Celebrating World Poetry Day with the John Murray Archive

19 March 2021

History | Literature | Politics

This blog includes temporary free access to "Manuscript, with marked proofs, ‘A Voice from the Factories’, by Caroline Norton” from the Adam Matthew resource Nineteenth Century Literary Society: The John Murray Publishing Archive. Click here to view this document for free until 18th April 2021.

This Sunday, March 21 2021 marks World Poetry Day.  Since 1999, UNESCO has used this day to recognize the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind. I have taken this opportunity to explore the John Murray Archive, digitised from the National Library of Scotland in Adam Matthew Digital’s Nineteenth Century Literary Society.

Held by the National Library of Scotland since 2006 and added to the UNESCO Register of World Memory in 2011, the Murray collection remains one of the world’s most important literary archives shedding light on the day-to-day business of a successful nineteenth-century publishing house. The collection houses the most complete archival collection of poet Lord Byron and though the Byron papers shed light into literary triumph and scandal, I have delved into the works of perhaps a less well-known poetic figure, Caroline Norton.

Caroline Norton (1808-1877) was an English social reformer who campaigned for the greater protection of women and children. She was also an avid writer and poet, and these subjects formed the basis of her work.

The John Murray Archive includes correspondence between Caroline Norton and her publisher, John Murray II (1778-1843), as well as manuscripts with marked proofs. These are a fascinating insight into the process behind the writing and publication of her works. A Voice from the Factories is a poem written by Norton, printed anonymously by John Murray in 1836. It reflects on the cruelties of child labour in Victorian Britain, voicing the issues of children being forced to work in the same roles as adults and suffer in the process. Poetry is used by Norton as a creative outlet to comment on politics and society. Norton was desperate for this work to be published by the house of Murray because of their reputation. In October 1836, Norton writes to Murray II noting her implementation of his earlier suggestions and critiques in the hope he will go on to publish her work.

“My Voice from the Factories is in the style you bid me to adhere to – and I will still hope that you will take it under your charge.”

Image © National Library of Scotland. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Despite this poem being the means to spark social change, Norton did not wish to be associated with the work. She writes to Murray “I only wish not to look my readers full in the face on my first introduction to them; my name has been (God knows!) before the public, enough to make me hate the letters which compose the word; …”

Image © National Library of Scotland. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Caroline Norton’s wish for anonymity is interesting for a few reasons – in this same year she left her husband George Chapple Norton sparking a court case and intense media speculation. However she also feared how her poem would be interpreted by some in her social circle, writing of a “slight shrinking from avowing even so light a treatment of a political subject”. Norton was both tired of the public eye and aware that as a woman she had no grounds on which to be ‘political’. She used poetry to advance the cause of women and children whilst simultaneously aiming for anonymous authorship to avoid controversy. The poem is dedicated to Lord Ashley, a social reformer who was working to end child labour and promote education.

“Are not Lord Ashley’s, Mr Murray’s, and its own name, enough?”

In an anonymous dedication to Lord Ashley which prefaces the poem, Norton praises his social work and expresses her desire to attach his name to this poem. Even as a social reformer and writer who acted for change, Norton still felt the need to remain nameless behind this work and instead attach it to her male counterpart.

Image © National Library of Scotland. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Poetry as a means to express yourself and your opinions can be liberating, but feeling a necessity to publish anonymously in this instance certainly taints that liberation.

You can read the poem as a manuscript proof here.

For a closer reading of A Voice from the Factories, see here for another blog.

Nineteenth Century Literary Society: The John Murray Publishing Archive is available now. For more information on this resource, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

About the Author

Emily Stallworthy

Emily Stallworthy

I joined Adam Matthew in September 2018. Since then I have worked on developing a number of new and exciting projects. I now work in the Outreach team, supporting academic communities with digital collections. My academic backround lies in the Italian Renaissance, art history and material culture.