Chartism in Tameside
Pulling the Plug, Ringing the Change
The Chartist agitation of 1838-48 was one of the most remarkable social upheavals ever known in the history of Britain. The townspeople of Hyde played a particularly important role in 'ringing the change' for social and political reform. Notably, John Bradley (Clogger) of 8 Manchester Road, Hyde, was responsible for helping to frame the 'Declaration of Hyde Chartists', which demanded the proper recognition of rights of the labouring classes.
The rapid industrialisation of England from the late eighteenth century onwards resulted in considerable change to people's lifestyles. A predominantly agricultural economy was swept into an era of change and workers' lives were altered radically.
Tameside is a good example of how places changed.
In 1776, the first cotton mill in Lancashire was built near the River Tame in Stalybridge. Thereafter, the settlement grew rapidly, fuelled by the availability of a good workforce and local entrepreneurs.
Industrialisation ultimately brought many benefits but its immediate effect was to cause considerable hardship amongst many of the working classes.
In the 1820s, there was a phenomenal growth in the number of mills.
Working in factories, often up to fifteen hours a day, meant considerable hardship. A previously efficient education system was disrupted though Sunday schools did try to continue some education.
The 'evils' of the factory system became apparent. The pleasant countryside became polluted and people crowded into terraced houses. Having no land of their own now they were wholly dependent on their factory wages for survival.
The machinery in the mills was dangerous, particularly to overtired and young workers, and even the cotton masters were not immune to its threat. Joseph Bayley caught his arm in the machinery and died of his injuries.
Similar conditions prevailed throughout other towns of the North West and it was in 1832 when the "Reform Bill" failed that there became unrest in the working classes and a "People's Charter" for equal political rights was formed by labour organisations.
At first is was a workers' industrial reform bill, but later it became more political as men wanted more equal rights and by the 1840s workers had endured enough. There was a political movement ready to champion their cause, Chartism.
The Chartist Movement
Chartism was so called because its basis was a charter of rights for all including the right to vote. Chartists believed that many of the evils of the day could be remedied if Parliament were further reformed and made really representative of the people.
Alongside other famous reformers of the day, Joseph Rayner Stephens argued for the 10 hour bill, this was to shorten the hours of labour in cotton mills to 10 hours per day rather than the customary 5am until 8pm. He vehemently opposed the "Poor Law", which forced children into factories to avoid the dreaded workhouses calling it the "Law of Devils". His zeal and fervour in his denunciation of the factory system made him many enemies but this did not deter him.
Stephens became involved in the Chartist political movement as a means to advocate his factory reform and repeal of the Poor Law. His Chartist speeches were quite famous and he travelled nationally attracting audiences of up to twenty thousand people.
Hyde was one of the first places to build a public institute to the Chartist cause. It was called the Working Men's Institute and later became St Thomas' School in Thomas Street, which was off Union Street. This building saw action a second time when it was used as a headquarter for 'A' Company of the 36th Cheshire Regiment of the Home Guard in the last war.
It was opened in September 1838, and sermons were preached in the morning and afternoon by the Reverend Stephens. As usual, they were fiery and powerful.
The authorities thought that as the building was to be used for preaching, concerts and other festivities, such as public discussions and lectures, along with other types of innocent recreation, things would quieten down locally, but they were wrong.
Not only did people like the Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens speak in it, there were others who could arouse the meetings, such as Richard Oastler. He said at one meeting that he had sent a dagger to Lord John Russell, as a last argument against the Poor Law. He said he had requested Russell to show the dagger to Her Majesty's Ministers and to all in the House of Commons. It was, he said, the only argument left to traitors to the throne.
The Institute had not been open very long before a notice was issued:-
A Declaration by the Chartists of Hyde
No division or distribution of a man's property much less his life.
We want our rights as Englishmen.
We want a fair and equal representation in Parliament and a free voice in making laws.
We declare the present Property Parliament unfair.
We want no Poor Law Amendment Act.
We want every man, rich or poor, to not only have a vote, but to be able to stand as a candidate for any Borough or County.
