John Hartley, born in 1839 in Halifax, was a prolific author of stories and poems in Yorkshire dialect. His work is funny, sardonic, exuberant, often sentimental, often grotesque, realistic about the tough lives of West Riding people. He often shared and exaggerated events in his own life through his alter ego, Sammywell (Samuel) Grimes, and Sammywell’s sharp-tongued wife, Mally (based on Hartley’s second wife Sophia Ann). Sammywell’s comic misadventures, like his creator’s, took him to America, London, Blackpool, Paris and the Lakes.
The Clock Almanack is probably Hartley’s best known work. He edited it from the 1860s with gaps for travel until his death in 1915, though the title continued to be published until the 1950s. In tiny type on poor quality paper, produced in great numbers (80,000 sold per year at its peak), this title was part of a unique cultural phenomenon: the explosion of dialect almanacs aimed at the vast new reading public among the working people of the West Riding.
Here’s a little taste of John Hartley’s style, from Mally’s Kursmiss Party:
Mally has laid on a magnificent spread for her Christmas party guests:
“Ther wor bowls full o’potted mait, an’ sandwiches, an’ curran cakes, an’ funeral bisket, presarves, an’ aw dooan’t knaw what else, but ther wor enough to puzzle onny body which to start on fust. Ov cooarse, ther wor a sup o’ gooid teah, flavoured wi’ a drop o’ Jamaka creeam (It wodn’t do to leave th’creeam aght) …”
The guests enjoy the feast so much “aw think they must ha’ been savin thersen for a wick an’ come as hollow as a lot o’ drums”. Unfortunately Sammy gets the Jamaica cream rum for the women’s cups of tea mixed up with Tincture of rhubarb, with, needless to say, unpleasant consequences for all concerned.
It’s a very simple story, but it’s transformed by Hartley’s sheer enthusiasm for the wonderful food, his lively portrayal of the guests’ greed, the vivid language, plenty of sharp dialogue, plus a surreal cake, shaped like Solomon’s temple with Solomon himself standing in front. The guests eat the whole temple except “th’ front door step. Then they grummeled because ther worn’t a cellar kitchen”. Then they eat poor Solomon, “until ther wor nowt left but th’ hams”.
Interested in Yorkshire dialect? Special Collections is rich in Yorkshire dialect works: the Waddington-Feather book collection includes copies of the Almanack and several other works by John Hartley, and there is also plenty in the Mitchell, Priestley and Riley book collections. Several works by Hartley are online at Project Gutenberg.
(With thanks to John Waddington-Feather’s The Best of John Hartley, in which the above story is handily reprinted, and Notes on the West Riding Dialect Almanacs by B.T. Dyson in Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society 1975).