This edition makes available for the first time in 200 years Mary, the Osier-Peeler, a Simple but True Story: A Poem, printed in 1798 by John White in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. Authored anonymously “By a Lady,” this poem is now extant in only one copy currently located in the Marguerite Hicks Collection of Women’s Writings held by Oakland University. The title page indicates that the poetic project is “for the benefit of the Distressed family described in it.” The 18-page quarto pamphlet begins by describing the experiences of a young woman named Mary through the lens of the Fenland agricultural practices and associated customs of rearing osiers, also interchangeably called willows throughout the poem. The poem then catalogues the misfortunes of Mary and her husband William as they navigate bereavement, starvation, eviction, disease, and injury at the turn of the nineteenth century.
The inaccessibility of this poem has limited its scholarly notice. What was known has survived as trace entries in bibliographies such as The Women’s Print History Project and Jackson Bibliography of Romantic Poetry, derived from the contemporaneous reviews, which often excerpted a few stanzas of the poem. For its altruism, Mary, the Osier-Peeler largely escaped derision in its critical reception. The Critical Review foregoes criticizing “a poem published with so benevolent an intention,” and includes an excerpt to “explain the nature of those distresses the purchasers will assist in relieving.”
The Monthly Review holds that even “if the poetry be not of the first rate, the tender and benevolent sentiments have the highest claim to praise:—to which, humanity will not fail to yield the preference.”
While the Analytical Review wishes the poet had “submitted her manuscript to the revision of some friend” to improve its “unmelodious lines,” it still admits its subject an “affectionate and very unfortunate family.”
While the reviewers do not praise the poem for its aesthetic values, they do suspend their duties as arbiters of literary taste to commend its charitable purpose. Within these qualified admissions of merit on moral or charitable grounds, the poem was, then as now, striking enough to warrant notice. For us, the poem contains important clues about its author and her perspective on Fenland life and can help us understand charitable writing amid the tumultuous social changes at the end of the eighteenth century.
Bibliographic and geographic points within the poem indicate that the author of the poem is Mary Morgan, née Gibbs (1749–1808), the author of A Tour to Milford Haven, in 1791, published by John Stockdale in London (1795). Morgan’s Tour, which features the author’s visit to her Welsh-born husband’s home in Pembrokeshire, is an example of well-received epistolary travel writing, receiving favorable reviews in the Monthly Review and British Critic, as well as growing scholarly attention today.
Scholarship in particular attends to Morgan’s description of the Sandleford estate of “Queen of the Bluestockings,” Elizabeth Montagu. Recent research has also revealed Morgan’s coterie connections with Lady Elizabeth Symonds Gwillim and Frances Boscawen and has illuminated more fully the extent of the relationship between Morgan and Montagu.
Born in 1749 to St. Mary’s Tower organist Joseph Gibbs and wife Mary, at Ipswich, Morgan remains relatively unknown but for what is refracted through the career of her husband, the Rev. Dr. Caesar Morgan (1750–1812). Her husband served at Elm, Coveney, Littleport, Stretham, Little Thetford, and Wisbech—all within a 20-mile radius of the Diocese of Ely in the city of the same—and at the cathedral in which the Morgans would be commemorated, as Rev. Dr. Morgan was Fourth Prebendary of Ely Cathedral at the time of his death.
Their time in Wisbech coincides with Mary Morgan’s greatest productivity in published works, including her Tour, Mary, the Osier-Peeler, and a third publication, The Knyghte of the Golden Locks: An Ancyent Poem, Applicable to the Present Times (1799), purportedly “selected from many others in the possession of Mrs. Morgan.”
The known literary output of Morgan can open Mary, the Osier-Peeler to fruitful new directions of inquiry. As in her Welsh travel narrative, Morgan establishes herself at the outset of the osier poem as a tour guide, explaining to readers in the preface the significance of osiers, as “it may be requisite to explain to those, who are not acquainted with the produce of Cambridgeshire that . . . the delicate Willow Hats, of late so fashionable, are made of Cambridgeshire Osiers.” Born in Ipswich, Morgan was herself nonnative to Cambridgeshire, and positions herself as intermediary between the titular “distressed family” and their would-be patrons, providing paratextual explanations where she foresees a lapse in the patrons’ cultural or literary understanding. As with Morgan’s epistolary descriptions of the people, roads, hotels, and customs en route to Wales, the preface of Mary, the Osier-Peeler succinctly summarizes the customs of willow-growing communities. Unless one had already read the critical reviews of the poem, there is little indication from the cheery tone of the preface and its talk of fashionable hats, celebratory dances, and feasts that Morgan’s poem entails more than entrée to Cambridgeshire country life. Within the first few stanzas, Morgan’s invocation of John Milton’s “Lycidas” and the elegies of Thomas Gray and William Mason places her poem as extension and critique of the pastoral and elegiac traditions along the banks of the River Cam, focusing instead on those people “Who by all are unknown and unseen, / Except the broad eye of their God” (39–40). While Morgan deploys the topoi of au courant Romanticism, her incisive critique of the seismic cultural, political, and social changes concentrated in the last decade of the eighteenth century is coupled with relief for her poetic objects, as she sponsors the injured son of the Osier Family, however microcosmic her own contribution may be.
