Mary Bailey’s is a unique female voice in the masculine world of nineteenth-century Nottingham working-class poetry. A ‘lace-runner’ whose sore eyes and tired fingers crafted intricately embroidered garments for ‘fine ladies’ as she raised her family of nine in conditions of poverty, she published thirteen poems in a pamphlet in 1826, two years before she died, in an attempt to raise money for her family. Often songlike in their rhythms, her verses reflect the struggle to survive and live in a decent way, in the face of hardship, and of such challenges as being told she had too many children (‘To a Lady who desired me to pray for the death of my youngest child’), trying to make her customers understand what it took to make fine lace and why they should pay fairly for it (‘Petition to the British Fair’), and tackling two middle-class girls seen tormenting an insect for their pleasure (‘The Locust’). Just two, extremely fragile copies of her original pamphlet are now known to have survived. The present publication, part of a wider recovery of the rich literary past of Nottingham, a UNESCO City of Literature, brings it back into the public domain after 200 years.
Mary Bailey (1775?-1828) lived in Sneinton, in Nottingham, and worked as a lace-runner in the city’s burgeoning lace industry. A poor woman, she broke up the male monopoly in Nottingham working-class poetry, and gave a vital insight into the world of female labour at that time. John Goodridge is an expert on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century labouring-class poetry. He is an Emeritus Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University, and a Vice-President of the John Clare Society.
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