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  • Lost Sounds #1: Dawn Chorus of Clogs in the Nineteenth Century April 27, 2016

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback


    The clog was the preferred footwear of the English industrial north, and particularly the industrial north-west. Shoes were cut from wood and tipped with iron in Lancashire, in the West Riding and the mill towns of Cheshire and Derbyshire. The clog cost relatively little, it was good for defending yourself, it was durable and it was noisy and that leads us to the subject of this post. Northern factories typically opened at six a.m. in the nineteenth century: with fines for late-comers, memories of the knocker upper. Imagine now that a woman on the first shift walks down the cobbles of Oldham or Rochdale on her way to the factory: one hell of a noise. Imagine now, instead, that of a woman we have three thousand men and women making their way to the factory. Here is a description from the Blackburn Standard for 1887 (9 Apr, 5)

    …a stranger awakening in Blackburn for the first time in his life at about that hour [5.30-6] might reasonably imagine that the town was rapidly passing into the occupation of a regiment or two of very light cavalry.

    As the author goes onto say there was the clatter of clogs in the evening too, but then they merged with other sounds (newspaper boys, vehicles, street-sellers…). In the morning they had the auditorium to themselves. Here is a description from H.V. Morton (The Call of England, 1936)* an outsider listening for the first time to the noise of three thousand clogs beating out their tattoo.

    in the early morning, just as it has become light, you turn uneasily in your sleep with the instinct that something has invaded your dreams. It marches on and on; a thin, distant rhythm that is not yet a tramp, a steady, insistent something that drums against your drugged senses for a few seconds until, with a start, you awaken to the unforgettable sound of Lancashire clogs going by in the morning. How can I describe the cold, hard clatter? There is nothing else quite like it in England… Down in the street the first mill girls pass by shawled, bent against a drizzle, the rain polishing the slate roofs, shining on the greasy road- stones, gleaming on the smooth iron-like tops of the clogs . . , clack-clack-clack they go, toneless, hard, the very expression of a wet Lancashire dawn. The mill workers chatter together in vigorous voices, talking, I suppose, about work and other realities, filling the until-now dead street with harsh echoes… Suddenly the clogs quicken. The beat of the marching men and women sounds like the march of a cavalry brigade; hundreds of sharp hooves on the stones. The voices rise up also, now and then some cheery soul sends a great laugh into the air. (A tackier has perhaps taken the wrong turning!) Sometimes a girl’s voice is raised coyly or in anger, and, in the minutes that follow, the clatter of the clogs turns from a walk to a trot, from a trot to a canter, from a canter to a gallop, and from a gallop to a charge; so that you expect to look out and find them all on horseback! And, at the height of the stampede, the air is cut by the high, undeniable siren of the mill. Then the awakened sleeper lies listening to the dying down of the clogs. In a few minutes the pace slackens, the echoes fade, the crowd has passed through the gates, and the only sound is the quick clack-clack-clack of a late comer hurrying along in the rain, then two, then three, then an interval of silence, then one, the last, going by loudly under the window.

    That morning tattoo of the northern English mill towns has been lost for ever: no one thought to record it (or did they drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com). Like the warbling battle cry of the Confederates, the sing-song of nineteenth century sailors and the sqwark of the dodo it can be imagined but never recreated.

    *Note that by 1936 Morton would have heard very few clogs. He is almost certainly recalling a visit two or three decades before.

    Louis, 30 April 2016, writes in: ‘Reading about the clogs, I remembered that the dutch equivalent (the well know Wooden Shoe) was declared official work shoe, with the relevant EU certificates, a few years back.’