Janet Thomson (nee Thomson) was the daughter of Mary Brownlee and James Thomson, a shoemaker. She was born in 1795 in the isolated moorland farm steading, Carshill, Shotts, Lanarkshire. The family moved to Hamilton, then to the rural clachan of Langloan, on the Glasgow-Edinburgh road. In her lifetime Langloan was subsumed into the industrial conglomeration which became Coatbridge, nine miles east of Glasgow.
Janet’s parents worked on Drumpellier Estate’s home farm before her father returned to shoemaking. Janet did not attend school: from the age of seven she kept house and worked long hours at the exacting skilled work of tambour frame embroidery, until mechanisation of weaving had a disastrous impact nationally. Her mother and grandmothers provided 'home schooling', allowing Janet’s self-development through wide reading. The Bible, Shakespeare, Ramsay, Milton and the great poets were her texts, in addition to whatever she could borrow from local libraries and family friends. Janet was proud of the family link to Covenanter John Whitelaw of Stand (The Monkland Martyr), executed for his beliefs in Edinburgh in 1683. He was Janet’s 5 x great grandfather. At thirteen, Janet married her father’s young apprentice, John Hamilton, who proved a supportive spouse. Of eight singleton pregnancies, five boys and two girls lived; only William Hamilton, (1816-1890) survived Janet’s two all-male twin pregnancies, in 1816 and 1822.
Janet promoted the importance of the maternal role for the good of society. She rallied working class mothers’ physical, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional influence, especially in education. She lobbied for equal status for women in working class men’s education reform movements. Her personal ‘...reading hours were taken from… sleep…… the book in one hand and nursing an infant on her lap with the other..’; ‘pieces were mostly all composed amid the bustle and noise of a family being conducted in a small house’. Not until Janet was in her fifties did she teach herself an idiosyncratic script which could be transcribed into orthodox characters. Before that she memorised her compositions and family members wrote them down. From about the age of sixty her sight failed and she was blind for the last five years of her life.
Her essays and poetry were published to widespread recognition and she became a local celebrity. After she died in 1873, funds were raised by public subscription to build a memorial fountain to her. It still stands in Coatbridge, where a modern community hall is also named in her honour.
An example of a working-class unschooled self-educated woman who successfully combined marriage, family and social activism in unpromising circumstances. Despite poverty and poor health she became a published poet and essayist. Nowadays She is studied as an outstanding Scottish Victorian working-class woman writer.
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