Ellen Johnston: the “Factory Girl” (1835-c.1874)

Ellen Johnston was born in 1835, and died around 1874.  Her writing and persona embodied the notion of “the factory girl” of Nineteenth Century Scotland.  Like with her literary works, there are many open ended questions and much speculation surrounding her life.  For this reason, the literary biography of her life (most of which is gathered from her own journals) leaves more information to be desired, but such information does not exist.

Ellen Johnston was born at Muir Wynd, Hamilton, Lanarkshire in 1835.  She was the only child to her father, James Johnston, and her mother, Mary Bisland.  Ellen’s mother was the second daughter to a Glasgow dyer (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).  She was 18 years old when she married James (Orlando).  Ellen’s father was the son of a canvas-maker, and he himself was a stonemason (Orlando).  At the time of Ellen’s birth, James was working at the Duke of Hamilton (Orlando).  As described by Ellen in her journals, James was a poet who was,

“ambitious, proud, and independent, with some literary and scientific attainments, with a strong desire to become a teacher and publish a volume of his poetical works” (cited in Orlando).

When Ellen was only seven months old, her father emigrated to America in pursuit of his dreams (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).  Fearing for her daughter’s life, Mary refused to emigrate alongside her husband (Orlando).  Mary and Ellen returned home to live with Mary’s father, while Mary found work as a seamstress and milliner (Orlando).  In 1844, under the impression that her husband was dead, Mary remarried and moved herself and Ellen to live with Ellen’s step-father (against the will of Mary’s father); Ellen was eight years old (Orlando).  When making contact with his wife years later, only to find that she had remarried, Ellen’s father, James, killed himself.

It is known that Ellen did attend some form of schooling, but it is unclear for how long.  An excerpt from her journals states, “9 months at school when I could read the English Language and Scottish dialect with almost any classic scholar” (cited in Orlando).  This quotation implies a few different notions: the first being that she was only at school long enough to gain the ability to read and write, the second being that this took nine months, and the third notion being that she thought of herself as quite talented in these abilities.  Ellen spent her early childhood living in Bridgeton, until moving around with her mother (Orlando).  Bridgeton is now a part of Glasgow; however, at the time, it was full of fields and gardens.  It is presumed that Ellen was sexually abused by her step-father, who also had her working in the factories from a young age (Orlando).  Sources such as the Orlando Project believe that Ellen began working in the factories when she was 11 years of age; however, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that she was, in fact, 13.  This is an example of how some of the details of Ellen’s life are unsure.  What is clear is that Ellen worked in the factories and a power-loom weaver, and that she was not all that popular amongst her fellow employees (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).


Sketch of a Power-loom by Richard Marsden, 1895 (Wikimedia Commons)

Trying to escape her home situation, Ellen made many attempts at running away.  Ellen ran away to her uncle’s home four times over a five year period, where he would later return her to her mother (Orlando).  When Ellen would not unveil to her mother the reason for her leaving, her mother would physically abuse Ellen (Orlando).  In 1852, at the age of 16, Ellen successfully ran away to Airdire, where she made some friends and stayed for six weeks (Orlando).  It was there that Ellen earned the reputation of a “fallen women”, for on September 14, 1852, Ellen gave birth to her illegitimate daughter, Mary Achenvole (Orlando).  It is thought that Ellen was deserted by her first love, but as she wrote in her journals, “another soon offered me his heart – without the form of legal protection – and in a thoughtless moment I accepted him as my friend and protector” (quoted in Orlando).  With the birth of her daughter, Ellen was not ashamed, but rather, she was proud and found new hope in pursuing poetry as a way of making money (Orlando).  Commonly, women in her situation were granted Goldsmith’s work, although Ellen rejected this, and sent her daughter to live with her mother while she pursued her goals (Orlando).

