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University of Exeter academic Simon Rennie.

Forgotten language found in poems uncovered by a University of Exeter expert

Moving poetry in now forgotten Lancashire regional dialects written generations ago is being uncovered by a University of Exeter academic.

Poets in Lancashire used their local language to record the heartbreak of poverty and famine caused by the cotton famine of 1861 to 1865 - a direct result of the American Civil War.

Most were not published in books, but in newspapers at the time, and in letters from poets to family and friends. Now for the first time they will be collected together and published online so they are available for people to enjoy and analyse.

There are thought to be about 1,000 of these poems in existence. University of Exeter academic Simon Rennie plans to digitise as many as he can find so they can be available on a new website for all to see.

The language of these unique poems will be shown at an event in Dorset, where there will be performances of Lancashire Cotton Famine poetry and song from the well-known Manchester ballad singer, Jennifer Reid. There will be a talk from Dr Rennie on the dialect, poetry, and the global and local historical effects of the Cotton Famine. Dr Rennie is using the location of Dorset so he can encourage people to compare regional dialect poetry in the two counties.

Dr Rennie will show the similarities of Lancashire dialect poetry with Dorset dialect poetry, including that written by William Barnes. The novelist Thomas Hardy also used Dorset dialect in his novels. The audience will get to translate some dialect poetry, and discuss how it can be preserved for future generations.

Dr Rennie has uncovered many of these poems through searching through old Lancashire local newspapers. He hopes sixth formers in schools in the North West will join the project and help with the research by searching for more poems.

“These are poems – language, ideas and words – that nobody has read or studied for years and years and it’s very exciting to be able to discover them and show them to people today,” he said.

“In just one newspaper in Burnley I found 18 poems published in a three year period around 1862 about the cotton famine. I’m really looking forward to hearing Jennifer show off the wonderful language used in this sort of work.”

The Lancashire Cotton Famine lasted from 1861 until 1865. It was caused by the American Civil War, which stopped the flow of cotton from the USA into mills in Britain and Europe. Confederate Southern ports were blockaded. This caused starvation, mass unemployment and migration in areas where people had depended on cotton mills for employment. There is still debate about the full causes and extent of the famine in Lancashire. At the time Abraham Lincoln wrote, "I know and deeply deplore the sufferings which the working-men of Manchester, and in all Europe, are called to endure in this crisis."

The event will be held on the 23rd Nov, from 6.30pm-9.30pm at the Sir John Colfox Academy, Bridport, Dorset. It is part of Being Human 2016, the UK’s only national festival of the humanities. Booking is necessary and can be done by contacting Simon Rennie.

Date: 3 November 2016

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