Charles Frederick Sixsmith was one of six brothers from Anderton, near Chorley in Lancashire. He worked at Bentinck Mills, Farnworth, where he held the post of managing director for 40 years until his retirement in 1933. He was active in local government and played a part in the early socialist movement in Britain. He had two sons and a daughter, and died in February 1954 at the age of 83.
Literature was one of Sixsmith's many interests, and in the early 1890s he developed a love of Walt Whitman's poetry which was to last for the rest of his life. He was introduced to Whitman by J.W. Wallace, who moved to Anderton in 1890 and soon became a close friend of Sixsmith. Wallace, an architect's assistant from Bolton, had first turned to the poetry of Whitman as a source of spiritual solace after the death of his mother in 1885. Inspired by the message he found there, he underwent what he later described as a form of spiritual transformation, attaining a new state of consciousness. He was subsequently looked upon as a spiritual leader, and a figure who could provide guidance and support for friends and acquaintances who were experiencing difficulties in their lives. He had a wide circle of contacts among the leading figures of the contemporary socialist movement, many of whom shared his interest in Whitman. The early socialists in Britain were attracted by Whitman's ideas on love and comradeship, democracy and nature, and the poet was taken up as a prophet for the socialist cause.
Wallace's love of Whitman found expression in his role as master of the so-called 'Eagle Street College'. This informal group was established in 1885 when Wallace, with his close friends Dr John Johnston and Fred Wild, began to hold regular meetings at his home in Eagle Street, Bolton, to read and discuss literary works, particularly the poetry of Whitman. Other members of the group (which subsequently became known as the Bolton Whitman Fellowship) came and went over the years, many of them forming lifelong attachments on the basis of their shared political beliefs and love of Whitman's work. A regular event in their calendar was the annual 'Whitman day' celebration held on or near the poet's birthday on 31 May. Wallace and Johnston both corresponded with Whitman himself from 1887 to 1892, the year of the poet's death. Johnston made a pilgrimage to America in 1890, visiting Whitman at his last home in Camden, New Jersey, and various localities associated with the poet's life. Wallace visited Whitman in 1891, following Johnston's example in keeping a detailed diary of his experiences; these two accounts were subsequently published as Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890-1891 (1917).
The Whitman college meetings continued after Wallace's move to Anderton, and he first invited Sixsmith to attend in the early 1890s. Sixsmith, a young man at the time, was grateful for the friendship and support he received from Wallace, who encouraged his interest in Whitman. Through Wallace and the Bolton group, he came into contact with many prominent figures in the early British socialist movement, such as Edward Carpenter, who became a lifelong friend. Wallace also corresponded with various friends and admirers of Whitman in America, such as Horace Traubel (writer, friend and defender of Whitman), John Burroughs (naturalist, writer and friend of the poet) and Dr Richard Maurice Bucke (Whitman's official biographer). This gave Sixsmith the opportunity to share his interests and ideas with like-minded individuals in America.
Sixsmith and Wallace remained close until at least 1910, when they seem to have had a disagreement of some kind; they certainly grew apart around this time. Sixsmith continued to pursue his Whitman interests, however, building up an impressive book collection. The Bolton group continued in a more modest form after the death of Wallace in 1926, and Sixsmith remained involved in the annual Whitman birthday celebrations until at least the late 1930s.
Walt Whitman (1819-91) 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.