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Robert Rose, the Bard of Colour

For a brief period in the nineteenth century Manchester’s leading literary watering hole was the Sun Inn, a timber-framed building located opposite the entrance to Chetham’s on Long Millgate. In the early 1840s the upstairs snug bar of the seventeenth-century pub became home to a group of Lancashire writers whose Saturday evening meetings attracted large audiences. So successful were these events that the pub’s landlord took advantage of a branding opportunity and renamed the inn Poet’s Corner, a name that stuck well after the poets had moved on.

The Sun Inn and ‘Poets’ Corner’

The Sun Inn Group was headed by John Critchley Prince and its members included, among others, the poets Charles Swain, John Bolton Rogerson, Elijah Ridings, and Robert Rose. Of these Robert Rose is the most elusive and least known. Prince was the subject of a long and rather hagiographical work of biography, Charles Swain has made it into the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, whilst both Rogerson and Ridings saw their poems published as collections during their lifetime.

The opening lines of Rose’s ‘Prayer to Poesy’

Robert Rose’s reputation however remains low and yet he was a striking figure who does not deserve to be entirely forgotten. He was a native of the West Indies but details of his early life are obscure. It is believed that he came over to Manchester as a child and eventually he came to live in St Stephen’s Street in Salford. Unlike his fellow poets who were working-class and who had other occupations to make ends meet, Rose was described a wealthy gentleman with sufficient leisure at his disposal to take up poetry. Most of his verses appeared in newspapers but he did bring out The coronation : a poem. With reflections on the occasion. Dedicated to Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, and  The bazaar, a poem : embracing thoughts on the progression of knowledge in connection with it, and he was a contributor to The festive wreath : a collection of original contributions read at a literary meeting, held in Manchester, March 24th, 1842, at the Sun Inn, Long Millgate.

‘The Bazaar’

Rose’s works were published with his name and with the epithets ‘the bard of colour’, or ‘a West Indian of colour’ and he is possibly the only published black poet to reside in Manchester in the C19th. He was by no means a great poet, although he was not untalented and showed a fondness for the sonnet. He was a generous and kind man, a good companion to his fellow writers. But as a black man in mid C19th Manchester and Salford he was a victim of the casual racism that saw black people as figures of fun and as the butt of jokes. He often failed to finish works and his major piece, ‘The Ocean’ was one of those poems destined never to be published. This resulted in a practical joke, played by his supposed friends Prince and Rogerson who placed an advertisement in the papers, ’Shortly will be published The Ocean – a mystery. By A Black, London: Blackwood; Glasgow: Blackie; Edinburgh: Black.’ Rose is said to have accepted this with infinite good humour but he was probably not in a position to complain.

‘The Coronation’, Rose’s salute to the new Queen

Rose’s death is problematic. It appears that he died in a police cell, having been arrested a few hours earlier for drunkenness. This was not enough: Rose was described not simply as being drunk but having consumed ‘an incredible quantity of alcohol’ before suffering the DTs and then expiring. Whatever the precise cause of death, he was buried in Manchester General Cemetery at Harpurhey on 21st June 1849 and his gravestone was inscribed with the following verse:-

“I’d rather have my tomb bedew’d at eve
With the lone orphan’s or the good man’s tear
Who softly stole at twilight here to grieve
And sobb’d aloud — the friend of man rests here
I’d rather have this quiet humble fame
Than hollow echo of an empty name”.

The Library is fortunate to have Rose’s manuscript of his poems, a slim volume of 50 leaves that contains most of his works. In Black History Month the life of Robert Rose, a black writer in industrial Manchester, is well worth celebrating.

The manuscript of Robert Rose’s poems at Chetham’s Library

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