On his birthday
Brain whizzing like a scopperil,
Tat’s memory retraces each departed son.
Where they have gone,
their forms and faces.
Lancashire lads, their bodies undone.
Creating the Centena
Known as Old Tat or the Sage of Roggerham, Tattersall Wilkinson was born on 11 October 1825 and died on 12 December 1921. He lived near the village of Worsthorne on the outskirts of Burnley in Lancashire. He was aged eighty nine at the outbreak of the First World War and ninety three when it ended. During his lifetime he saw Halley’s Comet twice. Old Tat was something of a local celebrity, a self-taught antiquarian and astronomer, as well as a poet and popular itinerant lecturer in the towns along the East Lancashire/West Yorkshire border. Each year local newspapers would publish a tribute to him, usually homilies and poems written by his friends, as well as Old Tat’s opinions on the state of the Great War as told to newspaper reporters.
For my contribution to 26 Armistice, I was interested in the perspective of an elderly person looking on events at a distance from his home in the north of England. Old Tat was obviously too old to go to war but he would nonetheless have seen many young men from his neighbourhood depart for France never to return. I knew there was at least one portrait of Tattersall Wilkinson in Towneley Hall in Burnley. Fortunately for me, Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museums is a First World War Centenary Partner in the initiative run by Imperial War Museums. I was born and lived as a child in Burnley and was keen to reconnect with my hometown. Senior Curator Mike Townend sent me images of portraits of this notable figure held by the museum. The painting in oils that I’ve chosen to use depicts Tattersall Wilkinson wearing his trademark red fez, with his head and shoulders shown against the backdrop of local woodland. I had already purchased a facsimile copy of Tattersall Wilkinson’s book Memories of Hurstwood, published in 1889, and Mike let me borrow a pamphlet about him written by local historian Ken Spencer, published by the Briercliffe Society in 1987.
For all his erudition, Old Tat was not beyond embellishing facts, for example his questionable discovery of ancient burial urns on the moors above Todmorden; his assertion Sir Edmund Spencer wrote swathes of The Faerie Queene while staying at his ancestral home near Burnley; and that the Battle of Brunanburh, a bygone skirmish, was fought alongside the River Brun, the natural waterway that gives Burnley its name. The newspaper articles about Old Tat include photographs of him looking through his telescope or leaning on his donkey, probably his only means of transport. My centena draws on information from archive copies of newspapers to help illuminate his character. Despite his questionable discoveries, Tattersall Wilkinson pointed out that anyone predicting the eventual carnage and grim unfolding of events at the start of the war, would have been dismissed as a romancer or fantasist. I’m sure he would have preferred for that early optimism to have prevailed, instead of having to read about the deaths and injuries befalling his kinsmen.
Note to the first line of my centena
Theobald Bethman-Hollweg was Chancellor of the German Empire until 1917. Ernst Haeckel was a German biologist who died in 1919. There is a caricature of Old Tat declining the congratulations of these two prominent Germans on his birthday in 1914, despite Wilkinson being an admirer of Haeckel’s.