The original enquiry …
“The Harpings of Lena” – Many years ago , when passing through East Lincolnshire, I came across a volume of original poetry bearing the above title, and, if I remember rightly, the work of some local poet.
Who was the author of this book, and when was it published ? N&Q 1882
In 1882 a curious war of words began in Lincolnshire Notes and Queries with an enquiry into the author of a poetry book entitled “The Harpings of Lena”. The first person to respond provides an outline of a young Bill Baitman and delivers a scathing indictment of his treatment at the hands of the Alford youth. These words elicit an equally strong defense of Alford. The correspondents provide very different perspectives and reveal some interesting information on Billy Baitman and Alford. The letters are long, I have highlighted a swift path of the most interesting elements for those of you with less inclination to trawl through it all.
For those unfamiliar with this local character Bill Baitman frequently receives a few sentences in books on Alford, he is renowned for selling his soul to the devil, frequently connected to the site of a hawthorn bush on Miles Cross Hill.
The letters of 1882
The “Harpings of Lena” being original poems by the late Edward Lenton and W.J.Baitman. To which is affixed a brief memoir of Edward Lenton. Young Lenton died in his sixteenth year; Baitman died three or four years ago. They were both poor boys. Baitman was born at Alford … about ten miles from Somersby Rectory, the birthplace of Alfred Tennyson. Lenton was born at Hogsthorpe. … Although Lenton’s name is placed first on the title page his pieces are not so good as Baitman’s.
Perhaps some who read [the piece] may picture themselves a delicate, effeminate , studious youth, quite an object of interest in the little place. He was an object of interest, certainly, and I will describe the nature of it.
Having met with one of his works about forty five years ago , when I was a boy of ten or eleven, I was very curious … and as my father was in the habit of going to Alford … I persuaded him to take me with him more than once … and this is what I saw: a middle sized, thin man, with a keen intelligent face – a lame man – who swung himself along very rapidly on his single crutch, and who lifted up his face and examined you as he passed with piercing and scrutinising glance ; and poorly clad in fustian or some such stuff.
He was a pauper, and lived on charity , as long as he could keep body and soul together in that way; but when he could not, then he went into the workhouse, and he died there. Many of his pieces are dated “Alford Workhouse”. In the preface to a second book which he published, Poetics and Prosaics 1835, he pathetically alludes to the ” affliction with the sick and dying around him” amid which it had been written. He was poor and miserable and lived in a vulgar , ignorant little town , full of poachers and smugglers, who brutally jeered and baited him because he was weak and helpless. And yet these barbarians had the sense to see that in some way or other he was superior to them, so they sapiently concluded it was through satanic agency.
It was currently reported that “Owd Bill Baitman ‘ed seld ‘is soul to tha devil !” Poor fellow! It was easy to be seen he had made a very bad bargain of it. In summer months he used to lie about the fields , and under the hedges by the roadsides, for whole days together, frequently attempting to sell one of his books to passers by , or to beg a few coppers.
The Alford boys were very much afraid of “the man who had sold himself to the devil” and the sight of him was quite sufficient to make one or two run away in terror; but when there were more, like wolves in a pack, they grew bolder, and stoned him and otherwise ill treated him. They used to knock on the door of his queer little house or hut after dark. Of course they always ran away as quickly as possible after such exploits . He wanted bread and they heaved half bricks at him.
These amiable little pastimes afforded much amusement to the elders, who recall them with great delight. You cannot speak about him today to an average middle class Alfordian without his face breaking into smiles at the pleasant recollection. “Owd Bill Baitman, tha chap what seld ‘is sen to the Devil? Do I remember him? Why in coorse I do ! What fun tha boys hewst ta’ev we’im!” Not withstanding his satanic reputation and poverty, he found a woman, a few years before his death , daring and desperate enough to marry him – not the first woman who was not afraid of the devil. She was many years the younger and is yet living.
