Regular readers of my blog will know of my interest in the local history of Berkshire’s county town of Reading. I could not have been more thrilled, therefore, when I went through my University’s archive catalogue and found a record for a poem entitled ‘Floreat Radingia (The Biscuit City)’ – a promise of Latin AND Reading AND biscuits at the same time. Naturally, I requested the item immediately, and Reading’s wonderful Special Collections staff retrieved it for me within hours.
The piece in the University’s archive (class mark HP 260; accession date 3.63) is a photocopy of a published poem, written by one W. J. Barker of 39 Carnarvon Road, Reading, a factory operative, that was published on occasion of May 1st (i. e. Labour Day!), 1883, by W. Millard Steam Printer, Reading. (No further details are available to me.)
The only actual Latin element of this poem is its title, which translates as ‘May Reading Flourish’ – but the poem did (and does) not disappoint. It is just too good not to share.
(The Biscuit City.)
“He, who by his Talents and Perseverance, provides employment for his brother man, is a benefactor to his race.”
Of War and Carnage Poets often sing,
But Peace hath victories greater far;
Let Commerce her broad pinions wing,
My tribute is to Labour, not to War.
On the banks of Kennet’s river,
In Reading’s famous town,
Stands a massive pile of buildings,
Of fame and wide renown.
Should a stranger ask the business
Of the place, what may it be?
Say, ‘tis the Biscuit City,
Of the famous H. and P.
‘Tis Spring-time, trees are budding,
And the birds are singing sweet;
And the stillness of the morning
Is woke by tramp of feet.
For the Factory bell is ringing,
Sharp and clear on the morning air;
As the workman to his labour
Hurries on, be it foul or fair.
For the bread-winner’s life is happy,
If health and strength be given;
And his song is light, and cheerful
As the lark’s, as it soars to Heaven.
For on him his wife and children
Depend for their daily fare;
A neat little home, and a cheerful wife,
Relieve from a load of care.
For home is the workman’s haven,
From the storms and shallows of life;
If the wife and husband together,
Steer clear of passion and strife.
If he keeps a tight grip of the helm,
And she looks to the stores below;
The waves shall their bark not o’erwhelm,
Their lives then serenely shall flow.
Now through the gates and in the ranks,
The toilers hurry on;
And the Timester quickly ticks them off,
And quickly are they gone.
Each to his separate duty now,
Takes his accustomed way;
By power of steam the wheels revolve,
Thus ope’s the labouring day.
At first, the various condiments
Are briskly worked about:
Which, then, beneath the rollers
Is quickly flattened out.
Like printing presses, the machines
Act on the supple dough;
The cylinders come down a thud,
Now, see, the biscuits grow.
Sharp to the ovens they are borne,
Then quickly travel through;
Cocoa Nut, Lemon Drops, and Lorne,
Palermo, Neapolitan and Bijou.
Rich Travellers, Garibaldi, and Argyle,
Come forth ‘midst the Festal throng;
Alexandra, Sultana, and the Little Folk,
To our wondrous list belong.
The Sorting Room we enter now,
Where, at the tables stand
The Sorter, who with greatest care,
Quick eye, and ready hand,
Manipulates so carefully,
The damaged goods to find;
While visions strange pass fitfully,
Like shadows o’er his mind.
The Sorter’s duty being done,
The goods are sent away
By “Jacob’s Ladder,” to the stores;
Though short their time to stay.
For Home, Export, and Continental,
The Packers ready wait;
The Orders to complete with speed,
According to their date.
France, Italy, America,
India, China, and Japan;
Wherever Commerce wins a field,
In the busy haunts of man.
The Abbey now in ruins it doth lie,
The Biscuit City stands in all its prime;
Commerce with winged speed doth fly,
And travellers come from every clime.
I’m overwhelmed, said Beaconsfield, and died,
And from the cares of state he passed away;
Light, more Light, the noble Goethe cried;
O brother worker, help to clear the way.
A remarkable celebration of industrial work in late 19th century Reading, the poem celebrates the working conditions and the production at Huntley & Palmers, then obviously still based in Reading.
In a tradition dating back to the ancient world (see, for example, the second item that I discussed in my post ‘And the owl doesn’t care‘), the poem opens with an obvious allusion to the first line of Vergil’s Aeneid, ‘Of arms and the man I sing’, arma virumque cano – a poem, which, very much as the author here suggests, relates war and carnage.
Another particularly interesting aspect (to me anyway) is the reference to Reading Abbey, suggesting that the biscuit factory essentially – and in a positive way – provides a continuation of the abbey’s role in attracting people to this town. This is the exact opposite way in which another, rather earlier local author had seen the role of work and hard toil at Reading when it came to the workhouse known as the Oracle (as I have explained here).
Attached to the photocopy of this poem in the University’s Special Collections, there are a couple of pages written on a typewriter, detailling what would appear to be the situation at Huntley & Palmers during or just after the war. It concludes with another little poem (of unknown authorship):
I remember, I remember
The awful fear that lingers
That I have been a cannibal
Through eating butter fingers.
And stolen feasts of long ago
Which seemed so fine and dandy,
When we got tight on brandy snaps
That hadn’t any brandy.
The cracker in cream crackers made
Me half afraid to risk it,
We thatched cheese straws and water sprang
From every water biscuit.
I remember, I remember
The doughnut’s nutless joys –
Perhaps they’re called just doughs right now
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What great poems. The last stanza of the first takes a rather abrupt turn, doesn’t it? Before that I wonder whether there’s an Horatian allusion (Odes 3.29) at stanzas 8-9.
The second poem is neatly turned piece, and there’s a possible connection to the first in that both have parodic first lines of a well known poem. ‘I remember, I remember’ was by Thomas Hood, and I wonder whether it was the sort of school poem that stuck in the mind, because Thomas Hardy also used its title (and rather typically subverted its themes) for one of his own.
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Thank you so much for your observations – yes, these pieces are fantastic, aren’t they? I didn’t really follow up on learned allusions – but you must be right, suggesting that we’re really dealing with a couple of precious little compositions here. Do you think they are by the same author?
They could be by the same person, but on the whole I doubt it. The second poem seems to me a more sprightly piece of work, different in its style and tone. And the reference to doughboys dates it to after America’s entry into WWI, by which time W.J. Barker was (accordingly to the census) well into his 80s.
Fascinating. I no longer have access to biscuits – cookies over here but I do remember some tea biscuits by Huntley and Palmer that were rather good.
I’d offer to send you some, but they’ll probably be stale by the time they arrive….?
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Thank you, Peter! We do get imported biscuits here but I don’t eat any of them as I am always trying to eat well. 🙂
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