Robert Atherton (1861-1930) was referred to as the ploughboy poet, the wandering poet, and appeared under a number of pseudonyms, such as Rupert Upperton and Robin O’Bobs, the latter name conjuring up images of an English country poet who writes about the mysteries of nature and the lost rural past of a forgotten era. Indeed, many of his poems certainly reflect these themes, and his writing style mirrors many of the now forgotten poets of that period, poets such as Richard Church.
Atherton was born in Kirkby, Lancashire, when Kirkby was a farming village. The Kirkby of today is totally different to the Kirkby of Atherton’s time; today the area is a large housing estate to the north east of Liverpool. Atherton spent his early years as a ploughboy on a farm before becoming Rector of the parish church of Bolnhurst, a beautiful village in Bedfordshire, a post he kept for fifteen years. In 1904 he left the Church and became a wandering poet, having his verse published in various collections, such as Village Life and Feeling: Songs and Poems, which was published in 1901 as Rupert Upperton, Poems of Friendship and Sympathy, published in 1924, When the Robin Sings and other Verses, published in 1927 as Robin O’Bobs, and his self-printed life story From Plough to Parsonage.
His work received some excellent reviews and brought comparisons with the great Robert Burns; the Birmingham Post said how ‘Mr Upperton is a ploughboy as was Robert Burns. He is young and appears to be very much in earnest. He has the poetic heart and, if he can afford to labour and wait, may yet acquire fame. We shall keep an eye on ploughboy Upperton.’ His poetry told of a way of life that has now disappeared; the life of the English country village, with dashes of humour and eccentricity. One of his poems Titanic can be heard here on soundcloud – along with some reminiscences of the poet courtesy of the Knowsley Archives. Robert lived out his remaining years back at Kirkby, residing at Pear Tree Farm, where he died in 1930. He is buried at St Chad’s Church in Kirkby, and his haunting, rustic poems of a now forgotten way of life have taken on more poignancy as Kirkby is now effectively a busy built-up suburb of Liverpool. There may be reasons why one is forgotten, but the words left behind may one day be appreciated.