Could not the [squire, parson of the parish, or the attorney] or a few benevolent people have subscribed a few shilling a week to have kept the poor fellow out of the workhouse? – so fond as he was of the fresh air and of the sights and sounds of nature. There are many rich and well-to-do people around Alford. … The poet Laureate appears to have been kind to him ; for in one note he gratefully observes ” I have been favoured by Mr A Tennyson, of whom Lincolnshire may be justly proud, with Warton’s History of English Poetry. … At the commencement of his book Baitman proudly prints a short note from J Montgomery, the poet, in which he says ” The Apologue is pleasingly, and indeed, cleverly imagined and executed”. It is surprising such a man was not protected and provided for. He does not appear to have written a single set of lines to glorify any of the Marsh squires or bucolic magnates of the neighbourhood – evidently a very unwise man in his generation. Probably if he could have seen how good and wise were the people around him , then they would have discovered that he was a very clever fellow , and that they ought to be proud of him. The principal kindness he received was, when a child, his lameness and intelligence attracted the attention of a prosperous person , of the name of Mason, I think who kindly gave him a plain education. RR of Boston, Lincs
Clearly R.R of Boston was not a fan of Alford, however his lengthy diatribe was strongly rebuffed by J.A. of Alford …
“Harpings of Lena“: WJ Baitman, the Alford Poet
It seems reasonable that readers should have an opportunity of hearing what can be said in reply to to R.R.’s sketch of the career of Baitman, and to his animadversion upon Alford, the town in which the poet lived.
Recollections of Baitman carry me back to my own boyhood. I remember being present, not much less than sixty years ago, at the distribution of prizes at Alford National School. The first prize was adjudges to Baitman. It was presented, and probably given, by the squire of the neighbourhood, B Dashwood of Well. There was at that time I believe a very kindly feeling for a poor lame boy, who seemed likely, not withstanding the disadvantages he laboured under to fill some creditable position , and to be – not admired perhaps – but respected. When the Harpings of Lena appeared, and Baitman was recognised as a poet, the interest in him increased. The ladies were much disposed to befriend him. How could it be otherwise ? Their goodwill was shown in various kindly ways, especially during a long illness with which he was afflicted. At a subsequent period these kind attentions were to a considerable extent withdrawn. How came this to pass ?
R.R.s information respecting Baitman is very imperfect; but he would have escaped some strange misapprehensions if he had used aright such knowledge as he had. Is it possible that, when giving a very correct description of Baitman’s degraded state, it did not occur to R.R. that it was exceedingly unlikely that a man of talent – and Baitman was undoubtedly a man of talent – should have sunk to such a condition except by his own fault ? R.R. should have made further inquiries respecting Baitman and then his views respecting him and Alford would most probably have undergone very great changes. But what are R.R.s actual notions as to this matter ? He seems to regard Baitman as a moral hero, too high – minded to be guilty of any insincerity in order to gain patronage. … Baitman, I believe, did not practise flattery, probably it would not have availed much; but there was a better and surer way than this to obtain sympathy and help in Alford, but this way he declined to take. If his conduct had been such as to make it possible to respect him I believe that the kindness he experienced in his early days would have been continued to the end of his life. But such it was not. I will not go into particulars ; but the result of all was this: When well meaning people gave him alms they were likely to feel, not the sweet satisfaction that arises from befriending the well-deserving , but an uneasy suspicion that in yielding to their kindly feelings they had done wrong. A brief and truthful life of Baitman would be interesting and instructive , but an auto-biography would have been of little value. He has been heard to say that his lameness was occasioned by a wound he received in Italy when serving under Garibaldi !
Before leaving Baitman it may be well to correct one or two of R.R.s misstatements. Baitman did not die in the workhouse. He received parochial relief, but had been allowed to live in Alford. He did not marry the “daring” woman to whom R.R. alludes.
