How Hyde ‘Spymasters’ looked for Commies on BBC Children’s Hour

By Derek Pattison

Salford born folk singer and song- writer Ewan MacColl is remembered today more for his music than his agit-prop plays. But it was his political activities before the last war and his membership of the Communist Party that led to MI5 opening a file on him in the 1930s and why they kept him, and his friends, under close surveillance.

Secret service papers released by the national archives, now in Ashton-under-Lyne central library, offer a clue into how British intelligence (MI5) spied on working-class folk singer Ewan MacColl and his wife playwright, Joan Littlewood, who lived at Oak Cottage on Higham Lane, Hyde, Cheshire, during World War II.

MI5 opened a file on James Henry Miller (MacColl’s real name) in the early 1930s when he was living in Salford. As an active Communist Party member, he had been involved in the unemployed workers’ campaigns and in the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in Derbyshire. Before enlisting in the army in July 1940, he had written for the radio programme Children’s Hour.

In Joan Littlewood’s autobiography, she writes: “Jimmie was registered at the Labour Exchange as a motor mechanic, but he did better busking, singing Hebridean songs to cinema queues. Someone drew Archie Harding’s attention to him and from that time on he appeared in the North Region’s features (BBC) whenever a ‘proletarian’ voice was needed.”

As a BBC presenter for Children’s Hour and Communist Party member, Littlewood also came under the watch of MI5. A letter in the file, marked ‘SECRET’ (dated March 1939) and sent to W.H. Smith Esq., the Chief Constable for Hyde, tells him that Miller – known to the writer to be a Communist Party member – had taken a house in Hyde. The letter informs him that Miller works for the BBC in Manchester and that his wife, Joan Miller – another communist – broadcasts under the name ‘Joan Littlewood’ and is “said to be ‘Aunty Muriel’ of Children’s Hour.” The writer Sir Vernon Kell ended by asking the Chief Constable for Miller’s address and asked if Miller followed any other profession other than broadcasting.

Colonel Sir Vernon Kell, also known as ‘K’, was the head of MI5. An officer of the old school, Kell had served in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 and was appointed first director of MI5 in 1909.

‘Communist looking Jews’

Writing about the spy Kim Philby, Seale & McConville say that Kell was the ‘antithesis of the terror-wielding secret police chief of public imagination’. As a public servant, he was renowned for his sense of duty, tact and discretion and ‘used his wide powers with notable restraint.’ By all accounts, MI5 in 1940 was an antiquated organisation led by middle-aged men who, while adept at keeping so-called subversives under surveillance, had little understanding of the ideas that motivated communists of Philby’s generation.

At the outbreak of World War II, it seems that under Kell’s leadership, MI5 was unable to cope with the mass of information about German agents in Britain and the ‘spy-mania’ that was a feature of British life at the time. Consequently, Kell was retired by Winston Churchill in 1941.

A letter in the file concerning Joan Littlewood is signed Major Maxwell Knight. Charles Maxwell Knight held right-wing views and after his Royal Navy service he worked for the Economic League. In 1924, he joined the British Fascisti, an organisation set up to counter the power of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions. This body put him in charge of compiling dossiers on ‘political subversives’, counter espionage, and establishing fascist cells in the trade union movement. In 1925, Kell recruited Knight to work for MI5.

A report in the file by Inspector J.E. Robinson, also marked ‘SECRET’ and dated April 1939’ tells the Chief Constable of Hyde that Miller lives with his parents and wife at Oak Cottage. Explaining that the BBC does not permanently employ Miller, the Inspector adds:

“He (Miller) does not appear to follow any fixed occupation beyond writing articles for such periodicals as may care to publish them. I understand that such publications are rare.”

He concludes by saying Miller and Littlewood seem to have no known association with communists in Hyde, but “at weekends, and more particularly when Miller’s parents are away from home, a number of young men who have the appearance of communist Jews are known to visit Oak Cottage. It is thought they come from Manchester.

In September 1939 there is more correspondence between Kell and the Chief Constables of Hyde, Ashton-under-Lyne and Cheshire. It seems Miller and other communist suspects had got work at Messrs Kenyon Ltd in Dukinfield.