Morgan would have been privy to the parish-supported poor in Wisbech where the poem was printed, as her husband served as vicar to the parishes of Wisbech St. Mary and Wisbech St. Peter from late 1795 to early 1802. These war years were particularly difficult for Cambridgeshire: apart from serially poor harvests, unemployment, inflation, food riots, and fear of unrest among laborers sympathetic to the French cause, the further draining of the fens for agricultural purposes compounded the impoverishment of the unlanded poor, who had for centuries made their living per the right of common and waste for gathering firewood, raising poultry, and hunting game, and who had assumed the custom of gleaning grain after harvest. The fencing-off of common ground into neat parcels of arable farmland spatially marginalized the poor, which is where Morgan’s poem meets them: on the banks of waterways, not lamenting the loss of college-educated men, but cultivating and tending to osiers, a high-moisture crop grown on the physical and social fringe of arable land and the connotation of social exclusion it was assuming.
The marshy Fenlands upon which Wisbech is located created a particularly difficult set of stereotypes for Morgan to overcome and generate pity among her readers. English literature, from Beowulf to Paradise Lost to The Pilgrim’s Progress, tends to attribute evil, fear, temptation, and literal and spiritual danger to the swamp.
While drainage schemes from the seventeenth into the late eighteenth century had increased arable land, the Wisbech and surrounding communities retained enough marshland for contemporary comment; a local doctor remarked in 1801 that “the stench of the exhalations issuing from the corrupted, stagnant water, and putrid, half dried mud or ooze, was most intolerably offensive . . . the effluvia was almost suffocating.”
The rotten stench of putrefying organic matter was itself, to common intelligence, airborne contagion, insalubrious and supposed capable of a host of somatic and spiritual disorders. But the perceived health hazard of the marshes was not without grounds. The standing waters of the fens were breeding grounds for mosquitos capable of transmitting “fen ague,” which medical historians today believe was a form of malaria, albeit a less virulent illness than that caused by the deadly Plasmodium falciparum.
A local historian noted in the 1820s that people were still “fearful of entering the fens of Cambridgeshire, lest the Marsh Miasma should shorten their lives.”
Death was never far from fen life, and while Wisbech’s infant mortality rates had improved by the mid-nineteenth century, they were still inordinately high, rivaling those of industrialized cities in England.
The threat of fen ague was coupled with tropes of fen dwellers’ moral depravity and perceived racial otherness, which were cited as rationale for their further disenfranchisement. As one commenter from nearby Lincolnshire wrote in 1799, “So wild a country nurses up a race of people as wild as the fen; and thus the morals and eternal welfare of numbers are hazarded or ruined for want of an inclosure.”
The fen people were seen as a race apart from village dwellers by virtue of their breathing in the “denser air” of greater miasmatic contaminants. Local lore even held that fen people had webbed feet, divesting them of humanity altogether. Apart from her textual subjects’ social class, then, Morgan’s poetic representation of the fen-dwelling Osier Family must reckon with the social and geographic determinants of health that contributed to the racialized stereotypes of fen people and their adaptive customs.
Morgan’s choice of osier propagation as poetic image is fitting for its geographic and sociocultural registers. Osiers were valued for their flexibility, durability, and quick yield. Apart from the stylish hats with which Morgan hooks her fashionable would-be readers, peeled osiers are famed as the stuff of basketmaking, and were also used as fence wood, fuel, traps for catching freshwater eels, and timber for furniture, and were grown in proprietary holts tended by seasonal hired labor or propagated informally for crude housewares. The Osier Family itself lives in a “willow-built cot” (36), and when evicted, Morgan notes they are bereft also “of their chairs, they of osiers had twin’d” (198). Osiers are planted as 10-inch cuttings, pushed firmly into the ground to leave only a couple inches visible above ground. In the first year, the rods that grow through the spring and summer are cut immediately after the leaves have fallen. In the second season, the original cutting is now called a stool, and can produce up to 100 rods attaining lengths of up to 11 feet during one growing season. The long rods are cut, collected, and tied into bundles that are just under four feet in girth. The bundles are then pitted, or left standing in a few inches of water until the sap rises, usually in late February. It is at this point, after a few months left in standing water, that the rods are ready to be peeled of their bark. Morgan’s poem takes up here, and the titular Mary as “osier-peeler” comes into play.
The process of peeling itself was commonly performed by women, children, the infirm, and the elderly. Workers would sit or kneel on the ground and pass each rod through the teeth of an iron instrument called a break, fastened into the ground, to strip away the bark. The window of time for peeling is quite narrow, being at its longest two weeks, or, likely, the “Twelve Suns” that Morgan counts before the overseer comes to count the bundles and compensate the laborers (99–102). While the process of peeling was simple enough, feeding thousands of the rods’ “tough rind” into the break would have certainly inscribed itself on the hands of its laborers; as Morgan writes, “from its wounds, [Mary] well knew, / Her fingers no care could defend” (79–80).
