The Life and Times of Thomas Miller: The Basket Maker Poet

Thomas Miller, celebrated as the Basket Maker Poet, holds an esteemed place among self-taught Victorian authors. His life story is a poignant narrative of overcoming adversity and achieving literary distinction. Born on August 31, 1807, in Sailor’s Alley, Gainsborough, situated on the banks of the river Trent, Miller’s early life was marked by both struggle and an indomitable spirit.

Early Life and Background

Thomas Miller was born to George Miller, a Wharfinger, who disappeared during the Burdett Riots on April 6, 1810, and was never heard from again. Raised by his mother in a cramped yard off Bridge Street in Gainsborough, Miller’s childhood was steeped in poverty. His mother supported the family by sewing sacks, and despite limited formal education, Miller’s passion for reading and writing flourished. He learned to read the Testament and write, albeit poorly, while his vivid imagination ran wild with the adventurous stories he heard.

A significant friendship in his early years was with his yard-neighbour, Thomas Cooper, who later became a noted Chartist. Cooper recounted how Miller’s mother and his own would often work late into the night to make ends meet, sharing moments of solace and camaraderie. Despite the adversity, Miller’s childhood had its moments of joy, especially the days spent exploring the lanes and fields around Gainsborough.

Literary Career Beginnings

Miller and Cooper both dreamed of writing for the people and achieving recognition, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds of their impoverished circumstances. After many struggles, Miller settled as an apprentice to a basket-maker but remained determined to become a successful writer.

In 1831, Miller left Gainsborough to live and work in Nottingham. He married and worked for Mr. Watts, a basket-maker, of Bromley House. During this period, he met Thomas Bailey, editor of The Good Citizen, who encouraged Miller to publish his first works. This led to the publication of “Songs of the Sea Nymphs” in 1832, which brought him many literary friends and allowed him to set up his own basket-making business.

Spencer Hall, who later became a famed local poet, described Miller as kind-natured, with a tuneful voice and a distinct presence. In 1835, Miller moved to London, seeking greater literary opportunities. He arrived alone and lodged in Southwark, continuing his trade while sending poems to influential figures like the Countess of Blessington, who appreciated his work and introduced him to prominent Victorian personalities.

Major Works and Themes

Under Lady Blessington’s patronage, Miller wrote three novels, more poetry, and did reviews. He also wrote short stories for popular magazines like The London Journal, which serialized his novels “Gideon Giles” and “Godfrey Malvern.” His popularity as a novelist, short story writer, and poet was further recognized by Samuel Rogers, a banker who helped set him up as a bookseller and publisher. However, this venture failed financially, leading Miller to focus on writing stories for children and his lifelong love, the countryside.

Miller’s writing often revolved around social justice, nature, and the dignity of labour, reflecting his own experiences and observations. His notable works include “A Day in the Woods” (1836), “Gideon Giles the Roper” (1841), and “Our Old Town” (1857), an autobiographical novel of Gainsborough that immortalised his hometown.

The staithes and wharves of our old town

Ships of heavy tonnage ever come and go, laden with valuable cargoes and perform the same good offices between Our Old Town and far off countries as transpire between it and the surrounding villages. Our Old Town 1857

One of his notable poems, “The Old Fountain,” exemplifies his lyrical style and deep connection to nature:

The Old Fountain.

“Deep in the bosom of a silent wood,
Where an eternal twilight dimly reigns,
A sculptured fountain hath for ages stood,
O’erhung with trees; and still such awe remains
[Pg 193]Around the spot, that few dare venture there—
The babbling water spreads such superstitious fear.

It looks so old and grey, with moss besprent,
And carven imag’ry, grotesque or quaint;
Eagles and lions are with dragons blent
And cross-winged cherub; while o’er all a Saint
Bends grimly down with frozen blown-back hair,
And on the dancing spray its dead eyes ever stare.

From out a dolphin’s mouth the water leaps
And frets, and tumbles to its bed of gloom;
So dark the umbrage under which it sweeps,
Stretching in distance like a dreary tomb;
With murmurs fraught, and many a gibbering sound,
Gurgle, and moan, and hiss, and plash, and fitful bound.

Oh! ’tis a spot where man might sit and weep
His childish griefs and petty cares away;
Wearied Ambition might lie there and sleep,
And hoary Crime in silence kneel to pray.
The fountain’s voice, the day-beams faintly given,
Tell of that starlight land we pass in dreams to heaven.

There, lovely forms in elder times were seen,
And snowy kirtles waved between the trees;
And light feet swept along the velvet green,
While the rude anthem rose upon the breeze,
When round the margin England’s early daughters
Worshipped the rough-hewn Saint that yet bends o’er the waters.

And some bent priest, whose locks were white as snow,
Would raise his trembling hands and voice to pray;
All would be hushed save that old fountain’s flow
That rolling bore the echoes far away;
Perchance a dove, amid the foliage dim,
Might raise a coo, then pause to list their parting hymn.

That old grey abbey lies in ruins now,
The wild-flowers wave where swung its pond’rous door;
Where once the altar rose, rank nettles grow,
The anthem’s solemn sound is heard no more;
’Tis as if Time had laid down to repose,
Drowsed by the fountain’s voice, which through the forest flows.”

Challenges and Later Life

Despite his literary achievements, Miller’s life was fraught with financial instability. In London, he initially struggled to make ends meet, working as a basket maker while seeking literary opportunities. His contributions to periodicals like Household Words and the Illustrated London News provided some financial relief, but he often had to supplement his income through his trade.

A breakthrough came when W. H. Harrison, editor of Friendship’s Offering, commissioned a poem from Miller after reading his work. This led to the publication of “The Old Fountain” and marked the beginning of better times.