The Cotton Tree public house was a popular meeting place for the local Chartists. One meeting, organised by Stephens, attended by over 4,000 people, including other prominent Chartists, Dr McDouall and John Bradley. After dark, the large crowd met with firearms and banners and was of 'a most violent and inflammatory character'.
The crowd marched into Hyde, via Flowery Field, and after much shouting and discharging of firearms, the people dispersed in the early hours of the next morning.
The unrest aroused by Stephens caused concern and, though at the height of his popularity, local magistrates ordered his arrest. He was charged with inciting people to riot and break the peace.
His trial was crammed with people. Stephens conducted his own defence in an eloquent manner and denied nothing. God was his defence, not any political party. He was found guilty and jailed in Chester Castle for eighteen months.
His treatment was not harsh and on his release in February 1841, he started to focus increasingly on local affairs and grew politically indifferent.
The Riots Commence
During the hot summer of 1842, areas of present day Tameside became the storm centre of strikes and riots, which continued for several weeks, spreading to become a national phenomenon. This 'General Strike' foreshadowed the tumultuous revolutions, which were to shake the whole of Europe in 1848. It is popularly remembered as the 'Plug Riots' due to strikers' practice of disabling the mill boilers by removal of their plugs.
Six Point Charter
The Chartism movement gained its name from its charter of six points as follows:-
- A Vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind and not undergoing punishment for crime.
- The Ballot - to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
- No Property Qualification for Members of Parliament - thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
- Payment of Members, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
- Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
- Annual Parliament, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve months; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituencies as now.
The petition was presented to Parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1848, and each time it was rejected. Eventually it did become law with the exception of annual Parliaments.
Fuel to the Fire
Chartist leaders could see that the year of 1842 was ripe for rebellion. In 1841, stagnation of trade caused a very depressed state within the Lancashire mills. Mill owners had to bring in short time working and then threatened reduced wages, which put the spark to the fire.
Riots were now inevitable. Chartist ranks swelled, fed by the distressed people. Tattershall, a local Chartist, spoke of chartist ranks being, "powerfully recruited by Recruiting Sergeant Hunger and ably supported by Corporal Discontent".
It was Tattershall too who said, "It is better to die by the sword than be starved to death".
This became the rallying cry of the rioters. Illegal meetings were held and Cotton Masters feared for the destruction of their mills, and as there were no police in those days, they asked for military protection. Worried magistrates put troops in a state of readiness for battle. In August 1839, soldiers from the King's Cheshire Regiment of Yeoman Cavalry, plus others from the 20th Regiment of Foot and a troop of Dragoons were sent to Hyde. They stayed in the town for some time to make sure the Chartists' meetings did not get out of hand. Attending these meetings was, at times, dangerous with the army always ready to open fire.
Unrest in the country prompted the Government to build barracks so that troops would be available locally to deal with rioters and this is how the barracks in Ashton-under-Lyne came into being. Events of July 1842 started the troubles.
On 9 July, cotton manufacturers of Stalybridge; Jeremiah and John Lees, gave their weavers the first notices of wage reductions, other employers followed suit and the workers walked out.
On 26 July, a meeting in Ashton called for a "fair day's wage for a fair day's work". Local Chartists William Aitken and Richard Pilling, made threatening speeches against the mill owners. Similar meetings in Hyde, Stalybridge and Dukinfield demanded acceptance of the Charter.
Anger intensified. A few of the mill owners sensing the gravity of the situation started to back down about the wage reductions. However, on 5 August, William Bayley at Bayley's Mill, Stalybridge, told the workforce that they had better 'play' a few days, after which they would probably think differently about the reductions. Much offended, his weavers left the mill.
Bayley's reduced their wages by about sixpence in an average weekly wage of ten shillings and nine pence. Meetings of protest were organised and the general opinion was that, "if the Masters persisted in their statements, the people should turn out and stop out until they got a fair day's wage for a fair day's work and the Charter was the law of the land". Under pressure, most of the Cotton Masters withdraw their reductions. Bayley did not and the result was a strike. Local Chartists, like William Aitken and Richard Pilling, fanned the flames.
