Friday, 21 August 2015

Tauranga Streets: “The Song of the Dirt”

The Mission Station c 1900s-1910s
Looking towards the Norfolk pines at The Elms mission station, Tauranga from the beginning of Sulphur Point.
Marsh Street was formed at the foot of the higher land.
Image courtesy of Tauranga City Library, Ref. #99-727
“The Song of the Shirt”, by Thomas Hood, was first published in Punch, or the London Charivari in December 1843. It began:
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat, in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread –
Stitch! stitch! stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
She sang the “Song of the Shirt”.
Hood’s 89-line diatribe against the appalling conditions in which piece-working seamstresses had to labour was one of the best-known poems of the Victorian era and for some decades after. Poems which everyone knows, which have a recognisable metre and chorus and an earnest tone, irresistibly invite parody. The “Song of the Dirt” was published in the Bay of Plenty Times of 18 July 1917:
With fingers clutching the air,
With steps unsteady and slow,
The ladies of Marsh Street day by day
Cautiously come and go.
Splash! Splash! Splash!
Wet feet ‘neath a muddy skirt,
And still with a voice of dolorous pitch
They sing the song of the dirt!

The page of cuttings which includes the parody was sent to the Editor of the Bay of Plenty Times at an unknown date, and passed on to the archives at Tauranga Library. The sender was a Mrs G. Medland, of Mount Albert, Auckland. She writes that the poem was written by the author of Great Barrier Calls. Coyly, she doesn’t name the author, who was in fact herself. Grace Miriam Medland (1887-1983) was born on Great Barrier to a pioneering family, and spent most of her life in different parts of Auckland. But she was also the Captain G. Medland of the Salvation Army who lived in Tauranga for two years during World War I. She liked writing verse: Great Barrier Calls is full of rhymes, and she was published in the Salvation Army’s War Cry under the pen-name of “Barrier Lassie”.

In the archives’ letter to the editor she claims that the poem had such an effect on the Borough Council that the drainage of Marsh Street was started on at once – an example of the pen being mightier than the sword?

Medland, Grace (1970) Great Barrier Calls, Auckland: Wilson and Horton.

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