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A Tribute to

Joseph Rayner Stephens

(1805 -1879)

The Local 19th Century Reformer

Turbulent Times

Photo of Joseph Rayner StephensThe 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.

Industrialisation ultimately brought many benefits but its immediate effect was to cause considerable hardship amongst many of the working classes.

This document focuses upon two local issues. There is the work of the committed reformer, Joseph Rayner Stephens, who strove to protect the workers from the worst excesses of industrialisation and who had such a strong impact locally.

Secondly there is a brief look at the General Strike or Plug Riots as they occurred in this locality. The 'Plug Riots' were one of the reactions to the oppression of the workers. Other movements included Luddism and Chartism. As will be noted reformers like Stephens inspired such movements as resistance to imposition of unfair working practices and deplorable working conditions.

Joseph Rayner Stephens is a Tameside figure deserving of commemoration. During the nineteenth century he worked ceaselessly as the champion of the local working people. He endured eighteen months imprisonment for his beliefs yet continued his work on release and up until his final days. He was a man of ideas guided always by his deep spirituality.

Family Life

Stephens was born in Edinburgh in 1805. He had gifted parents, John was a distinguished Wesleyan preacher and Rebecca a determined worker for charitable causes. He was the sixth of twelve children, four of whom became famous. John founded the first Methodist newspaper, Edward founded the Bank of South Australia and George became professor of English at Copenhagen University. Of Joseph's fame we will learn more.

Early Days

On the families removal to the Manchester area young Joseph attended Woodhouse Grove Wesleyan School near Leeds and Manchester Grammar School, where he was a popular pupil who enjoyed theatricals and made strong friendships. The grammar school also served to broaden his experience outside the restricted circle of the Wesleyan Ministry.

In 1819 he witnessed the famous Peterloo Massacre which had a strong influence upon him and inspired his later work for factory reform.

Photo of Stalybridge Sunday SchoolEarly Career

Stephens' first employment was as a school teacher near Hull. He also became a Wesleyan preacher at this time and in 1826 he became the first Wesleyan missionary in Sweden. He remained there until 1830 becoming an esteemed minister but increasingly frustrated by the confines of the National Church. This time saw the beginnings of Stephens' inclinations for broader, social concerns but always within a religious context.

Return to England

Back in England Stephens served as a preacher in the Cheltenham and Newcastle upon Tyne areas before appointment to Ashton-under-Lyne in 1832. However he was now openly agitating for the separation of the Church from the state which caused disagreement with the Wesleyan Ministry. This resulted in his resignation from the movement in 1834. He distanced himself from the quarrels within the movement and married Elizabeth Henwood in early 1835.

A time for reflection

Away from the Church, Stephens could reflect upon his life. He witnessed fearful social conditions all around him and this was to become the passion for the rest of his life. It also challenged his faith, for many of the mill owners responsible for the conditions, were members of the dissenting churches and the Methodist movement.

Reforming zeal

Stephens now saw his life's work clearly. He established his own religious movement, the Stephensite denomination on the understanding that he would preach nothing but factory reform. In 1837 a large chapel on Wellington Road in Ashton became the headquarters of his movement. He denounced mill owners as murderers and swindlers and told them that their system was repugnant to the 'Word of God'.

Alongside other famous reformers of the day, 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. The movement was based on a charter of rights and sought economic reform. His Chartist speeches quite famous, he travelled nationally attracting audiences of up to twenty thousand people.

Arrest and imprisonment

The unrest aroused by Stephens caused concern and though at the height of his popularity in Ashton local magistrates ordered his arrest for attending and speaking at an unlawful meeting at Hyde in November 1838.

The 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 he was able to maintain links with the Stephensite Movement. On his release in February 1841 he started to focus increasingly on local affairs and grew politically indifferent.

Later Work

Stephens's energy was undiminished. Amongst later achievements he founded the Ashton Chronicle in 1848 and opened a People's School for the poor in Stalybridge. He re-entered the national picture to fight for further control on factory hours and to assist the poor when the American Civil War caused a cotton famine in Lancashire.

In 1852 his wife died and Stephens moved from his farm in Hartshead to Stalybridge. In 1857 he married a lady called Susannah Shaw from Derby and he opened Christ College in Stalybridge in the People's School for Adult Education.

Final Days

In the last decade of his life, Stephens still agitated for industrial causes including an 8 hour factory bill. He-resigned from the ministry in 1875 and died in February 1879. He was buried in St. John's Church, Dukinfield where his inscription includes the words, 'He hath done what he could'

Stephens was a truly great man worthy of remembrance. His greatness lay in his instinctive reaction to human distress and social injustice and in the Christian interpretation that he gave to the events of his time.

The General Strike (1842)

The zeal of reformers like Stephens, Oastler, Hindley and Sadler inspired the working classes to resist their oppression. This resistance took a number of forms. The earliest of these was 'Luddism' when the new machinery of the Industrial Revolution was deliberately broken by mobs. Another movement was 'Chartism' with which we associate Stephens. 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. The Chartists used the evidence of the General Strike as useful propaganda in their work. Also Known as the 'Plug Riots' the General Strike is described here by C. Wilkins Jones (A History of Tameside). It highlights an incidence of Tameside's particular involvement in such turbulent times:-

The Plug Riots (so called after the practice of removing the plugs from mill boilers) were a series of strikes which, in 1842 spread through most manufacturing areas but were particularly bitter in Ashton, Stalybridge and Dukinfield. As in the Luddite outbreaks, the background was one of economic depression with short time working, unemployment and wage reductions to the effect that the men would stay out until the six points of the Charter (adult male franchise, vote by ballot, equal constituencies, annual parliaments, payments for M.P.s, and no property qualification for candidates) were made law. Events began on July 9th when Jeremiah and John Lees, Stalybridge cotton manufacturers, gave their weavers notice of wage reductions. George Cheetham & Sons, Joseph Buckley, Reyner Brothers of Ashton and William Bayley followed suit.

Bayleys 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 withdrew their reductions. Bayley did not and the result was a strike. Local Chartists like William Aitken and Richard Pilling fanned the flames and despite Bayley's offer on August 7th to withdraw the reductions, the strike widened.

On August 9th crowds went around Stalybridge stopping the mills, using force where necessary, Ashton, Dukinfield Denton and Hyde were visited. 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 with a march on Manchester where, at a meeting in Granby Row Fields, Pilling and others reiterated the theme of a fair days wage and voiced the general determination not to resume work until the wages of 1840 were paid.

However, by August 23rd, most of the mills in Manchester were working again. The people of Stalybridge, their endurance exhausted began to return to work on September 8th but the Ashton and Dukinfield strikers stayed out another fortnight. Most returned to the old rates.

Blue Plaque for Joseph Rayner StephensConclusion

This document provides a glimpse into the turbulent times of the nineteenth century in this locality. If it whets the appetite of the reader to learn more then Tameside libraries and museums can oblige with a vast array of information.

Blue Plaque

A blue plaque to commemorate Joseph Rayner Stephens is sited on Stalybridge Town Hall frontage, Waterloo Road, Stalybridge.

A useful point of contact is the Local Studies Library at Stalybridge 0161 303 7937.