During 1842, the military were again sent to Hyde when it was reported that there was a large gathering on Godly Green and demonstrators from Newton, Dukinfield, Ashton-under-Lyne and Stalybridge were joining the locals from Hyde, drilling in a threatening manner.
The army arrived at Newton Station then marched to the top of Werneth Low and trained 2 cannons on the meeting. This action dispersed the meeting but Hyde remained a hotbed for trouble and arrests were made from time to time, the cases being tried at Chester.
Plans of Attack
On 5 August, several thousand people assembled on Mottram Moor to decide their course of action. It was resolved to march to Manchester and stop all the mills there, but firstly to concentrate on the immediate vicinity.
By 7 August, Bayley was worried by the strike and prepared to withdraw his notice of reduction. He met with the committee of operatives in the preaching room at the rear of the Moulders Arms, Stalybridge but they unanimously rejected his offer and the strike widened.
On 8 August, 2-3,000 people, led by Bayley's hands, marched around Stalybridge stopping all mills using violence where necessary. They carried banners proclaiming:- "The men of Stalybridge will follow wherever danger points the way"
The mob, now numbering over 5,000, turned out mills in Dukinfield, Ashton-under-Lyne, Hyde and Denton. Generally the workers joined them willingly as witness Henry Brierley at Hindley Mill, Dukinfield testified:-
"When the hands heard the procession coming they stopped the engine and turned out before the procession arrived".
March on Manchester
As daylight broke on 9 August, crowds went around Stalybridge stopping the mills, using force where necessary. Ashton, Dukinfield, Denton and Hyde were also visited again. Everywhere factories and collieries were stopped from working. Where resistance was offered, premises were broken into and some mills were dealt with by withdrawing the plugs from the boilers.
The climax came when a crowd of 12-20,000 gathered for the march to Manchester to "meet the Masters as the Masters would not meet them" and to stop all mills.
The military, under the command of Colonel Wemyss, were gathered to meet the procession 480 men of the 60th Rifles, 150 on horseback from the Royal Dragoons and 50 men of the Royal Artillery.
The procession looked peaceful and respectful, led by a large number of decently dressed young women. However, unbeknown to the forces, small breakaway bodies from the procession were busy turning out the mills.
The procession was instructed to march through the city and return peacefully to Ashton-under-Lyne. Many did so but the prime agitators became small, turbulent mobs rampaging through Manchester and Salford stopping mills and taking money and bread from shopkeepers. Although the actual violence was perpetrated by small parties; chiefly youths of 16-19 years, large parties of working people looked on with satisfaction.
A huge meeting on 11 August at Granby Row fields listened to Chartist exhortations not to return to work until their demands were met. The military had to intervene to break up this meeting.
The Strike Spreads
Meanwhile, back in Ashton-under-Lyne, agitators were spreading the strike southwards. On 10 August, strikers from Hyde turned out all the mills at Dinting, Glossop and Tintwistle. The following day Stockport was taken by 6-8,000 men waving bludgeons and staves. Macclesfield and Congleton offered little resistance. By 15 August, there was unrest in the Potteries and throughout most of the North West.
Pulling the Plug, Ringing the Change
On 14 August 1848, a band of Chartists, armed with guns, pistols, swords and pikes marched through Hyde at midnight, determined to effect a stoppage of the mills for a month by drawing the plugs of the boilers, thus bringing all of the machinery to a standstill. These occurrences became known as the 'Plug Riots' and even today the expression "pulling the plug" is still commonly used.
16 August was an emotive day, it being the anniversary of the horrific day in 1819 known as the Peterloo massacre, when 80,000 gathered to demand political reform at Peter's Field, Manchester. Violence broke out and over 400 people were wounded, 11 died. Thus feelings were running high as the Chartist Conference met in Manchester.
Several Tameside men attended, including the Ashton schoolmaster, William Aitken and George Candelet, a factory worker from Hyde representing Hyde factory operatives.
