How a child who worked in Bradford mills became a renowned artist

He was born on September 4, 1860 at Windhill, Shipley, into a working-class household. His father, Hargreaves Rushton, a warp dresser in a local mill, died when William was only 18-months-old, leaving his mother, Betty, to struggle on alone.

To ease the situation, William lived with his nearby grandparents and attended the local school until, aged nine, he began work as a half-time child worker in a textile mill. He left school two years later, aged 11, to work fulltime as a worsted spinner.

However, aged 15, he began to write poetry, and the following year, in 1876, he joined a theatrical group as a travelling actor, performing at venues across the country. But by 1879, aged 19, he had returned home to Shipley and had found work as a wool-sorter in a local mill.

By 1882 though, he had abandoned mill work completely to pursue a freelance career as a poet and artist. In 1883 his first volume of poetry, Rosanus, and Other Poems – including Odes, Songs and Sonnets, was published. This was not successful commercially, but it did get him noticed by the literary community of Bradford. Seven of his poems later appeared in the anthology, The Poets of Keighley, Bingley, Haworth and District, edited by Chas. F Forshaw and published in 1891 by Thornton and Pearson.

In 1884 William married Annie Widdop, recording his profession on the marriage certificate as ‘artist’. William and Annie had two children: Maud, born in 1886, but who died in 1888; and Amy, born in 1890. One of the poems in the 1891 anthology expresses William’s grief at losing his first child, Maud.

Annie, died in 1896 and William remarried in 1897. He and his second wife, Elizabeth Lund, had two further children; the family lived at Bingley before moving to East Morton, his final home.

He continued to write poetry, but it was his impressionist-style paintings that began to command public attention. It’s not known how he learned to paint, but he was on good terms with other Bradford artists so likely gained tuition from them. One of his local artist friends, Cowan Dobson, became a distinguished portrait painter of society figures in London, and as a mark of his respect painted Rushton’s portrait.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: William Rushton portrait by Cowan Dobson William Rushton portrait by Cowan Dobson (Image: Submitted)

Rushton’s work mainly portrayed Yorkshire land and coastal scenes, which proved popular (see the main painting above as an example). As his reputation grew, his paintings were widely exhibited, including in art shows at the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts, Yorkshire Union of Artists, Glasgow Institute, and at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool on nine occasions.

William died in 1921. His work can be found today in many private collections and in the public art collections at Bradford and Salford.

* Colin Neville profiles Bradford artists past and present on his website –

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