the leading figure after Johnston and Wallace in the mid-1920s and hosted the annual celebration at his home at Walker Fold.

The house is currently being renovated and new features include a quote from Whitman ‘Afoot and light-hearted, I take the open road’. A nice touch, that helps keeps the tradition alive.

The group built up a strong relationship with many of Whitman’s American friends which continued decades after the poet’s death. Ormrod’s business trips to America provided an opportunity to meet up with American ‘Whitmanites’.

Those links are perpetuated today and scholars such as Prof. Michael Robertson, Karen Karbiener and others are in regular communication. In 2019 the University of Bolton hosted a highly successful conference to mark Whitman’s bi-centenary, with lectures by leading figures in Whitman studies in the UK and the USA.

Whitman Day is still marked by local group

Whitman Day is still marked by local group

Thanks to the efforts of Jacqeline Dagnall, many buildings in the Bolton and Rivington area with connections to the Whitman group have attractive blue plaques.

They include Bolton Public Library which houses the magnificent collection of Whitman manuscripts and artefacts; the site of Wallace’s house at Eagle Street, Bank Street Unitarian chapel, Bradshaw Gass and Hope’s offices, Rivington Unitarian Church and Wallace’s later home at 40 Babylon Lane.

The ‘Whitman Day’ celebrations were revived in the mid-1980s. Lancashire’s 21st century Whitmanites, sometimes joined by American guests, still celebrate the poet’s birthday with a walk on the moors.

The usual route is from Barrow Bridge via Walker Fold and Burnt Edge and back to Bryan Hey for ice cream – with a picnic on the way.

A loving cup containing the traditional spiced claret is passed around the picnic-goers. True to tradition, they wear sprigs of lilac and take turns to read their favourite Whitman poems.

It’s a unique aspect of the North’s cultural heritage and is very much alive.

Paul’s booklet on the Bolton Whitmanites – ‘With Walt Whitman in Bolton: spirituality, sex and socialism in a Northern mill town’ – is still available and a new book to be called ‘Unlikely Pioneers – Walt Whitman, the Bolton Boys and Northern Labour’ will be published in September. There is much on the Whitman connections and characters associated with it in his book Moorlands, Memories and Reflections. Now that Covid restrictions are being relaxed (we all hope) Paul is available to give talks on Bolton’s Whitman links. See