THEY were the Whitmanites — a group of Bolton friends who at the end of the 19th century were the self-proclaimed disciples of the great American radical poet Walt Whitman.

In a rigid Victorian society, these friends used the poet as their inspiration. For them, he was a prophet for the new “religion” of socialism and a force for good.

And such was their devotion that members of the Bolton club would often visit Whitman in America. He came to view them as good friends.

The town’s links with the poet continue to this day with a series of plaques and a “Whitman walk” recognising his Bolton connections. The town’s museum even contains Whitman artefacts, including his stuffed canary.

Today, the Bolton Whitmanites will be the subject of a talk at the Working Class Movement Library, The Crescent, Salford.

Dr Harry Cocks, modern British history lecturer at the University of Nottingham who will give the talk, said: “Their interest in socialism and progressive policies made them stand slightly apart from most middle class people in the North West.”

The group was led by J W Wallace, an architectural draftsman who corresponded with Whitman, from his Bolton home, from 1885 until Whitman’s death in 1892.

Along with his friend Dr John Johnson, who also corresponded with the poet, Charles Frederick Sexsmith and Edward Carpenter, Wallace set up the group, which was also known as The Eagle Street College, as that was where they were based.

Dr Cocks said: “They were just a group of friends, originally. A bunch of lower middle-class blokes who got together and started reading visionary writers like Walt Whitman, Tolstoy and John Ruskin.”

He said their interest in these writers was driven by a loss of faith in mainstream religion that was common at the time.

“To begin with it was kind of a substitute religion,” he said. “It was very common at the end of the 19th century for people to look for an alternative spirituality. That was closely linked to the idea of love — Whitman said you could only reach this higher state through fervent love.”

Whitman’s explorations of homosexual love, and the Whitmanites’ close personal friendships, are the reason why they were chosen as the topic to mark Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans History month at the library.

Dr Cocks said: “They were interested in comradely love and many developed romantic friendships with people of the same sex, although they resisted the gay categorisation. They were focused on spiritual love.”

l The Love Of Comrades: Bolton Whitmanites Celebrated talk takes place today at 2pm.