Knowing that she could not support herself on poetry alone, Ellen continued to work in the factories while writing (Orlando).  In the spring of 1854, the Glasgow Examiner published Ellen’s poem “Lord Raglan’s Address to the Allied Armies” (Orlando).  At this time, Ellen’s health was deteriorating from working in the factories.  For this, a man named Robert Napier allotted Ellen a £10 advance, allowing her to take a five month break from factory work, and write “An Address to Napier’s Dockyard, Lancefield, Finnieston” (Orlando).  Due to Ellen’s health struggles, she was forced to move from Glasgow to Belfast in 1857, seeking a “change of air” (Orlando).  It was in Belfast that Ellen became known as a poet; however, she once again had to move for work in 1859, when she went to Manchester (Orlando).  Following the death of her mother, Mary, Ellen moved back to Dundee to live with an aunt while both working in factories and publishing works as a poet (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

One of the most controversial elements of Ellen’s life occurred on December 5, 1863, when Ellen was fired from the Verdant Factory, despite the fact that pieces of her work had previously been used as a model for others workers (Orlando).  Ellen sued the factory for insufficient notice and the loss of a few weeks’ pay, which blacklisted her amongst other perspective employers (Orlando).  The lawsuit left Ellen walking the streets of Dundee as a “famished and persecuted factory exile” until April 1864 (Orlando).  Ellen recalled in her journals that “even my poor ignorant deluded sister sex went so far as to assault me on the streets, spit in my face, and even several times dragged the skirts from my dress” (cited in Orlando).  In the spring of 1865, Ellen became a reader of (and popular contributor to) the “Poet’s Corner” and Penny Post, from which she received positive responses (Orlando).

Most of Ellen’s work was published through periodicals and newspapers of the time, and under the pseudonym of the “Factory Girl” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).  Along with many others, Ellen benefitted from the repeal of the “Stamp Act” which allowed for more circulation of working-class journals, through which she published.  In 1867, Ellen published what is possibly her only collection of literary works: Autobiographies, Poems, Songs, and the “Factory Girl” (Orlando).  This collection was published by subscription in Glasgow by William Love; 800 copies of which were sold (Orlando).  Later on within the year, Ellen gave up factory work and was left to rely on the sales of her literary pieces for income, along with the help of friends (Orlando).  In March of 1869, a second addition of Autobiographies, Poems, Songs, and the “Factory Girl” was published, which omitted the mention of Ellen’s illegitimate daughter.  Ellen’s collection was described as self-reflective, with a few embellishments to “romance” her real life’s accounts (Orlando).  In the first addition, Ellen’s inscription read:

“to all men and women of every class, sect, and party, who by their skill, labour, science, art, literature, and poetry, promote the moral and social elevation of humanity” (cited in Orlando).

This publication also came with a testimonial from the Reverend George Gilfillian, who encouraged Ellen to fix her faults.  It read: “subtracting all the signs of imperfect education, her rhymes are highly creditable to her heart and head too” (cited in Orlando).

During this time, Ellen was believed to live at 54 Maitland Street, Glasgow; however, by the time the 1871 census was taken, Ellen was gone and her whereabouts unknown.  On April 2, 1873, the Dundee Penny Post announced Ellen to be ill and “in distressed condition” (Orlando).  There is much speculation surrounding the fate of Ellen Johnston.  Some believe that she married and took on a new name, other believed she simply moved and changed her name.  Almost a year after the Dundee Penny Post wrote of Ellen’s poor health, on April 20, 1874, a woman by the name of Helen Johnston died at the Barony or Barnhill Poorhouse at Springburn (near Glasgow) (Orlando).  People believed this to be Ellen, because Ellen supposedly frequented this poorhouse, and this woman was a factory worker; therefore, the autobiography had similar points (Orlando).  Unfortunately, because of unclear circumstances involved towards the end of Ellen’s life and her death, her place of burial is unmarked and unknown.

Ellen Johnston defined herself as a Scots woman with “highly susceptible and sympathetic natures – physical, intellectual, and moral” (cited in Orlando).  She was greatly inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, and personified the working class factory girl.  Although enduring much struggle, Ellen was best known (in her time) as a poet.

Works Cited 

Brown, Susan et al. “Ellen Johnston”. Orlando. orlando.cambridge.org, 2012. Web. 23 Jan. 2013.

Whatley, Christpoher A. “Johnston, Ellen”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. www.oxforddnb.com, 2004. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Modern_Loose_Reed_Power_Loom-marsden.png, 21 April. 2009. Web. 23 Feb.2013

Further Resources

Klaus, H. Gustav. Factory Girl. http://books.google.ca/books/about/Factory_girl.htmlid=6WoeAQAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.

Rosen, Judith. “Class and Poetic Communities” The Works of Ellen Johnston ‘The Factory Girl'”. Victorian Poetry 39.2. (2001): 207-228. Web. 23 Feb. 2013.



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