While still an apprentice he began to write poetry seriously and had some of them printed in various magazines including “Oldbury Lyrist,” “Young Folks,” “Rambler,” “Echoes from the Lyre,” and “Dick Snowdrop’s Journal.” His brother William latter recalled a tale about this journal, he said: “My brother had hardly passed out of his teens, but even at that early age he had written some fifty or sixty [poems] for the Journal, and was easily, with the exception of “Dick Snowdrop” himself, its most prolific contributor. One morning he received a letter from “Dick” inviting him for supper at the editor’s domicile, as slight acknowledgement of his services, and needless to say, this bit of recognition on the part of his editor excited my brother considerably. On the appointed evening he set forth in high spirits, with visions of an epicurean banquet floating before his eyes. But alas, he was quickly to be disillusioned, for the feast he had so eagerly looked forward to eventually materialized into a plate of potato pie, and nothing more.”
In an article for Blackburn Times in 1978, J.S. Miller wrote about John Thomas, he said: “He widened his experience by joining the local Artillery Volunteers, being promoted Sergeant when he was only 19—the youngest in the Corps. While engaged in manoeuvres at Southport, he gashed his thumb on a jagged part of the gun mechanism, and reported to the duty surgeon in order to have his wound attended. When the officer asked what on earth he had been doing, the poet promptly retorted, ‘Shedding my blood for my country, Sir.’” He was to remain in the Volunteers for seven years.
The first poem he had printed in a newspaper appeared in the Blackburn Times of October 14th 1876, when he was twenty. The poem was called “Hope” and is written in plain verse. He also began to contribute poems to many other newspapers, including the “Blackburn Standard,” “Preston Chronicle,” “Blackpool Gazette,” “The Oldham Chronicle,” “The Accrington Times,” and “The Blackburn Weekly Telegraph.” His second poem in the Blackburn Times was printed on November 17th 1877 and was called “Art and Song” which Edwin Waugh, perhaps the greatest Lancashire poet of the time, had a great deal of admiration for and said that he hoped the author would long be spared to produce poetic work of such quality. John had no poems printed in the Blackburn Times in 1878, however one appeared in the Preston Chronicle of August 1879 called “Song of the War King.” All these were written in plain verse, he had not yet got into the dialect, at least not into getting it printed.
On Thursday May 1st 1879 at 5.30 in the morning, Montague-street Congregational Church held a “May Morning Breakfast” which attracted over 400 diners at a shilling a head. After the meal a public meeting was held when another 400 people came to watch the proceedings. They were entertained with music, recitations and speeches. Prizes were offered for the best two poems on the subject of “May Time,” John won the first prize which was Tennyson's complete works in eleven volumes, he was twenty three years old at the time.
As a poet John used many nom-de-plumes “Trouncer,” “Borona,” “Jounty Baronious,” “John Brannot,” “Bob o’ Clinkems,” “Jacobite,” “Tummy Tulip,” “Byronic-B,” “J.T.B.” “John T. Baron,” “Jo Hotbrann,” “Baron.” Another name he used was “Nora B,” There were not many local female poets at this time and it was thought that “Nora B” was one of them. Perhaps he wanted to write some sentimental poems, which he felt he could not do using the name of a man. Eventually it was realised that “Nora B” was simply Baron backwards! His most famous non-de-plume by far was “Jack o’Ann’s—this way of writing a name continued an old Lancashire custom, it means Jack of Ann’s or Jack son of Ann—which he wrote most of his dialect work under. George Hull tells an amusing story in his book “The Poets and Poetry of Blackburn” (written in 1902) he says: “For a long time after Mr. Baron adopted the nom-de-plume of “Jack o’Ann’s,” he kept his identity secret… While on his way to work, Mr, Baron met, in Salford an old shop mate who had often read and admired the poems, signed “John T. Baron” or “J.T.B.”… This admirer asked his poet friend if he could tell him “who that `Jack o’ Ann’s` was?” Our poet answered evasively, that he was not at liberty to divulge printing-office secrets; and this answer proved affective. When, however they had parted at the bottom of Eanam brow the inquirer suddenly stopped and called out to the poet, some forty yards away—
“Well; what’s up?”