As to R.R.s asserion that Alford is a “vulgar little ignorant town, full of poachers and smugglers” it is not necessary to say much . The statement is too remote from the truth to give serious offence. … When we consider ourselves as a community, we are confident that our little town holds quite a respectable place among the towns of Lincolnshire. … J.A Alford
Unfortunately R.R. was not about to take that response lightly …
It is very satisfactory to find that J.A. confirms the more important parts of my communication. … But the censure of the Alford people he does not like. He charges me with “imperfect information” and “two mis-statements” First as to the “mis-statements” I had good authority for both of them from inhabitants of Alford, and if Baitman did not actually die within the walls of the workhouse, he died in the receipt of Parish Relief, and had been in the workhouse , as the inscriptions to many of his poems show; and I am yet told that he did ultimately marry “the daring woman”. The most disgraceful part of the charge against his townsmen J.A. does not refer to. Is a belief in the power of selling oneself to the devil usual in the agricultural towns of Lincolnshire? or is it merely a mark of the superior intelligence and respectability of the people of Alford ?And is tolerance of a rabble who pelt a poor, lame diseased man a sign of charity and Christian benevolence ? Never mind about the character of the man. Ought any man – especially any lame helpless man – to be allowed to be so treated? Would civilised beings treat a dog so ? This barbarous conduct ill agrees with the flattering term in which J.A. speaks of his townsmen; but self praise is not exactly the highest testimony of worth. It would be more to the purpose to tell us what Alford has ever done to show the appreciation of literature, or what men it has produced eminent for anything.
… It would be better to state plainly what were the other offences committed than to indulge in vague innuendos. I know of none sufficient to justify such remarks. The poetic temperament is always a dangerous possession, especially among hard and unsympathetic people, such as he was surrounded by; but plenty of excuses would have been made for him, and his peccadilloes would have been called “eccentricities”, if he had been rich or famous.
It is my impression that the unfeeling manner in which he was treated may, to some extent, have unsettled his reason, and so furnished excuses for discontinuing the alms. He could not live on a few platefuls of cold victuals and a few old clothes given at irregular intervals. “Alms” indeed ! No wonder that a sensitive nature should be driven to desperation by this kin of patronage. The rich people of Alford should have subscribed a few shillings a week and placed him in a position where he could have respected himself; he could then, very probably, have been a credit to them; by not doing so they failed in their duty. I suppose one of his crimes was insufficient gratitude for the “alms”. But the quantity of hat touching and prostration of body and soul required by some of these “alms-givers” would disgust ordinary mortals. No wonder if they made Baitman so desperate.
When I wrote, my desire was to vindicate a man who had been harshly treated. I spoke as much of the truth about Alford people as was necessary , and no more. As before said, there were many rich men there; it abounded with people whom Carlyle would have designated “gigmanity” – quite notorious for the high estimation in which they held themselves ; no doubt very admirable people in their own way, but that way is not literary.
“Proputty, proputty’s ivrything ‘ere” * .
How should it be otherwise ? Alford and its “Marsh” is on the edge of the County, on the very outskirts of England, far away from all centres of civilisation, and the people are principally employed in agriculture.
J.A. denies that the town is full of poachers and smugglers ( I said was). This is very surprising . If he can be unaware of such notorious matters, how do we know he is not equally ignorant about the real truths of Baitman’s history, who for many years was considered too contemptible to be protected from the insults of the Alford roughs?
I have been in Alford hundreds of times , and have often passed the “haunted house” at Bilsby – a fine old place, shut up because
“Theer waur a boggle in it” *
(you see boggles and devils were fond of Alford)
I could tell J.A. about Fothby [Tothby?] Hall, of Thoresthorpe, Thurlby Grange, and the other big farm houses round; also a good deal about the people who lived there.
“No, smugglers and poachers !” What about the Alford South End gang who shot one of Mr Christopher’s keepers dead, about two miles out of Alford ? and what about Louth poulterers who used to fetch cartloads of hares and pheasants away at once? These things were notorious .
I, many times, passed the house of a family of smugglers between Alford and the sea, about thirty-five years ago. There was a father with several sons, all of whom got their living by smuggling. They had no other occupation; they dressed as well and spent as much money as any people in those parts. They owned at least one vessel engaged in the trade. Everybody knew it. Why were they not caught? Because the whole countryside sympathised with them. An informer would would have run a chance of being shot as dead as the Alford poachers shot the gamekeeper. I have heard many curious tales from the farmers – how they used to lie still at night when they heard smugglers fetch their horses out of the stables to lead away the cargoes, and how they used to find kegs of spirits in the morning put among the straw as recompense for the use of the animals. Some of them used to boast that they got all their spirits for “nowt”. On a dark night, suitable for running cargo, these farmers would send their household to bed earlier than usual, that the coast might be clear for the horses to be fetched. No doubt many of their men went with their teams.