Writing to the Hyde Chief Constable, Kell asks about William Redmond Morres Belcher – a worker at Kenyon’s – who, he says, has fought in Spain in the International Brigades. Admitting that he has no proof that Belcher is a Communist Party member, he adds: “his sympathies are very much to the left.” Naming three more workers at Kenyon’s: W.Sharples, R.C.Dyson and Miss B. Nash, he again admits he has no proof they are communists, but “Sharples may be identical with a man of that name who visited the USSR in August 1932.” The Chief Constable is asked to “make some inquiries…and let me know what you discover.”

The employment of Miller and his associates at Kenyon’s in Dukinfield did cause MI5 some anxiety as the firm had government contracts. It was feared the group might foment industrial unrest and in a letter dated September 1939, to Major J. Becke, Chief Constable of Cheshire, Colonel Kell wrote:

“I agree with you that the employment of these men at Messrs Kenyon’s appears to be most unusual and would be grateful if you would let me have any further information which may come to your knowledge.”

Special Branch Surveillance

Belcher, a mechanical engineer, had been employed to fit blinds to comply with government lighting restrictions. He then used his influence to get jobs for his friends without consulting the Directors. A memo dated September 1939, says:

“Messrs Kenyon’s are anxious as to whether Belcher and his associates have any connection with the IRA. I told him (Percy Kenyon), I was unable to give him any information as regards that.”

A Special Branch agent report, dated October 1939, to the Hyde Chief Constable, says that Belcher, his wife Aileen, Robert Dyson, William Sharples and Miss Beryl Nash, had all been resident at Oak Cottage while that house was under surveillance.

This report says they were all active Communist Party members and members of the ‘Theatre Union, an agitprop drama group that toured industrial areas of Britain’. This agent says:

“I have been able to listen to their conversations during the evening at Oak Cottage but I have not heard anything regarding communism or other political views.”

He informs the Chief Constable that Miller is a communist “with very extreme views and I think that special attention should be given to him.”

Apart from surveillance of this kind by Special Branch agents, the file has details of telephone taps and of intercepted letters. A memo, dated September 1943, to Colonel Allan of the GPO states: “Would you kindly let me have a return of correspondence for the next two weeks on the following address – Oak Cottage, Higham Lane, Hyde, Cheshire.”

Other memos show that bodies such as the Central National Registration Office and Passport Office were supplying information to MI5. Frequently, people who knew Miller and Littlewood, were contacted directly by the police or vice versa.

Alison Bayley, who’d been at RADA (drama school) with Littlewood, stopped Littlewood in the street one day and asked her if she’d time for a coffee. Littlewood describes this meeting in her autobiography: “I hadn’t seen her since joining ‘Theatre of Action’. ’Old times Chat?’ I asked.” Alison Bayley then told Littlewood: “I’ve denounced you to the Police. About you being a communist.” Though Littlewood assured her that the police already knew she was a Communist Party member, Bayley told her: “I felt I had to tell them, Littlewood.”

Blacklisted by the BBC

One irate middle-class father from Withington wrote to the police in May 1940, demanding that the Millers be sacked from the BBC and interned. His 18-year-old son (Graham Banks) a “fine specimen of English boyhood with good morals and ideals and a brilliant future” had, he explained, fallen into the clutches of the Millers who had induced him to leave home. Mr Banks added: “His poor mother is frantic with grief and if it should be within your province to either return him to us or else to intern him along with the others taking part in these pernicious plays, I hope you will do so.”

MI5 intervention led to the BBC blacklisting Miller and Littlewood. Littlewood had already been banned from working in Sheffield because she’d broadcast criticism of local housing conditions. Other memos reveal links between MI5 agents and BBC staff. In a memo, dated October 1939, a MI5 officer says: “I do not understand why the BBC continues to use them. Could they be warned to drop them if other people are available?”

Another memo states: “We asked the BBC to hold them (the programme) up while we obtained this file and unfortunately their (the Millers’) programme for the 11th October 1939 was about to be cancelled. Mr. Nicholls (Controller of Programmes), informed me that there was a possibility that the Manchester Guardian would publicise the matter and questions would be asked in the House of Commons. I said I would raise no objections to the broadcast of 11/10/39 but would get in touch with the BBC again.”

Though the BBC had announced in March 1941 that persons who had taken part in public agitation against the war effort would not be allowed access to the microphone, the BBC stated:“Beyond this one limit the Corporation is jealous to preserve British broadcasting as an instrument of freedom and democracy.”