“Tha’s written some fairish bits i’ th’ pappers neaw an’ ageon; but tha’rt a foo compared to yon `Jack o’ Ann’s.`”
In May 1877 John married Sarah Watson with whom he had seven children, four boys and three girls, sadly two of the boys died in infancy. He wrote a poem to the memory of one of his dead sons (see below.) In 1885 he left Dickinson’s foundry and moved to Henry Livesey’s Greenbank works, where he was to remain for the rest of his working life. About a year after this change, on October 30th 1886 he had his first dialect poem printed in the Blackburn Times under his pen name “Jack o’Ann’s.” He had expected to see it in the usual poets corner of the newspaper, but to his surprise the Times printed it in a place of its own and called it “Rhymes in the Dialect.” The poem was called “A Comfortable Smook.” The following week—November 6th 1886—a short poem called “Audley” by a poet with the initials “W.P” appeared in the “Rhymes in the Dialect” column, with “Jack o’Ann’s dialect poem “To the River Blakewater” appearing in the usual poets corner.
The next dialect poem John had printed in “Rhymes in the Dialect” was a very touching poem called “Johnny’s Clogs.” This poem was about the loss of one of his children. I have copied it in full:
Howd on, theer! Dunnot use ‘em rough but put ‘em gently deawn;
They’re nobbut hawf-worn clogs to yo, wi’ tops o’ musty breawn;
To me, they’re sacred links ‘at bind my thowts to one i’ th’ mowd;
Eawr Johnny wore those clogs afooar Deeath med him stiff an’ cowed;
They’re but a pair o’ little clogs, wi’ irons rusty red,
Yet thowts they wakken i’ my heart, ov a life-star ‘at’s fled.
For th’ gloom o’ grief seems darker neaw, an’ Life’s nowt near as sweet
As when he used to welcome me wi’ hooam smiles every neet.
Tho’ th’ sod’s bin o’er him money a while, to life he’s gi’en a grace;
Oft reawnd my cot aw wond’ring stare—there’s summat eawt o’ place.
Thad lad wur th’ best mate ‘at aw hed i’ sunshine or i’ storm.
Wur aw a King, my creawn aw’d give, to clip th’ familiar form.
No other eye could shine like his; his speech, so soft an’ mild,
Fell o’ my ears like music-strains,—he wur my darling child.
No hand seemed hawf so nice to grip, nor greetin’ e’er so kind
As his; an’ neaw aw seem to hear his voice I’ every wind.
Last neet, aw see a little star, ‘at fairly pleased my eye,
It seemed o ov a flutter theer, heigh up i’ th’ dusky sky.
An’ then a thowt flashed thro’ my mind ‘at med my eyeseet dim.
He wur My child! Aw stood on th’ earth an’ looked tort Heaven’ on him.
Con he be waitin’ for me theer, hawf-way fro’ th’ gowden Throne?
Wur them his wings ‘at fluttered breet heigh i’ thoose realms unknown?
His bonny face seems allus near, an’ th’ love for him shall be
Held sacred i’ this heart o’ mine reight to Eternity.
For the next thirty-three years he was the sole contributor to “Rhymes in the Dialect” and not once did he miss handing in a dialect poem for the column. George Hull says that after his first poem was printed in “Rhymes” he never wrote anything for another newspaper.
It should be remembered that while he wrote his weekly contribution to the Times he was working full time at Livesey’s Greenbank Foundry, he was also was an official for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. To their credit Henry Livesey’s gave him time off to fullfil his writing obligation to the Blackburn Times when he become well known as a poet.