Because fen people were often typecast as “lazy” and less deserving of charitable aid, Morgan takes care to emphasize the composite nature of the income of Mary, and in subsequent lines, Mary and William’s large family. Mary pleads leave of her mother to “go with the maids of the town” to peel the osiers and “earn . . . what [she] can’t at [her] wheel” (68–71). Morgan here twins spinning and osier-peeling to show how Mary cobbles together piecemeal labors in a shift economy: her hands now “stript the tall rod, / As erst ran the wheel thro’ her hand” (88). Rather than the imaginative weaving of laurels for the poet, Morgan shifts the aesthetic focus—and by extension, the work of the poem—to the practical labors of the fen dwellers’ spinning, peeling, and weaving. The work of cultivating osiers demands intense labor per acre, requiring workers to plant sets, deter insect infestation, cut rods and grade them according to size, bundle the rods, and peel them. The bulk of this labor took place in the off-season of other agricultural practice, and many laborers would have combined this work with cottage industry for survival. Morgan’s careful subversion of poetic labor as merely “resting on one’s laurels” emphasizes the industriousness of fen people and the Osier Family in particular, imbuing them with moral goodness worth reward.
Although Mary and her family demonstrate a willing and cheerful industriousness, they are nonetheless subject to bereavement, starvation, eviction, disease, and injury during this period of fluctuation and instability regarding care for the poor. Reading Mary, the Osier-Peeler can teach us how to bring the sociohistorical to bear on the literary and contribute to discussions at the intersections of provincial women’s writing, place-based writing, ecocriticism, and Romantic women’s charity publications, as well as edifying our understanding of Mary Morgan as more than a travel writer.
About the Marguerite Hicks Collection of Women’s Writings
This 18-page pamphlet is held in the Marguerite Hicks Collection of Women’s Writings, which contains over 900 books, pamphlets, and broadsides by and about British women from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, held at Oakland University’s Kresge Library in Rochester, Michigan. Marguerite Hicks, a blind, widowed, queer Detroiter, amassed the collection in the late 1930s and early 40s together with her partner, Thelma James. The Marguerite Hicks Collection is likely the first intentional collection of works by and about women from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to be gathered by an American collector. It contains ballad broadsides, novels, cookbooks, political tracts, educational texts, sermons, plays, poetry, and more. Dozens of the items in this collection exist in fewer than ten known copies worldwide, and a handful are uniquely existing copies.
Bibliography of Scholarship on Mary Morgan
1. “Mary, the Osier-Peeler,” Critical Review, 2nd ser., 24 (Dec. 1798): 469. [back]
2. “Art. 41,” Monthly Review, n.s., 26 (Aug. 1798): 460. [back]
3. “Art X,” Analytical Review 28 (Dec. 1798): 592. The poem was also listed in “New Publications in April,” Monthly Magazine 5 (1798): 298; and in the New Annual Register (1798): 311. [back]
4. See section “Bibliography of Scholarship on Mary Morgan.” [back]
5. See, for example, Emily D. Spunaugle, “A Travel Writer Reconsidered: Recovering Mary Morgan’s Mary, the Osier-Peeler,” ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640–1830 10, no. 2 (2020). [back]
6. “Morgan, Caesar (1773–1804),” Clergy of the Church of England Database, CCEd Person ID: 17964, https://theclergydatabase.org.uk/jsp/search/index.jsp. [back]
7. See lines 289–320 and corresponding editor’s notes. [back]
8. For a survey of literary representations of the fens, see Bridget Keegan, “‘And All is Nakedness and Fen’: John Clare’s Wetlands,” in British Labouring-Class Nature Poetry, 1730–1837 (New York: Palgrave, 2008): 150–52. [back]
9. Robert Hamilton, Observations on the Marsh Remittent Fever, More Particularly in Regard to Its Appearance and Return Every Autumn, after the Inundation from the Sea, on the First of January, 1795, and the Five Succeeding Years, at Lynn, and Its Environs (London: J. Mawman, 1801), 37. [back]
10. Alice Nicholls, “Fenland Ague in the Nineteenth Century,” Medical History 44 (2000): 513–30. [back]
11. William Watson, An Historical Account of the Ancient Town and Port of Wisbech, in the Isle of Ely, in the County of Cambridge, and of the Circumjacent Towns and Villages (Wisbech: Leach, 1827), 356. [back]
12. Nicholls, “Fenland Ague,” 45. Scholarship has since tempered the impact of English malaria on nineteenth-century Fenland mortality rates, arguing that poor sanitation and hygiene are also to blame. See Robert A. Hutchinson and Steven W. Lindsay, “Malaria and Deaths in the English Marshes,” The Lancet 367 (2006): 1947–51. [back]
13. Arthur Young, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Lincoln: Drawn Up for the Consideration of the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement (London: G. Nicol, 1799), 223–24. [back]