Discovering William Edward Armytage Axon (1846-1913), ‘One of the Busiest Men in Manchester’ (Samuel Laycock, Dialect Poet)

By Lucy Evans

I first came across William Axon, or WEAA as the family called him, when I was researching Andrea Crestadoro, third Chief Librarian of Manchester. WEAA, his assistant and friend, wrote the Oxford DNB entry and the Manchester Guardian obituary for Crestadoro. Without this unique information, I could not have started my research.

William Axon

Later on, I was intrigued to find that WEAA was the author of one of my favourite poems, The Ancoats Skylark, as well as being the historian of the huge Annals of Manchester. I decided to find out more.

From the 1860s onwards, WEAA kept letters from his correspondents, and this archive of over seven thousand letters, now belongs to the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, Special Collections. There are additional letters and entries relating to WEAA in their Guardian Archives. WEAA was a Manchester Guardian journalist for around thirty years, retiring in 1905.

There is more WEAA material at the Manchester Central Library, donated variously by WEAA, his son Ernest, his grandson Geoffrey and his devoted friend Mr Green. All four were, at different times, librarians there.

With all this to look at, it was inevitable that my retirement project would be a biography of WEAA. Next, I had the excitement of tracing family descendants. They transformed the project with invaluable photographs, documents, letters, and stories.

My other mission was an attempt to identify everything he published. WEAA was an obsessive writer; his friends joked that no one would ever be able to list all his works. So far, I have tracked down well over a thousand published books, pamphlets, articles, obituaries, poems, translations, stories and dialect pieces. The range of subjects is breath-taking, and he had a real talent in compressing and clarifying complex topics.

This was crucial to him as his guiding principle was that knowledge was only of value when it was communicated and used for the public good. As librarian, journalist, author and lecturer, he delighted in sharing his stupendous learning with others. He became a star of Notes and Queries, the Victorian bibliophile’s internet. Used to scrimping himself, he produced short and affordable works for those who had little time or money.

WEAA came from a difficult background. An illegitimate baby, he was rescued from neglect by the Axon family, growing up with them in Hulme. Self-educated, frail in body, he earned his living through assorted careers as librarian, commercial secretary, journalist, editor and author. After retirement, he and his second wife supplemented their income by running a vegetarian guest house at Southport. Throughout, he worked ceaselessly as an unpaid social reformer, and still made time for his beloved antiquarian pursuits and his poetry. His friends were astonished at his non-stop activity and feared for his health.

He belonged to an incredible number of societies, not only ones local to Manchester and region but national ones like the Royal Society of Literature, and the Library Association. A passionate humanist, he was a significant figure in the Vegetarian Society, temperance, and equality movements. He was so highly regarded by the African American activists that he received an honorary degree from their Wilberforce University.

The societies of William Axon

Axon was a Manchester Man, proud of the city’s history and modernity. As an internationalist, he valued its diversity. Encountering Arabian, Chinese, and European collections as a young library assistant he responded by learning all the languages he could, eventually around twenty, and entered new worlds of scholarship and cultural understanding.

In writing WEAA’s biography, I have tried to reflect him not only as the well-known figure of his day, but also as a gentle and affectionate family man, and as an ever-cheerful believer in the worth of humanity. It seems incredible that one man encompassed so much.

Axon with his daughter Dorothy at the presentation of degree ceremony, 27 October 1913

[1] The Samuel Laycock quote was found in the Axon Papers, Letter 3211, UML Special Collections

5 thoughts on “Discovering William Edward Armytage Axon (1846-1913), ‘One of the Busiest Men in Manchester’ (Samuel Laycock, Dialect Poet)

  1. Pingback: Episode 6 – William Axon, “A Manchester Man”: Conversation with Lucy Evans | MANCHESTER CENTRE FOR PUBLIC HISTORY & HERITAGE

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