The meeting resolved to extend the strike throughout the country until the People's Charter became law. However, even as they met, rumours started of workers trickling back to work in Manchester. The impetus was being lost and the Chartists were too divided themselves to remedy the situation. Workers who had primarily rioted about the wage reductions had been swept up in the Chartist fervour, but now with the promise to return to old wage rates they lost their cause. Further momentum was lost with the arrest of many of the Chartist leaders.
The Strike Collapses
By 20 August, the call for the Charter had been effectively dropped in favour of demands for a wage increase. However, this did not tempt the workers to stay out and the return to work became a flood.
Tameside towns held out for longer. Stalybridge people, their endurance exhausted, returned on 8 September, but because of violent resistance by Ashton strikers, it was nearly a week before all mills were at work again.
Hyde and Stockport returned to work but it was yet another week before the most determined strikers of Ashton-under-Lyne and Dukinfield acknowledged defeat.
The General Strike can be seen as a victory for the workers in that it achieved the main aim of many of them a return to work at the original wage rates. It failed to meet the greater aims of the Chartist movement, irresolution and disagreement ultimately broke their ranks. Chartism never again won such confidence, such numbers of supporters or the adherence of the trades. Its collapse in 1842 was followed by reorganisation but the power of Chartism as a revolutionary force was spent.
Overall the significance of the General Strike is huge. A local Chartist, Richard Pilling was probably correct in his summation of the Strike:-
"If it had not been for the General Strike, I firmly believe thousands would have starved to death".
In 1848, the petition was presented to Parliament for a third time and was again rejected.
Arrest and Imprisonment
A Meeting at the Institute in August 1848, addressed by George Joseph Mantle, got out of hand and men armed with guns, swords, pistols and other weapons took to the street. They marched to various mills in Hyde, drawing the plugs from the boilers, thus stopping the mills working, then they returned home about midnight.
To find out who these men were and to arrest them took about a month. They were all charged and tried at Chester.
On Tuesday, 5 December 1848, thirteen men were tried at Chester, charged with being Chartists. They were a mixed lot, living in Newton and Dukinfield, and were discharged and ordered to keep the peace.
Two days later, the Hyde Chartists were tried and this time the judge found them all guilty.
Mantle was said to have addressed over 1,500 people and pleaded not guilty. Although he spoke in his own defence for over 2 hours, he was found guilty but his sentence was deferred then given 2 year imprisonment. The other Hyde Chartists who were found guilty and their sentences were as follows:-
Convicted Hyde Chartists 1848/1849
||2 years hard labour
|George Joseph Mantle
Amos Armitage was also charged with ringing a bell through the streets to call the meetings. This bell is now in Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne.
Charles Sellars was also charged with drilling the Chartists.
These were indeed turbulent times.
Workers did not ask for reform, they demanded it and some were even willing to die for it. Not only men but women were wanting their rights and for the working class to be recognised. It got to the point where even revolution threatened this country.
As time went on, the Government became more and more involved. Not only did the workers want industrial reform, they also wanted political reform and so now, after approximately 30 years of unrest, it was left to the Chartists to formulate a programme and so the movement grew.
The local authorities and the Government became afraid and soon all our jails became full of political prisoners. All that was being asked for was less hours and better conditions, more safeguards on machines, less hours and better conditions for children, and women to be treated with respect. They were there just to work and not for the pleasure of the bosses.
We may not be satisfied with the way things are today, but if it was not for the Chartist Movement and their riots, it is unthinkable what our lives may be like today.
The Effects on the Home Life
A working class women of those unforgiving times. On her shoulders rested the burden of industry and family life. Her destiny remorselessly shackled her to prolonged hours of work and her life was without privilege or recognition.
We salute her unbroken spirit.
"In the highest types of civilisation, women would be protected from any kind of productive work outside the home."
This romantic view of Auguste Comte, the French sociologist, of the home as a haven away from the struggles of the world could not apply to working class households of industrial Britain. Life for working women at home mirrored the hardships of the workplace and leisure time was very limited.
