THEY LIVED IN LEEDS
Eliza Craven Green (1803-1866)
Poet, writer, actress
With one famous exception her work is now forgotten, but in her day Eliza Craven Green, born and resident in Leeds most of her life, was a prolific and well-loved writer, her poems and stories published regularly in journals and newspapers. Hers was a life of light and shadow: success and tragedy, poverty and menial work, and finally quiet seclusion. Her poems reflected her experience: sometimes topical but mainly focussed on the trials, griefs, joys and hopes of every day life. They had a wide appeal, particularly for women across all walks of life.
She was born Elizabeth Craven in 1803, the first child of Elizabeth and John Craven. He was a Leeds auctioneer and valuer, who set up an ambitious new business in Briggate, while his well-educated wife planned to start a school. But this comfortable start to Eliza’s life ended in trauma. By 1809 her father was in Leeds Workhouse, the fate of debtors who deserted their families. He absconded and vanished, under threat of imprisonment. Did he escape to the haven of the Isle of Man, safely outside English jurisdiction? Did his family follow? No one knows, but the story goes that Eliza spent part of her youth there, and by 1823 she and her sister Ann were popular young actresses at the theatre in Douglas. Eliza was just 20, Ann 16.
A year later, Eliza moved as an actress to Manchester, but she retained a strong emotional attachment to her ‘fairy island’. In 1825 she published in Douglas ‘A Legend of Mona’, a romantic tale in verse – poetry had been a childhood love. So her literary career began, and she was drawn into a circle of Manchester poets and writers who were to remain her friends. But everything changed in 1828 when she married James Green, a fellow actor from London, and they moved back to Leeds.
James Green continued touring as a comic actor but between engagements worked as an innkeeper. Life must have been hard, particularly as over the next years Eliza bore six children. Three died in infancy. In her later writing she often returned to the poignant theme of the loss of a child, a common experience at that time when so many babies died and cholera and other diseases were rife. The family lived in one of the cramped inn yards off Kirkgate, where conditions were appalling, dark and fetid, with open drains and only a shared pump for water.
Worse followed. By the 1850s, James Green had disappeared to a new life in London. He changed his name and acquired another ‘wife’. He took with him their young son Henry (later to become a top theatrical designer) and abandoned Eliza and their two daughters in Leeds. They had to work as milliners and dressmakers to make ends meet, but Eliza could make extra money from her poetry and short stories, which found an appreciative audience in national journals like the women’s fashion magazine ‘Le Follet’. In Leeds the ‘Intelligencer’ newspaper (forerunner of the Yorkshire Post) also published her poems regularly – their style and subjects suited the editor, Christopher Kemplay, who wanted his paper to reflect cultured family values. He may have assisted her move around 1857 to a more comfortable house in St John’s Place, near his own home.
Eliza’s poems often covered people or subjects in the news – the Queen, Florence Nightingale, the Crimean War – but her inspiration mainly came, as she said, from ‘simple thoughts rising spontaneously from solitary walks or by the household hearth…amid humble home duties, delights and sorrows.’ Poems on ‘Children Sleeping’, ‘The China Tea-cup’, ‘Sunset’, ‘Flowers’ set the tone. To the modern reader her poems may seem sentimental and florid, but they struck a chord of comfort, hope, and understanding. Her poem on a hawthorn branch as a symbol of hope for girls working in a dreary workroom ‘through the night of toil’ inspired several factory girls to write to thank her. Her work won widespread recognition and royal approval – a bursary from the Queen.
In 1858 she published a collection of poems: ‘Sea Weeds and Heath Flowers or Memories of Mona’, including many of her published poems and her ‘golden memories’ of the Isle of Man, most potently the nostalgic ballad ‘Ellan Vannin’. Set to music, it was to become and remains an emotive anthem for the island. (See www.manxliterature.com.)
She died in 1866 at 80 Meanwood Street, and was buried at Woodhouse. There were many appreciations of her graceful style and ‘true and noble sentiments’. In her own words –
‘So Death walks with me, an Angel Friend
The Guide to the Land where all Sorrows end’.
[With thanks to Spencer Needs, Eliza’s great great grandson, who is researching her life and work.]