Chapter and verse on a friendship preserved in words

Tim Knebel with Richard Miles (left) from the Sheffielld Archives
Tim Knebel with Richard Miles (left) from the Sheffielld Archives
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Two of Sheffield’s forgotten literary figures are about to be remembered in a new radio documentary. Ian McMillan on The Lost Poets of the Raincoat Shop.

I’ve always had a fascination with the lost and forgotten; the novelist who published one book then faded away into obscurity and never wrote another, the artist who was celebrated in a few small galleries but didn’t make the big time, the footballer who could have been as good as David Beckham but only played for non-league sides who still speak of him with awe and affection.

So that’s why I was excited when I was asked to make a radio documentary about two completely forgotten literary figures from South Yorkshire: Lewis McHugh and Abe Graham, the Lost Poets of the Raincoat Shop. I have to admit I was initially attracted to them by that resonant title which attached itself to the programme; this was the idea of the indefatigable Tim Knebel, archivist at Sheffield City Archives and an inveterate digger and rummager in history’s back rooms. Tim first became aware of Lewis and Abe when he was given a number of carrier bags and boxes at the end of 2012; the letters and poems and papers they contained told a story of the power of friendship and the enduring importance of art and learning. They’d been found by the other modern-day protagonist of the story, John Gregory, an engineer who had been exploring the old raincoat shop when the development that eventually became Orchard Square in Sheffield was taking place in the mid-1980s.

As I interviewed Tim and John, I became more and more entranced by the tale, more enmeshed in it. Abe was a self-made man who, after years of adventuring and wandering, settled in Sheffield before the First World War; there he opened the raincoat shop which became a prominent landmark in the city over the decades.

Lewis was the absolute opposite; he was born in Sheffield into the poor Irish community that huddled around the steelworks and metalworks in the area known as The Crofts. When Abe met him Lewis was almost dead from disease in a squalid room but, according to his mentor and benefactor, was clutching a book of poetry, which seems almost too perfect and moving to be true.

“I entered the humble abode to see amidst all the squalor and filth,” Abe wrote. “One brother deathly pale and ill, lying in a rag-covered bed in the corner, and Mac sitting near the broken window, reading a book by Longfellow. I was deeply affected.”

This meeting was the beginning 
of a profound friendship. Lewis and Abe would spend hours in the basement of the raincoat shop discussing and debating literature, philosophy and culture.

They were part of a powerful movement of working-class learning at the time, of the idea of the autodidact who could improve himself or herself, and by extension the world, through self-education.

Abe called Lewis a “genius in solitude” and was convinced that McHugh was an unacknowledged major writer who needed to be given time and space to compose his verses a so he put him up in a cottage in Dore, now a comfortable Sheffield suburb, then a rural outpost on the edge of town. Lewis wasn’t completely happy with this, and would walk into Sheffield to get away from the quiet.

His and Abe’s was often a fractious, bickering relationship but was always rescued by a lively discussion of poetry.

In the end the radio programme I’ve made is about the power of remembering and the value of archives; I want it to be a rallying cry for the idea that the past can be curated and can teach us a lot about the present. And I want it to be a reminder that standing just behind the famous poets in the literary marketplace are the lost poets of the raincoat shop, just waiting to be found.

• The Lost Poets of The Raincoat Shop, BBC Radio 4 , June 29, 4.30pm.