In 1889 on Edwin Waugh’s 71st birthday, John wrote a poem which he dedicated to the writer, it was called “To Edwin Waugh (on his 71st birthday”) which had the prefix “Tha good owd King o’ Trumps—God bless thi silver yure!” At this time Waugh was living in Brighton and so John sent him a copy of the poem together with a letter. Waugh wrote back: “It’s a cheering thing at my time of life to feel that I have the friendship and good wishes of so many of the people of my native county.”
According to George Hull John Thomas wrote “for amusement rather than the instruction of the reader”, he seemed to enjoyed writing poems describing events, such as New Years, Valentines day, Pancake Tuesday, Easter, and Christmas, although these were annual events the poems he wrote about them when their times came around were never the same. He also wrote about the annual holidays, about going on and coming back from.
By 1906 John had been writing for “Rhymes in the Dialect,” for 20 years and on the 13th of January of that year, he had his one thousandth poem printed in that column, The poem was called “’Lectioneerin” it told of the troubles a man went through on the days leading up to an election, how he was pesterd by his friends, neighbours and politicians trying to win him over to their way of thinking. In the same Issue George Hull wrote a poem and called it “A Tribute To Jack o’Ann’s”
An article printed in the Blackburn Times for the occasion said: “it would be absurd to claim that every single rhyme…would satisfy a highly critical taste, but when we recall the fact that the “Rhymes” which are from half to three-quarters of a column long, have never once failed to appear at the appointed time…we are filled with amazement.” The article goes on to tell how John had over the years been in correspondence with such well known authors and poets as Harrison Ainsworth, Samuel Carter Hall, Ruskin, and R.D. Blackmore who all applauded his dialect and plain verse poetry. It also quotes John as saying: “I have endeavoured at all times to give my readers something fresh and tried to show the people just as they are or were. My great aim has been to be a help and consolation to my fellow workers. My greatest difficulty is to find a suitable subject, that found, the rest is fairly easy.”
John carried on writing poems for the Blackburn Times until June 1919 when, at 63 years old, he suffered a serious illness, which confined him to his bed. The illness prevented him contributing his poetry the Blackburn Times and the Editor reprinted some of his older work beginning with “A Comfortable Smook.” William, his brother, said that during this illness when he found he was unable to contribute to the Blackburn Times, he cried like a baby. By October however John was on the mend and on the 16th of that month he resumed his “Rhymes in the Dialect” with a poem called “A Day at Blackpool.” Once again John was writing a poem a week for his “Rhymes in the Dialect” and he continued for a further two years until 1921. On the 7th of June 1921 his brother William received a letter at his home in Rochdale from John. William said: “The feeble and uneven scrawl off the envelope—so unlike his usual flowing hand-writing—filled me with fears and misgivings, and these were only too speedily realised as I opened the letter and hastily scanned its contents.” It told William that his brother was seriously ill and he wanted him to go immediately to his home. When William arrived there he was shocked at the great change in his brother. The once strong and healthy man had wasted to a shadow. He was however still cheerful and they talked of the old days, of authors and poets. Old friends of the poet were constantly visiting the house. One fellow poet who visited the house was John “Jack” Rawcliffe who was about to sail the following day for a new life in America. During their conversation the name of William Billington came up and some comment was made about the poets work. At that Jack Rawcliffe jumped up and said: “Neaw aw’m nooan avin’ a word ageon Billington’s poetry, becose moast on it’s gradley good stuff, but no poet should write on subjects as he knows nowt abeawt, an’ that’s what he’s done. For instance, just tek his poem, “Look under t’ leeoves iv yo want ony nuts.” Why its ridiculous, to say t’ leeast on’t. Nuts ripen i’ t’ sun, as every foo’ knows, and yo’ll hev to look aboon t’ leeaves for em not under, iv yo want to find ony. But ther’s one thing certain, if Billington hed bin forced to gooa gatherin’ nuts to fill place o’ butter cakes, like eawr Dick an’ me hed to do mony a time as lads, he’d hev known better than to mek sich a silly blunder.”
John Rawcliffe poet and friend of John Thomas Baron