But where is the necessity of any further words ? Tennyson, who lived so near, and who is so keen an observer , has drawn a picture of a “Marsh” farmer to the life in his Northern Farmer , which is always considered to be meant for one of the race inhabiting the district between Alford and Grimsby, and it is as faithful as a photograph.
I could give many droll tales and anecdotes in illustration of the manners and customs in that part of Lincolnshire, but shall forbear at present, as I do not wish to unnecessarily hurt people’s feelings.
J.A has written with much tact. I think he will now be convinced that I really do know something about Alford and the people. It is with great unwillingness that I have been compelled to pass any strictures on the generally speaking hospitable men of the “Marsh” district; but in the interest of truth and justice it was absolutely necessary to do so. I now leave the matter to the impartial consideration of readers, but will conclude with some lines from the opening piece of Baitman’s Poetics and Prosaics :-
For I have longings vast and high
Of fame and immortality
and fain would pour in deathless song
My hearts deep feelings wild and strong
And the rabble were allowed to hoot and pelt him! that’s how the “longings vast and high” were satisfied in Alford. R.R. Boston
* Tennyson’s Northern Farmer
Unfortunately that was not an end to the matter, JMT chose to wade in and muddy the waters even further …
I well remember Bateman in my schoolboy days and after, and I think my old friend J.A. and R.R. are mistaken in the orthography of his name, as one of his crazes was that he was connected with the family Bateman, the then head of which was Mr Bateman Dashwood , of Well Vale, the magistrate to whom R.R refers as distributing the prizes at the National School. … It may be satisfactory to know that he was not without friends, and his occasional visits to the neighbouring vicarage of … the late Felix Laurent procured for him the loan of books and other little kindnesses which rendered his latter days less dreary than they might have been, and for which I believe he was not ungrateful. As to the peltings, I well remember he was frequently hooted in the streets , but I never saw him pelted, and this annoyance he brought on himself by his unfortunate irritability of temper. The origin of the notion that he had sold himself to the devil was, no doubt, the fact of his being an avowed atheist – a character , happily, less common at that time than in the present advanced state of civilisation. J.M.T
J.M.T. does raise a good point on the name, the poetry books are published using the spelling Baitman and we know that he was able to read and write well, but he is referred to under both spellings and may have promoted that himself.
The above letter was the final one in 1882 but this was not the end of the discussion. It was revived again some SEVEN years later by Lister Wilson, an Alford solicitor, who had recently read a review on the Harpings of Lena by R.R. Boston. For the incrediby tenacious among you I have reproduced these final letters at the bottom of this piece, headed accordingly, they are very convoluted but do provide a little more insight into Baitman and the circumstances which may have led to his downfall.
Official Records on Bill Baitman
In February 1828 the sensitivities of both young poets received praise in the Stamford Mercury. Just four months later the same paper reported the death of Edward Lenton (juvenile poet) in Alford, leaving the young Bill Baitman to face the world alone.
The 1882 letters understandably caused some consternation in Alford and others wrote to the local papers with more details on Baitman denouncing RR’s version of events.
One local explained that Baitman was not born in Alford, but in Manchester, being brought up by his grandmother,“an Old Wesleyan” in Alford .The writer continues that Baitman was a notorious cadger, always begging, and the story of his connection with the Devil originated with Baitman himself as a begging tactic.
This part of Baitman’s story can be substantiated, Louth Prison records from 1857 show Baitman as an inmate and also record him as being born in Manchester and brought up in Alford, of course it is possible that Baitman may have been the originator of this information too. He is described as lame in the right leg, aged 46 he was over 5’2″ with long pale hair. Baitman was incarcerated as a rogue and a vagabond for one month, he could read and write well and was a seller of tracts.
The 1857 prison records indicate a previous sentence, in April 1840 at the April Sessions in Louth a William Baitman was sentenced to 3 months hard labour for stealing hankerchiefs and other items at Langton. The prison records again record William Baitman as being able to read and write well which is less common than “imperfect”, with the surname spelling this suggests this may have been Bill’s first sentence.
