Biography

Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

In the 1760s and 1770s the Durham theatre company contained three particularly remarkable creative individuals: the composer William Shield; the Irish pastoral poet and actor, John Cunningham; and the future playwright and novelist Thomas Holcroft. These performers were all friends of Joseph Ritson, and provided him with his first exposure to theatre in his hometown of Stockton-upon-Tees. Ritson later became an antiquary with a particular interest in poetry, folksong and northern history. He was one of the first collectors of local verse and Robert Burns recorded in a letter that he always carried with him the collection of ballads edited by Ritson to read while on his way to work at the plough.

Ritson was particularly interested in the expression of what he termed the “common people” and was well-aware that he was the first person to have carried out this kind of research. In June 1790 he wrote to his friend, the Irish antiquarian Joseph Cooper Walker, that his collection of Scottish songs promised “to be infinitely beyond any thing upon the same plan that has yet appeared in this country”. Ritson also informed Walker that he had recently made a trip to Dublin to collect songs which were “the native production of the country”and that he considered “the slang songs” which he had picked up in Dublin as “master-pieces in their way.”

The Northumberland Garland published in 1793 contained innovatory examples of early oral history with the inclusion of three songs by working people: ‘The Collier’s Rant’ sung by miners and the keelmen’s ‘Weel May the Keel Row’ and ‘Bonny Keel Laddie’. Such ethnographic research shows a rare capacity to consider cultural development as emerging from within local communities themselves and the desire to seek it out. This interest was entirely in keeping with his political outlook. In a November 1791 letter to his friend Robert Harrison, the master of Trinity House School, Newcastle, Ritson described a recent visit to France with William Shield and his main observations are about the capacity of French working people to find great interest in culture and history. He reported that “even the common people (such, i mean, as cannot be expected from their poverty to have had a favorable education, for there is now no other distinction of rank,) are better acquainted with their ancient history than the English nobility are with ours.

Ritson was also struck by working people seriously engaging themselves in political matters, writing: “I have seen a fishwoman reading the journal of the National assembly to her neighbour who appeared to listen with all the avidity of Shakspeares blacksmith.” A long interest in the Robin Hood legend eventually led to his definitive volume published in 1795 which according to J. C. Holt’s Robin Hood (1989) was “perhaps his greatest single achievement.” His emphasis on the outlaw as a hero of the common people helped to solidify Robin Hood as a champion of the poor. As Holt notes, Ritson “included the idea, uncommon until then, that Robin Hood robbed the rich and gave to the poor rather than simply robbing the Bishops and the Sheriff of Nottingham.

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