This archive collection relates to a small but remarkable group of Walt Whitman enthusiasts from the Bolton area of Lancashire. Its scope, however, extends beyond the North-West of England to embrace followers and friends of Whitman throughout Britain, the USA, and Canada.
The nucleus of the so-called 'Eagle Street College' was formed by a small number of lower middle- and working-class individuals from Bolton who shared certain interests and political beliefs, and who met on Monday evenings at the Eagle Street home of J.W. Wallace, the 'Master' of the College and something of a charismatic leader. Papers of and relating to Wallace form the basis of this collection.
Wallace, the son of a millwright, was born in Bolton in 1853 and grew up at 14 Eagle Street, off Bury Road in the Haulgh district of the town. He left school at 14 to join the firm of Bradshaw's (later Bradshaw and Gass) as an architect's assistant. He remained there until his retirement in 1912, despite the poor health which necessitated a move to the more rural Anderton in the early 1890s. He was very close to his mother and after her death in 1885 Wallace, always a great reader, found spiritual solace in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. The death of his mother also seems to have precipitated a spiritual transformation in Wallace; he described attaining a new state of consciousness, which seems to have altered his whole outlook on life. He was subsequently looked upon by many as a quasi- religious figure (much like Whitman himself), and a provider of spiritual guidance. Numerous people visited Wallace after undergoing traumatic events or illnesses to receive mental and physical healing from Wallace and his housekeeper and companion, Minnie Whiteside. When Minnie first came to live with Wallace in 1905 she was recently widowed; her husband, a friend of Wallace, died following an industrial accident which happened only two weeks after their wedding. Minnie was devoted to Wallace and remained with him as his companion until he died. He, in turn, educated her and always referred to her as his adopted daughter.
'Eagle Street College' was born in 1885, when Wallace, with his two close friends, Dr John Johnston and Fred Wild, began to hold regular meetings at Wallace's home to read and discuss literary works; Ruskin, Burns, Carlyle, Tennyson, Emerson, and, above all, Walt Whitman, were standard fare. Johnston was a GP based in Bolton, although originally from Annan in Dumfriesshire. Wild was a cotton waste merchant who shared the literary interests of the others as well as being an active socialist. Other members of the group (which subsequently became known as the Bolton Whitman Fellowship) came and went over the years, although there was a remarkable continuity; members often formed lifelong attachments, based on the doctrines they found in Whitman's ideas on 'comradely love'. Not all the members were such avid Whitmanites as Wallace, Wild and Johnston, but the majority of them shared certain political ideals and a number were active in the early socialist movement.
The late nineteenth century in Britain saw the growth of an active and diverse socialist culture: there were many local socialist clubs, Clarion clubs and debating societies, as well as the Labour Church movement and its associated activities. In addition, there were the national political organizations, such as the Social Democratic Federation, founded in 1884, and the Independent Labour Party, founded in 1893. Members of the Bolton Whitman circle were involved in a number of these local and national movements. They had links with the local Labour Church; and Wallace's interpretation of Whitman's work echoed the Labour Church concept of socialism as a living and loving fellowship between Man, Nature and God.
Walt Whitman (1819-92) was born on Long Island and grew up in Brooklyn, New York. He had little formal education and moved through various temporary occupations, including journalism, before publishing the first edition of his book of poems, Leaves of Grass, in 1855. Written in a simple style and dispensing with traditional poetic devices, these poems represent an early form of free verse. Whitman spent the rest of his life revising and expanding this volume, producing nine editions in total. The third edition of 1860 contained the 'Calamus' group of poems, which has often been taken as evidence of his homosexuality, although the poet denied this and instead emphasised its meaning as a celebration of the natural affection of man for man or 'comradely love'. His work as a whole celebrated America, democracy, and the lives of the ordinary working people. Despite his own efforts at publicity, however, Whitman's work was largely ignored by the general public in America until the 1870s, when favourable reviews of his poetry appeared in England written by respected men of letters such as William Rossetti and John Addington Symonds. Whitman died at his home in Mickle Street, Camden, New Jersey, in 1892.
Whitman was quickly adopted in Britain as a prophet for the socialist cause; his ideas on love and comradeship, democracy and nature proved very attractive to members of the early socialist movement. The Bolton group, inspired by Wallace, did much to gain wider recognition for Whitman in Britain. They built up a network of contacts across the country, which included such figures as Keir Hardie, Katharine Conway and later her husband John Bruce Glasier of the ILP, Edward Carpenter, and writer and journalist Robert Blatchford of The Clarion. Through his wide circle of contacts, Wallace became influential in the ILP, addressing a number of conferences on the subject of Whitman and his ideas. His home at Anderton was visited by a number of prominent ILP members. The annual Whitman Day celebrations held by the Bolton group on or near 31 May (the poet's birthday) often attracted visitors from outside and included messages from absent friends.
Wallace also cultivated contacts in America and Canada among people who had been acquaintances and personal friends of Whitman. These included Horace Traubel, his wife Anne, and later also his daughter, Gertrude; John Burroughs, naturalist, writer and friend of Whitman; and Whitman's close friend and official biographer, Dr Richard Maurice Bucke. Wallace and Dr Johnston corresponded with Whitman himself from 1887 to 1892. Johnston made a pilgrimage to America in 1890, visiting Whitman himself in Camden, as well as fellow American Whitmanites and various localities associated with the life of the poet. He kept detailed 'Diary Notes' of his experiences and his conversations with Whitman, which were printed as a pamphlet for private circulation in 1898. Wallace made a visit in 1891, staying in the home of the Traubels; he too kept a diary, which was subsequently published, along with Johnston's, as Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890-1891 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1917).
The Whitman Fellowship in Bolton continued to be active in one form or another up to and beyond Wallace's death in January 1926. His death robbed the group of its leader, and the two remaining founder members died within the next decade - Dr Johnston in 1927 and Fred Wild in 1935. The movement was kept alive, however, by Minnie Whiteside, along with the few remaining members, notably John Ormrod and William Broadhurst, as well as a second generation of Whitman admirers. Whitman Day continued to be celebrated at least into the 1950s, and Minnie also maintained contact with Whitmanites in America, such as Anne and Gertrude Traubel.
Minnie devoted the last years of her life to disposing of Wallace's papers to appropriate institutions; she was keen for the Bolton group to be remembered and appreciated, and she recognised the value of the papers for research. She remarried in 1957; her wedding to an old friend, Edward Bull, took place on 4 July.