The nature of William Baitman’s life makes it hard to track him through any official records. More than one person throughout the correspondence has confirmed that he did die in Alford, a few years prior to the 1882 letters. I have searched the civil registration death registers, for the Spilsby District, from 1862 to 1882 for a William Baitman / Bateman who died at Alford and there is only one record. Baitman yields no results. The Spilsby District reveals just one William Bateman: an Alford death and burial. This William Bateman: died in the presence of Ann Johnson at South End: his occupation is listed as a retired schoolmaster! Is this the death certificate for our Bill Baitman, the details provided by the woman who stayed at side and believed in him. I hope it is, for a man who continually reinvented himself what a perfect ending.
Robert Roberts claims that “In summer months [Bill] used to lie about the fields , and under the hedges by the roadsides, for whole days together” … was it during one of these times that the strange tale of him selling his soul to the devil at the site of a hawthorn bush on Miles Cross Hill , known to generations of locals as Bill Baitman’s bush, came about ?
I would love to know more …
As promised these are the final letters which reveal a little more about the poems and the support of Alfred Tennyson.
The Final Letters : 1887
In justice to all parties I think it is right to say that the material gathered by R.R. at the age of ten is erroneous. Edward Lenton was a clerk in our office , and I have frequently heard my mother and father speak of him as a promising poet. Of Bateman they gave a very different account; indeed I personally knew the latter, and no such delusion should exist as that a single creditable line ( if any line at all) in “Harpings of Lena” could be placed to his account.
“Facts are stubborn things” is an old an adage as our Wold hills, and it is as to facts, for poor Lenton’s sake, and for credit of a third person I am about to name, I write.
Adjoining my father’s house lived a another lad, Robert Uvedale West, subsequently known as Dr West, and as vice-president of the Royal Obstetrical Society, London. Now in a rustic building called “The Hermitage”, in the garden adjoining my father’s paddock, West and Lenton used to meet and compose poetry, &c. , admitting Bateman ( who had somehow made the acquaintance of Lenton) into their sanctum.
Lenton was born on October 29, 1812, and died on June 11, 1828. West was born at Louth in July 1810. After Lenton’s death Bateman ( who had doubtless secured his MSS [manuscripts].) persuaded West to assist him in publishing “Harpings of Lena”.
I come now to the question of the real authorship of the work, and I am glad to say Dr West’s sister permits me to append the following extracts from her letters, from which it will be at once evident that the “gems” of the book were from the pens of her brother and Lenton, out of which Bateman subsequently made a profit.
Lenton West and Bateman used to meet in our Hermitage, and there show each other the prose, articles, poems &c. which they at first contrived to get inserted in a magazine, the Olio, RU West signing Roger Walton. I myself remember several of these poems as my brother’s. [A list of poems follows] … In his own copy of [the book] , now in the possession of his son R.U. West wrote the above dates and his own signature in pencil. Perhaps he foresaw they would be attributed or claimed by others. … I remember Lenton well, a little, pale and very shy boy. We all looked on him as promising to be a genius. As for Bateman – do you know the spelling of his name Baitman was adopted because he thought Bateman common , his real name was Bateman – he was incapable of writing any of those poems, or any articles, without corrections, supervision, and assistance of every kind. He was a low, ignorant fellow, and it seems strange to me that he ever was accepted as a coadjutor by the “poets”.
