The presence of the ‘Working Class Tory’ in the North East troubles the liberal intelligentsia of London, but it is a phenomenon that has troubled me for a while, not simply because the vast majority of my immediate family and many of my closest acquaintances outside of work inhabit this political stance, but because there have been allusions to it in the work of my direct ancestor. It chimes with a phrase from Robert Gilchrist that I’ve winced over once or twice and certainly not yet given enough thought, his profession to be “an antiquated Tory”.
I’m troubled by this too because in the historical scholarship of popular music that mentions Gilchrist, predominantly in the work of the leading authority on Tyneside song, Dave Harker, he is cast in the role of a petty bourgeois cultural slummer who brushes through the narrow streets of lower town Newcastle and its salty quayside in search of portraits to amuse the polite society of the upper town (Harker, 1981). Robert Gilchrist is planted on the wrong side of working-class interests and is certainly not for Harker a herald for social and political change. I have been troubled by this analysis, not for its historical inaccuracy per se, but, in terms that Harker would undoubtedly approve, in giving fair attention to new sources and scholarship that can help us appraise the songwriter and their culture more stringently (Harker, 1996). The time is ripe for a look again at class, identity and the politics of the Tyneside songster. And I feel the current political conditions, with a return to a concern with the making of the ‘Working Class Tory’ and the sentiments held – whether to a parochialism, nationalism, or sense of regional English pride, even its virulent strains of anti-foreigner discourse - provides a lens through which to mount this project and which gives it a sense of urgency.
My starting point as an historian is to seek to better understanding of the lifeworld of the petty bourgeois artisan. In mindful that I might be using context to ‘explain away’ a political identity, but I think there is something about the nature of the Tyneside economy in the long eighteenth century and its bearing upon cultural production of songsters like Gilchrist that merits deeper examination. What I want the biography to show, following revisionist arguments forwarded by historians of the working-class since the 1980s, is the importance of other markers of identity to the formation of the songster. The period in which Robert Gilchrist lived and worked was not fully formed into distinct class identities and relationships. It was intersected by other identities and traditions, including non-conformism, occupational identification within a pre-industrial workshop economy, and a nascent sense of North East regional Englishness. Gilchrist as sailmaker cannot be easily enrolled into EP Thompson’s depiction of the artisanal tradesmen as a precursor to the fledged working-class. As Geoffrey Best makes clear, in reviewing The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson ignored the "flag-saluting, foreigner-hating, peer-respecting side of the plebeian mind", placing emphasis on a small number of artisans (Best, 1965: 278). There is a case to be made that Robert Gilchrist is precisely this type of artisan songster that Thompson overlooked.
The biography will look closely at the work of Gilchrist, alongside the communities he belonged to, his political and civic roles, and his involvement in events such as the Barge Day celebrations, as evidence of this socially conservative artisan at work. I want to reappraise his output not in spite of but in light of these allegiances, to look at the opportunities they afforded a sailmaker with ambitions to write, perform and amuse. Even though some of his output was at the expense of the poor and vulnerable I will be showing that Gilchrist was active in negotiating his class relationships with civic elites. I will be arguing that his identification with a civic elite was not passive or uncritical, as he used his song writing to satirise the elites – especially their corporate profligacy, an issue that would later dog the case for municipal reform. Though whether this was because of a cosy clubbability with the company in which he mixed is a moot point and one I’m continuing to ponder.
One of the main reasons for writing the biography, in terms of its intellectual contribution, is to move Gilchrist to within the inner sanctum of a regional canon. Perhaps even to restore his place. Harker’s recent works, his scholarly biographies of Ned Corvan and Joe Wilson (Harker, 2017a, 2017b, 2019), reinforce a canon of North-East songsters central to the emergence of a proud working-class voice. I want to think more about the “alternative tradition”, which whilst not counter-hegemonic or politically radical, was indeed present in the life and times of Newcastle in the early nineteenth century, forming part of the amusements enjoyed by Tynesiders, and which in its own ways had a voice that mattered. The biography will be an important addition to an overlooked history of the making of a leisure culture and might indeed provide some clues, or hopefully draw some parallels, on the quest to understand the formation of North East Working-Class Toryism.
Best, G. (1965) 'Review: The Making of the English Working Class', The Historical Journal, 8(2), pp.271-281.
Harker, D. (1981) ‘The making of the Tyneside concert hall’, Popular Music, 1, pp.27-56.
Harker, D. (1996) ‘Debate: Taking Fun Seriously’, Popular Music, 15(1), pp.108-121.
Harker, D. (2017a) Cat-Gut Jim the Fiddler: Ned Corvan’s Life & Songs. Newcastle upon Tyne: Wisecrack Publications.
Harker, D. (2017b) The Gallowgate Lad: Joe Wilson’s Life & Songs. Newcastle upon Tyne: Wisecrack Publications.
Harker, D. (2019) Tyneside Song From Blind Willie to Bobby Nunn. Newcastle upon Tyne: Wisecrack Publications.