Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Week in Middleton

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byron's Week in Middleton

Article excerpt


In the autumn of 1811, Byron stayed at Hopwood Hall in Middleton near Rochdale for a week. Byron biographers have largely overlooked this, his only outing to Lancashire. My account reviews evidence about the visit both from contemporary letters and journals, Byron's and others', and from Victorian and modern biographies and histories. It establishes the Hopwood Hall week as a Regency haut ton gathering where a guest recorded a detailed impression of Byron before his years of fame. It also considers evidence that Byron's poetic output at the Hall may have gone beyond editing Childe Harold's Pilgrimage for publication.

Returning in mid-July 1811 from two years of travel, Byron was soon planning to raise money to go abroad again, with the sale of his Rochdale property as the main source. He was still relatively unknown and could not have foreseen the unprecedented fame that lay ahead. His main aim seems to have been to leave England as soon as he could, possibly to regain the sexual freedom he had experienced, especially in Greece. He was not the first Byron to try to sell offparts of the family's east Lancashire property. Although the Byrons had been major landowners and politically significant in the county from the twelfth century, holding lands in Royton, Droylsden, Clayton and Failsworth, by the poet's time parts of the Rochdale estate with potentially profitable mines were all that was left. His seventeenth-century ancestors had ended the historic relationship with Lancashire when they sold the main properties, at first to pay offaccrued debts and, later, fines resulting from their support of the losing side in the Civil Wars.1

Byron certainly had no plans in 1811 to part with Newstead Abbey: 'I long ago pledged myself never to sell Newstead, which I mean to hold in defiance of the Devil & Man' as he histrionically put it to Augusta Leigh in early September.2 Newstead was to become integral to his image as author of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, its hero a troubled youth of noble ancestry. Selling up in Rochdale was not a straightforward matter, however. His predecessor in the title, the 'Wicked Lord', had leased the freehold to the mining rights and Byron inherited a long-running legal battle with local tenants. If he couldn't sell, he recognised his only options were running the mines himself or continuing to rent them out. Spending a week or more in Rochdale had become essential to sort these tangled affairs; but he never planned to trouble himself with the business side, which he would leave to John Hanson, his lawyer. He seemed to foresee in his letter to Augusta the stalemate that eventually ensued at Rochdale: 'I have never reaped any advantage from them & God knows if I ever shall'.3 He was right. He never saw the profits of the Rochdale sale. By the time the deal was done, his short but astonishing life was nearly over.

Even as he informed his Southwell friend, John Pigot, of Mrs Byron's sudden death at the beginning of August, going to Rochdale was foremost in his mind: 'My poor mother died yesterday! and I am on my way from town to attend her to the family vault. I heard one day of her illness, the next of her death [...] in six weeks I shall be in Lancashire on business'.4 But death was to waylay him again. News of contemporaries' deaths - Long, Matthews and others - soon followed. On 26 September, a letter was posted to him: it held the news that John Edleston - 'one whom I once loved more than I ever loved a living thing'5 - had also died.

Just before he reluctantly leftNewstead Abbey for Rochdale at the end of September, Byron wrote to Charles Dallas, who was managing the publication of Childe Harold: 'I shall be so busy & savage all the time with the whole set, that my letters will perhaps be as pettish as myself '.6 He was not looking forward to the outing.

The 'set' that awaited Byron at Hopwood Hall, the seat of the Gregge Hopwoods, would not have been out of place in one of Jane Austen's fictional upper class drawing rooms. …

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