8 April 2015

William Bedford (1811–61) in Hyde and the USA

William Bedford was an obscure working-class poet and political writer of English birth who killed himself eleven or twelve years after emigrating to America with his wife Sarah Nancy (née Wood) (1812–1892) and five children: two more were born in the USA. The truly bizarre thing about his death is that he left some writing – although not a suicide letter giving the reasons for deliberately taking a lethal dose of laudanum but notes – perhaps written over three hours, and describing exactly how the drug was affecting him from immediately after taking it until what must have been a few moments before his death. He makes no mention of his wife, but refers to his friends and children, specifically expressing his concern for the two youngest: James Rosser (1846–1942) and Thomas W. (1853–1921).

I'll return to the letter – which I'll quote in some detail – but for the moment I'll say what we know of Bedford, the large part of which comes from Thomas Middleton's Poets, Poems, and Rhymes of East Cheshire (Hyde: John Higham, 1908).

William Henry Bedford was the son of Matthew Bedford (1791–?), who was born in Clayton West, Yorkshire, and Sarah (née Rosser) (1789–1872), who was born in Stockport, Cheshire. Middleton says that their were thirteen other children in the family, and that Matthew had come to Hyde and worked at John Howard's mill. William attended the Wesleyan Sunday School and 'received the bulk of his education from there'. He was first a piecer and then a spinner at the same mill where his father worked.

From an early age William was interested in the poor conditions of the working classes. The above plaque at the entrance to the market in Hyde marks the site of The Norfolk Arms, where a disaster took place on 1 April 1829. Seven hundred cotton workers – among them William and Matthew Bedford – assembled here to discuss their employers' plans to reduce their wages during the depression in the cotton trade. The floor collapsed, causing people to fall into the cellar. Twenty-nine people were killed and many more injured, although William and Matthew escaped. The family first moved to Stockport and later Ashton-under-Lyne.

William Bedford wrote poems and – under the name 'Sam Shuttletip' – also wrote political papers on the government, the working class and communism. His own family originally appear to have been successful, and it is unknown why he took his life. Below are the parts that Middleton publishes of the remarkable letter that Bedford wrote as he was dying during a walk near the Hudson River:

'August 10, 1861.

I have just swallowed the laudanum in a small quantity of brandy; do not feel much effect from it yet, except a bitterness in my mouth and throat, and a little trembling in my hands. [...] 15 minutes since I took the laudanum; the effects feel exhilarating, like those of intoxicating drinks. No pain, and the scenery of the Hudson River [...] grand and glorious, my heart aches, and my eyes weep for my friends and children, especially for my boys James and Thomas, but I hope they will not grieve much at my lot, and that they will try to be good boys. [...] Quarter of an hour later, I feel a bitterness and dryness in my throat, and a tendency to lay down and go to sleep, but I shall resist it as long as I can. [...] quarter later. [...] I am trying to read a paper called the "Phunny Fellow," but my ideas begin to get confused, as they have done many a time before, when I have fallen asleep reading. [...] Two hours since I took the dose, I feel more confused in mind every minute, [...] but it don't feel unpleasant.– It must be a quarter of an hour later, and I had just fallen to sleep, and have waked again, [...] I have tried walking about, but it is no use,– cannot keep awake, and feel a trembling all over. [...] Cannot calculate the time, think it must be three hours since I took it. Feel a little inclined to vomit, but hope I shall not do so, have walked about a little, and the sickness is nearly gone away, but my limbs tremble considerably–I have lain down awhile–don't know how long–and have dreamed as usual about the dear friends at home; very sleepy indeed, and my mouth and throat dry–end.'

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