I have read with interest and also great indignation the previous article. I am sure the person who wrote it knew nothing of Alford of the time he writes. … [Further lengthy assertions that her brother wrote all poems not attributed to Lenton] … I do not recognise the description of Alford and its society at all. The Listers, Carnleys &c. and very numerous others made up a society that could not be classed amongst the “poachers and smugglers”. Certainly William Bateman had not access to any of these families. Bateman was an ignorant, immoral, dishonest fellow, a scamp in every sense. For a long time my brother helped him here and there years after the aquanitance was given up, and my brother had returned to settle in Alford. I do believe there was plenty of poaching and smuggling going on in the neighbourhood and in the marshes. I remember many romantic cases of the latter myself. In all little market towns at that period there were plenty of idle and dissolute people. Bateman was one. The last time I saw Bateman shuffling along ( when I was in Alford years ago) my brother , who was with me, said as we were approaching him “I do not even speak to him. It is impossible. He is a worthless vagabond and an imposter” I said, “had he any ability really ?” “Not any pretensions to poetical ability; he could not write a line correctly. He was a parasite who hung on Lenton. He was older than Lenton, who really would have turned out a genuine poet had he lived”. …
Bateman is dead, and with him I would bury my thoughts concerning him. I know however that he never was married, and was the terror of many of the poor folk in the neighbourhood, and when he asked for a meal they dare not refuse him. Lister Wilson Alford
The final words in the matter came from the first responder R.R. believed to be Robert Roberts, stationer and printer of Boston. The contents of this letter suggest that the claim by Miss West (that her brother was actually the poet not Baitman) had, shortly after the publication of the book, caused Baitman further distress in the face of his piers.
I have been considering whether I should make any answer to Mr Wilson’s communication or not, for I think those who can read between the lines will easily see it is the amount of truth in the account of Alford in former days which rankles. Only think ! it is just seven years since the Baitman papers first appeared. What a deal has happened in seven years and yet “society” in Alford has not recovered its equanimity. It is sad; but on looking over the articles, I cannot withdraw anything of importance. I might have put things less offensively; which some may consider a mistake. Mr Wilson’s lady friend confirms part of the account, and says, “…there was plenty of poaching and smuggling going on …” So that portion of the indictment must be considered proved, not withstanding a former correspondent had said “The statement is too remote from the truth to give serious offence”. It is very satisfactory to see the witnesses for the defence demolishing each other in this fashion. As to Baitman having been ” a low ignorant fellow ” a worthless vagabond and an imposter” ” quite incapable of writing any of these poems, or a line correctly” one of the leading men of Alford (J.A.) says ” I remember being present … at the distribution of prizes … the first prize was adjudged to Baitman” . What ! To that “low ignorant worthless fellow” ? The best boy in Alford School “a low, ignorant fellow”?
R.R. does a good job of restating the content of the previous articles to contradict the points in Lister Wilson’s letter, but he saves his wrath for R U West….
Mr Wilson is forced to acknowledge that Baitman did “somehow” get into the society of the two geniuses of the place, West and Lenton. And West was a gentleman, with a “paddock” and a “hermitage” mind, you. To refute the inconsistent and contradictory statements of Baitman’s detractors is so delightfully easy that it is difficult to treat them seriously; but I now come to a graver aspect of the case. A lady rather ruffled in defence of her brother may be excused when not quite logical; but the same plea will not avail for her legal advisor, who might be expected to be a man trained to weigh evidence and to look at all sides of a question. Cannot Mr Wilson see how seriously the statements he now publishes reflect on his friends and on society in Alford ? He represents Mr West as a kind of man-cuckoo. For as a cuckoo lays its eggs in a smaller bird’s nest , so this big “poet”, Mr West, is said to place his poems in the nest of the little birds Lenton and Baitman; and afterwards he does not attempt to throw out the eggs, but worse , he throws out and tramples on Baitman, the layer of most of them. … afterwards when West found the poems “very much admired” he claimed “all those unsigned”. There are three poems in HOL professing to be written from “Alford Workhouse” and not signed Lenton. Now, if this “low ignorant, worthless fellow … could not write a poem, or even a line correctly” how came these poems to be dated from Alford Workhouse ? Is it contended they were also written by West, and that he falsely dated them as a further precaution against the real author being found out ?
Here is a dilemma . Either Mr West wrote what was false … or Baitman did actually write those three poems. And if he did he may well have written most of the others, for they are of the same quality. Another puzzle. It is said “Baitman … persuaded West to assist him in publishig the Harpings of Lena.” In whatever manner they were obtained, Mr West not only asssisted him but if he was the author he must have given the MSS to Baitman. The poems were published as [original poems by Lenton and Baitman] although it is now asserted that none of the poems were by Baitman, but by West, and that they were not “original”, … is there any evidence that Mr West resented this fraudulent contact ? Not a bit of it. On the contrary, two or three years afterwards when Baitman published another volume, “Poetics and Prosaics”, RU West esq , who had then moved to Hogsthorpe, subscribed four copies.