Much has been written concerning the Industrial Revolution, but seldom has the focus been on how it affected women.
Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, women workers mainly worked the land, cultivating plots close to home, tending animals and doing cottage crafts. Their horizons barely extended beyond the home. This changed when land was enclosed and many households lost their plots of land and source of their livelihood. Women were frequently forced into agricultural day labour but there was insufficient work for them all.
Industrialisation gave rise to new opportunities but women suffered terrible working conditions in the factory system. Any work, however, was preferable to the threat of being thrown into the Work House.
As workers, women suffered as second class citizens. As late as 1868 an article appeared in Frazer's magazine entitled 'Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: is the classification sound?', which illustrates how women were regarded. They were denied the vote, had little protection from the law and earned pitiful wages. Work was only one aspect of these women's lives; they also had to run and maintain the family home, which was often equally burdensome.
Families were large, frequently due to a lack of family planning and childbirth was dangerous and painful. All children were expected to start earning a wage as soon as possible and most girls expected to marry within a few years of leaving school.
Housing was built rapidly during the Industrial Revolution; often in the back to back style thus providing breeding grounds for vermin and dirt. Sanitary conditions were made worse by a lack of water in most homes. The women frequently managed the household budget and were relied upon to be the moral guide. Extreme economy measures were sometimes necessary and even in the twentieth century there is the tale of women who unfolded every tea packet, not only to extract the last tea leaf, but also to use the packet, twisted up, as a firelighter.
Hard, physical domestic work was still the woman's domain, so it is hardly surprising that ambivalence and a lack of ambition was the common attitude towards their paid work. Such hardship created strong support networks with neighbours and amongst families. The women were particularly important in this and leisure activity reflected these links, the main pursuits being dancing, countryside walks and social activities organised by the Church.
A commentator on the times said, "The women they worked and worked. They had their babies and worked like idiots. They died. They were old at 40."
Market Street, Hyde. The large building on the right is Hyde Mechanics Institute which was on the corner of Union Street and Market Street. The Institute was started in 1850 though there had been a similar organisation earlier. It originally used Hyde Lane Chapel after the new Congregational Church in Union Street was built. In 1861 the Mechanics opened the building pictured here which was on the site of the old Chapel.
Mention the Chartists and the 'Ten Hour Bill' and immediately two names spring to mind; Richard Oastler and Lord Shaftesbury, yet neither of these men were the first to bring to notice the plight of child labour and the hours that they worked in the mines and mills, etc.
It was a worsted spinning mill owner in Bradford who chanced to say to Richard Oastler that he was surprised that he (Oastler) should be so keen on ending slavery and the long hours that they worked, and under such cruel and harsh conditions. Yet he did not notice that children in our mills were treated every bit as cruel.
This mill owner was called John Wood and his mill at that time was said to be the largest in England. He employed well over five hundred operatives, most of them women and children.
When he asked other employers to reduce the hours of work to ten, they all refused. Wood was a very religious man and he asked Oastler if he would try and remove the cruelties that he described, that were common practice in the mills.
Oastler gave his promise and spent the rest of his life trying to fulfil this promise. He had a friend, one Michael Sadler, who was an MP and he tried to find support in Parliament for a ten hour day for children, quoting that members had ordered that Indian slaves should not now work between 6pm and 6am, but those who did not agree with him said that British Industry would face ruin and that employers should have the right to make their employees work as long as they wished. Parliament, they said, should not interfere and that children should work or starve.
However, Parliament did set up a Committee with Sadler as Chairman. They interviewed 87 people, including 60 textile workers, 21 doctors and 2 clergy. There would have been more, but people feared for their jobs.
Every question asked was written down and numbered, some with the answers, examples are:-
What are your hours of labour at the mill?
From 5 in the morning till 8 at night.
What intervals had you for refreshment and rest?
30 minutes at noon.
What wages had you at that time?
2/6 (12.5p) per week.
Was the main business of one of the overlookers that of strapping the children up to this excessive labour?
Yes. The same as strapping an old restive horse that has fallen down and will not get up.
