‘If my composition smell of the workshop, and the mechanic, I cannot help it’.

Ebenezer Elliott, ‘Preface’, The Village Patriarch: A Poem (London: Edward Bull, 1829), viii.

About John Gardner

The Engineering Romanticism Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship project is headed by John Gardner. Along with being a Leverhulme Research Fellow John is also Dean of the Doctoral School and Professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin University John has either taught, or has been an external examiner, on degrees from BA to PhD at several universities. They include: Aberdeen, Bath Spa, Bedfordshire, Birmingham, Cambridge, Coventry, Durham, Essex, Glasgow, Hertfordshire, Loughborough, Northumbria, Oxford Brookes, Sheffield, UEA and York. John is also the editor of a journal on the works of Charles and Mary Lamb. Furthermore, he is editing an edition of Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821) alongside Simon Kövesi, David Stewart and Matt Sangster for Oxford World’s Classics and also a collection of essays on the 1830s for Cambridge University Press.

John’s research is mainly on eighteenth and nineteenth century literature and culture. He has written on a range of authors and topics from the period, including Edmund Burke, Lord Byron, William Hone, Mary Lamb, Robert Wedderburn, class, radicalism and dissent. John is also the author of Poetry and Popular Protest, which was shortlisted for the ESSE Book Award. You can find links to some of John’s research here at the ARU institutional repository. John has supervised a number of PhD students to successful completion, including Dr Eleanor Crouch, Dr Sabina Akram, Dr Abderrezaq Ghafsi, Dr Kirsty Harris, Dr Steven White, Dr Sue Dean, Dr Sophie Phelps and Dr Paul Jackson, as first supervisor. Several students John has supervised have gone on to publish ground breaking research, including Dr Peter Cook, Dr Lorena MacMillan and Dr Kate Morrison.

Working in Engineering

John Gardner writes:

I didn’t begin my working life as an academic. Instead I started as a craft engineer. At sixteen I began serving a fully indentured apprenticeship at Weir Pumps in Glasgow. I was lucky to get this. Around five hundred of us sat exams before a few were called for interviews and a medical. In the end there were only five places for apprentices. This was the 1980s in Scotland after all. Hardly boom time. In fact we were the first apprentices to have been hired in several years. I felt very lucky to get this job, although apprenticeships paid a lot less than friends were getting working at warehouses and shops. My training was supplemented by day-release and night-school at colleges to study theory. After my apprenticeship I became a time-served Fitter/Turner and later a Commissioning Engineer.

Sizewell B Commissioning Engineer
Multi-stage cell, Weir Pumps, around 1990

Lockdown welding
Sizewell B from Dunwich Beach


Weir Trade papers

I hugely enjoyed my time at Weirs’ and I met many talented people there. The training was superb and you could feel the heritage of the place stretch back into the nineteenth century. Many of the engineers who trained me had been there for over forty years. The generation that taught them dated from the time of the second world war. Two more generations back and the nineteenth century could be touched. It was great education, but not an easy one. Along with my PhD, and giving up smoking, my apprenticeship was the hardest thing I have ever done. The first year of the apprenticeship was spent at a training centre. Here we learned the basics of bench-fitting, casting, CNC programming, engine assembly, fitting, grinding, hardening, milling, turning, and welding. That and cleaning toilets. We had to take turns twice a day to clean them.


After a year we went to the main factory in Cathcart. That meant lots of people, noise, massive machinery and no more cleaning toilets. I loved the place. It was established in the 1870s and it is a respected and prominent Glasgow engineering company. They said that every Royal Navy ship since 1900 had a Weir pump on it. The pumps could be incredibly long-lived and it wasn’t uncommon for pumps from the 1950s coming in for a service. I had my first placement in the Naval F-shop, turning, fitting and building one-off pumps and ancillaries for ships and boats including Polaris and Trident submarines.

Later I had placements in the Test-shop; Repairs; Isoglide; and the Standard Cell before moving to the Heavy Casing cell where I stayed after my time was out. Here we worked on castings of up to twenty tonnes. I turned on centre lathes, ‘Bullards’ (Vertical Boring Mills) and various CNC machines including a Machine Centre I also programmed. It was a great and challenging experience working from the table up without jigs.


Sizewell B from Sizewell Beach
Sizewell B Pressurised Water Reactor

Hungry to travel, I secured a promotion to Commissioning Engineer, which could mean a great deal of travel. I mainly worked on machinery for the oil industry at Aberdeen and Grangemouth and then for the Nuclear Industry at Sizewell B Pressurised Water Reactor in Suffolk. There I commissioned secondary safety system pumps and carried out repairs. These pumps would likely never be used as there were so many built-in safety systems. However, in the unlikely event of the kind of accident that happened at Three Mile Island, these pumps would kick in and flood the reactor with borated water to slow down reactions. I would work twenty-eight consecutive 12-hour shifts on the site, with three days off every month. After a year I went to work on an oil pipeline.


In my mid-twenties I went to university to study obsessions I’d had since early childhood: Literature and History. Having left school at sixteen I needed to find links between creating essays and my previous life making machines. I had a huge amount to learn and my tutors at Glasgow were terrifically supportive. I soon realised that essays and machines are each made up of sub-assemblies. An essay paragraph, or part of a machine, is a sub-assembly that must function in itself. However, work only gets done when the sub-assemblies are connected. For example a motorcycle has a frame, an electrical system, an engine, a gearbox and a final drive. Individually each sub-assembly must be functional, but it all only works as a machine when the components act together.

Motorcycle Technician

Harley Davidson papers for John Gardner

I could not leave engineering behind when I became an Arts student. When not attending lectures I worked in factories turning on lathes and milling. Additionally, I worked in boiler rooms during summer shut downs doing maintenance work. I also worked as a motorcycle technician, firstly for Honda, for three years, and then at Harley Davidson throughout the duration of my PhD. Here I was fortunate to work with the brilliant and much missed bike builder Colin Rutherford, amongst other great characters.

After the PhD

During the wobbly time that is the usual post-PhD experience I went back to fixing motorbikes, while also applying for academic jobs and publishing research. After being a Graduate Teaching Assistant for some time I secured a year as a temporary lecturer at the University of Glasgow. A lectureship at ARU followed. I am particularly proud of the students I have worked with, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Many of my ideas for this project were sharpened by discussions with final-year BA English Literature students at Anglia Ruskin on my course, Romantic Ideals.

The Leverhulme Project

The Leverhulme Trust has done something remarkable for me. I can now combine my twin obsessions of Literature and Engineering in one project. Neither are in separate spheres anymore. In the Romantic period these now seemingly disparate fields could be found together on the same page. This project will examine that combination. You can find out more about the project here, and also in the Leverhulme Trust’s Annual Review for 2019.

This work is supported by the Leverhulme Trust