Throughout his career, Miller faced the precarious nature of a writer’s income in the 19th century. By 1868, Miller was living in extreme hardship with his two daughters at “Rose Cottage.” His masterpiece, “Our Old Town,” published eleven years earlier, contained stories from his youth and generational tales. In 1872, Miller returned to Gainsborough to give readings from his book at the Temperance Hall, but the town had changed, and interest in his readings was minimal.

Legacy and Influence

Thomas Miller’s body of work is vast and varied, reflecting his multifaceted talent and deep appreciation for nature and rural life. His books, such as “Country Year-Book” (1847) and “Pictures of Country Life” (1853), offer rich depictions of the English countryside and the rhythms of rural existence. His novel “Gideon Giles the Roper” remains one of his most enduring works, celebrated for its portrayal of working-class struggles.

Miller’s contributions extended beyond poetry and novels. He wrote extensively for various periodicals, including the Athenæum, Literary Gazette, Chambers’ Journal, Household Words, and the Illustrated London News. His articles and essays covered a wide range of topics, from natural history to social commentary, showcasing his versatility as a writer.

Miller’s literary achievements earned him the admiration of contemporaries such as Lady Blessington, Thomas Moore, and Samuel Rogers. Despite his financial difficulties, he was welcomed into the circles of these prominent literary figures, often attending gatherings in their opulent homes while continuing to sell his baskets on the streets of London.

Final Years and Death

In his later years, Miller continued to write prolifically, producing works such as “Brampton among the Roses” (1863) and “Our Old Town” (1857), a nostalgic look at his hometown of Gainsborough. His health and financial situation, however, remained precarious. An effort was made to secure him a place on the Civil List, and while this was not successful, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli provided him with a personal allowance. Unfortunately, Miller received only one quarterly instalment before his death on October 24, 1874.


Thomas Miller’s life and work continue to be celebrated for their contribution to English literature. His ability to rise from humble beginnings to become a celebrated poet and novelist serves as an enduring inspiration, demonstrating the transformative power of literature. His legacy lives on through his extensive body of work, which remains a testament to the resilience and creativity of the human spirit. Miller’s story is a reminder of the profound impact of perseverance and passion in the face of adversity.

190 years after his birth, Thomas Miller was finally honoured in his hometown of Gainsborough with a commemorative plaque erected by The Delvers, celebrating the life of a remarkable man who captured the essence of his town and the struggles of the common people in his timeless works.



  • Rural Sketches. London: J. Van Voorst, 1839; Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1842; London: J. & C. Brown, 1857; London: D. Bryce, 1860.
  • Poems. London: T. Miller, 1841.
  • The Poetical Language of Flowers; or, The pilgrimage of love. London: D. J.C.Bohn, 1847; New York: J.C. Riker, 1848; 15th edition, London: Charles Griffin, 1872.


  • Royston Gower; or, The days of King John: An historical romance. (2 volumes), London: Henry Colburn, 1838; Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1838; London: Thomas Miller, 1841.
  • Fair Rosamond; or, The days of King Henry II: An historical romance. (3 volumes), London: Henry Colburn, 1839.
  • Lady Jane Grey: An historical romance. (3 volumes), London: Henry Colburn, 1840.
  • Gideon Giles, the Roper. London: James Hayward, 1840.
  • Godfrey Malvern; or, The life of an author. (2 volumes), London: Thomas Miller, 1843.
  • Fortune and Fortitude. London: Darton, 1848.
  • A Tale of Old England. London & Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1849.
  • Langley-on-the-Lea; or, Love and duty. London: Parlor Journal, 1860.
  • Dorothy Dovedale’s Trials. (2 volumes), London: 1864.
  • The Old Park Road. London: 1871; London: G. Harrison, 1876.


  • ‘Pictures of Country Life and Summer Rambles. London: D. Bogue, 1847.
  • History of the Anglo-Saxons: From the earliest period to the Norman conquest. London: D. Boque, 1848.
  • The Mysteries of London; or Lights and Shadows of London Life. London: George Vickers, 1849.
  • Picturesque Sketches of London Past and Present. London: National Illustrated Library, 1852.
  • The Poacher and other Pictures of Country Life. London: Ward & Lock, 1858.
  • Sports and Pastimes of Merry England. London: Darton, 1859.
  • ‘English Country Life. London & New York: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1859.
  • Common Wayside Flowers. London & New York: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1860.


  • The Boy’s Spring Book. London: Chapman & Hall, 1847; New York: Harper, 1847..
  • The Boy’s Winter Book. London: Chapman & Hall, 1847; New York: Harper, 1847..
  • The Village Queen; or, Summer in the country. London: Addey, 1852; New York: Appleton, 1853.
  • Original Poems for My Children. London: D. Bogue, 1852.
  • Original Poems for My Children: Second series. London: Ward, Lock, [1854?]
  • Our Old Town. London: J. & C. Brown, 1857.
  • The British Wolf Hunters: A tale of England in the olden time. London & New York: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1859.
  • The Young Donkey. New York: Sheldon, 1860.
  • Songs for British Riflemen. 1860.[3]
  • Little Blue Hood. London: Sampson Low, 1863; New York: James G. Gregory, 1864.
  • Songs of the Seasons: For my children. London: William Tegg, 1865.
  • My Father’s Garden. 1867.[3]
  • ‘Jack of All Trades. London & New York: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1867.
  • The Child’s Country Book. London & New York: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1867.
  • The Child’s Country Store Book. London & New York: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1868.
  • The Gaboon. 1868.[3]
  • Birds, Bees, and Blossoms: Original poems for children. London & New York: Nelson, 1858; London: J.C. Brown, 1870.
  • Watch the End. London & New York: Routledge, 1870.
  • Fred and the Gorillas. London & New York: Routledge, 1870.

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