What proportion of children in the factory in which you work can write?
I do not think that 1 in 100 can write.
It was no wonder that children could not read and write, working a 12-hour day from the age of 5 or 7. They never had time to learn anything; all they knew was work and sleep.
Many died young because of the life they led, some even died from the beatings they received, other died from injuries sustained because there were no guards on the machines.
All of these were buried in unmarked graves or put in coffins of other corpses under the shroud.
What fate awaited young girls, one cannot even imagine. Samuel Oldknow was a mill owner and lived at Marple. He employed the firm of Pickford's to bring in the raw material for his mill and to deliver the cloth that he manufactured. He would then send one of the wagons to London to the Duke of York's school for orphans and also to the Foundling Hospital, there to bring back young girls who he said must be good looking and in good health. Also, they must be between the ages of 8-12 and at other times he asked for girls between the ages of 10-14.
He kept what he called his 'young female apprentices' in an orphanage he had built for them. It was a very large building; it had to be for he kept over 100 girls there for over 30 years. He always said that he looked after their moral health and he always went with them to church every Sunday morning and afternoon.
He was often described as a rake, maybe he was misjudged because he never married, but then some of these girls just disappeared and this set tongues wagging locally, so one can only guess what happened to them and why.
Some mills around Tameside employed child labour. Thomas Ashton did not condone child labour in general but was heard to say that if a child is not in a school or not being educated then it might as well be employed doing something.
One or two ladies worked at Ashton Brothers, half time, as this is something that the firm agreed with. For a young boy or girl to be employed there, they had to produce their Labour Certificate or half time papers. This meant that they could work mornings and had to attend school in the afternoon, or vice versa.
The Chartist Statue
The Chartist Statue unveiled outside Hyde Town Hall on 28th November 2002 commemorates and celebrates the achievements of the Chartists. It is most fitting that these men should have a statue to their memory, as it was they who gave us that Charter of Freedom and what we now take as our right. This country does not have a written constitution, but the Chartists did give us what can be called fundamental principles and these are the next best thing.
Stephen Broadbent The Artist
Stephen Broadbent was born in Wroughton in 1961 and educated in Liverpool. He has worked as an artist for the past 20 years, following an initial period of study under the sculptor Arthur Dooley. Stephen had his first one-man exhibition in London in 1982. Beginning with limited edition bronze sculptures and gallery work, Stephen has grown in skill and experience rising to the challenges of increasingly larger and public sculptures. In 1997 Stephen Broadbent Artworks Ltd was established in response to the demand for public realm projects and larger sculptural work. To date the company has successfully undertaken an interesting variety of commissions and projects, and is now operating and working through the corporate identity of Broadbent.
Stephen Broadbent personally continues to develop and produce a range of limited edition bronze sculpture and is represented in London by the Bruton Street Gallery. Examples of his public work can be seen in Liverpool, Chester, Lincoln, Edinburgh, Belfast and several other cities, details of which can be viewed on the Broadbent Website at www.sbal.co.uk
With thanks to Harry Lever, Local Historian for his invaluable assistance with research.
- Local Studies and Archives Centre, Ashton-under-Lyne
- The People's History Museum, Manchester
- The Working Class Museum, Salford
- Manchester Archives and Local Studies
- Pupils at Flowery Field Primary School, Newton
- Students at Hyde Technology School
This publication provides a glimpse into the turbulent times of the nineteenth century in some of the towns that now make up the Metropolitan Borough of Tameside.
These turbulent times have also been remembered by a number of blue plaques. These include 'Joseph Rayner Stephens' and the 'First General Strike', both located on the façade of the former Stalybridge Town Hall, Waterloo Road, Stalybridge and 'The Cotton Tree Public House', located on Markham Street, Newton, Hyde.
More detail can be found in local libraries and museums. A useful point of contact is the Local Studies and Archives Centre at Ashton-under-Lyne.
Copyright of images by kind permission of:
Manchester City Council, Libraries and Theatres Department (Manchester Archives and Local Studies) and The Working Class Museum, Salford