In the preface to this book the writer says:- “When I made my first appearance in the literary World, it was manacled and gyved by difficulties under which many would have sunk, to rise not again. But cheered on by hope, and two kind individuals, I persevered, and found that I did so not in vain. …. Of the present work , it is enough to say , that it has been prepared amid much domestic affliction, with the sick and the dying around me”. And now it asserted that this touching preface was a fraud, that it was penned by an “ignorant fellow”, a “worthless scamp” who had laid claim to poems in the first book which were known to be written by another. If he were an imposter about to deceive the public a second time, what must be thought of RU West ( now brought forward as the real author) who again aided and abetted theis “worthless scamp” and by having his name printed in the list of subscribers sanctioned the statements made in the preface. … Alfred Tennyson, Montgomery, Miss Priscilla Taylor, and many other distinguished people subscribed.
Mr Wilson and his friend must have written hastily and without carefully looking over the previous correspondence. For it is a curious way of showing respectability of Alford”society” by trying to prove that an eminent professional man there, when he was from twenty three to twenty five years of age, not only associated with a fellow he knew to be “a worthless scamp” but also gave manuscript poems to him to be falsely printed in the name of that “scamp”, for the curious reason that their real author “never posed as a poet and did not care to have his name affixed, because he was half afraid they were not good enough to be published”; but when he found they were “praised by the public”, he meanly claimed them, although he still left the lame diseased young pauper to pay for printing one, if not both of the books.
I can speak positively as to the second of them; for poor Baitman has repeatedly , when he secured a subscriber, given me fifteenpence to take to Mr Cussans , of Horncastle, to pay for a copy. Would it not have been more magnanimous for Mr West to have kept the secret, and not claimed authorship at the price of the utter ruin and degradation of the poor fellow, thus made a handle of, and who appears never to have overcome the mortification he felt ? It did not enrich West, but it made Baitman poor indeed. No stricture which has been passed upon former generations of Alford people is half so damaging to their reputation as the character now given to them by some of themselves. To imagine that a man could act as Mr West is said to have acted without meeting with universal reprehension is sufficient to mark the tone of the place. That some of its best society could even imagine an educated man doing such a thing is not complimentary. I am really sorry to be forced by the indiscreet advocacy of Mr West’s friends to show how his conduct in this matter may strike other people. This was a grievous mistake made in the youth of a man who afterwards deservedly bore a high charecter; and probably most readers will think silence had been the best policy.
Having pleaded Baitman’s cause to the best of my ability, I wish to be fair even to those who seem not to have treated him as they should have done. I therefore freely confess I see no reason to doubt that Miss West is right in claiming the half dozen poems which she names as the work of her brother. He either wrote them or so polished and altered them as to be entitled to the joint authorship at least; but to claim all the unsigned poems for her brother is manifestly wrong. Some of them would be no credit to a man in his position, and are only tolerable as the work of a self-taught pauper. Many of them have words and phrases and awkward forms of expression, such as might be expected in the writing of an imperfectly educated man, but which Mr West could not have been guilty of. … the poem ” A Minstrels Lay” …. carries conviction … it is autobiographic and naturally and correctly describes what must have been the state and feelings of Baitman; and I am convinced it was written by no one else. It would have been untrue of Mr RU West. It is very difficult to harbour unkind feelings against a whole community for seven years, especially when some of them are your friends and acquaintances, and I now gladly (and freely) bear testimony to the fact that Alford is a very pleasant, bright, “superior” little town, certainly not behind any of its neighbours. … It is not to be supposed that the upper classes of Alford ever wished to be cruel to Baitman; but he was an anomoly. “Writing fellows” – especially common writing fellows – were not much appreciated in any small agricultural town at that date, as I well know, and as the surreptitious it is now alleged that Mr West got his poems published serves to prove.
Besides, Baitman, although clever, was an impracticable fellow, who persistently sinned against the conventionalities and prejudices of the place, and indulged in much [kicking over the traces] , for which he was made to pay very dearly. But the poor, unhappy, much-afflicted man is in his grave; there, for charity’s sake, let him rest. RR Boston Lincolnshire