The real reason for the ban on Miller and Littlewood is made clear in a memo dated April 1941 from Mr. Coatman, North Regional Director for the BBC. He points out that Mrs. Miller (Littlewood) and her husband were not only well known communists but were active communists. Mr. Coatman says:

“It must be remembered that Miss Littlewood and her husband were concerned chiefly with programmes in which they were brought into continuous and intimate contact with large numbers of working class people all over the North Region. Clearly I could not allow people like this to have use of the microphone or be prominently identified with the BBC. I therefore urge that the ban on Miss Littlewood as a broadcaster be allowed to stand.”

In her autobiography, Joan Littlewood says that following the BBC ban, Miller and herself wrote to L.C. Knight of the National Council of Civil Liberties who promised to investigate but never contacted them again. She writes: “We offered our story to the newspapers they didn’t publish it, not even the Daily Worker.”

After being called up in July 1940, Private James H. Miller was placed on the ‘Special Observation List’ “to see whether he is trying to carry on propaganda.” He was declared a deserter on 18th December 1940 and remained AWOL for the rest of the war. In this period he changed his name to Ewan MacColl. Military reports suggest he was popular with his fellow soldiers and exerted influence over them owing to his greater intelligence. He was a member of the Regimental Concert Party and produced ‘several songs and skits’. One of his songs was a particular favourite with the men:

“The medical inspection boy’s is just a bleedin’ farce. He gropes around your penis and noses up your arse. For even a Private’s privates, enjoy no privacy, you sacrifice all that to save democracy. Oh, I was browned off, browned off, as could be.”

While the song was popular with the ordinary soldiers it seems the military top brass had their suspicions. A note in the file says the song was of the normal barrack room type and didn’t appear to his CO to be subversive but “he is now inclined to think that it was rather subtle propaganda, the theme being generally disparaging to life as a private soldier and enlarging upon the fact that the discipline and alleged discomforts, to which he is subjected, although nominally in the cause of democracy, were really for the benefit of some supposedly superior class.”

MI5 and Censorship

After the war, Miller was arrested for desertion. He spent the first night of his captivity in Middlesbrough police station and was then taken to an army detention barracks at Northallerton. Later he was transferred to the Northfield Military Hospital in Birmingham where he was diagnosed as suffering from epilepsy. A psychiatrist diagnosed him to have a ‘paranoid personality with strong oedipal tendencies.’ The result of his psychiatric report led to the cancellation of his court martial on medical grounds and he was discharged from the army.

In her autobiography ‘Joan’s Book’, Littlewood speaks openly about being blacklisted by the BBC and about MacColl’s (Miller’s) desertion. She says he changed his name to MacColl ‘as a precaution’ while on the run as a deserter. However, none of this is mentioned in MacColl’s autobiography (Journeyman), which contains many gaps and omissions about his life.

Both Littlewood and MacColl played a cat and mouse game with the authorities. They were certainly aware the police were reading their letters: “Jimmie wrote to me every day, mostly jokes and nostalgia. So were mine to him. It must have been disappointing for the police who were opening them all.” They knew the police were keeping tabs on them, because so many of their friends and acquaintances were approached by the police.

Nothing can be found in the MI5 file to suggest Littlewood and MacColl were in the pay of Moscow (Nazi Germany and the USSR were allies from 1939 to June 1941). Yet a memo, dated April 1942, shows Littlewood had contact with Emile Burns, who was boss of propaganda at the Communist Party Headquarters in London.

Clearly, MI5 monitored their theatrical work and activities because they feared that as proselytising communists, their work could influence and politicise the working-classes. One of their plays, ‘Last Edition’, performed by the Theatre Union, was described as ‘thinly veiled’ communist propaganda’ and MI5 boss Colonel Kell used his influence to urge local councils to refuse them performance licenses in the same way as MI5 prevented them working for the BBC.

Joan Littlewood died in September 2002, aged 87. She has been described as a ‘subversive genius’ who broke the mould of British drama. She was best known for her work ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ and for establishing, with others, the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in East London. Ewan MacColl died in 1989 aged 74. He is now remembered more as a songwriter than an agit-prop playwright. His songs include ‘Dirty Old Town’, the ‘Manchester Rambler’ and ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ made famous by the singer Roberta Flack in the 1970s.

This article was originally published in Northern Voices issue 7, 2007

Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy: Manchester’s Free Love Advocate and Secular Feminist

As an advocate of ‘free love’, a pacifist and more controversially a secularist, the Victorian feminist Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy did not exactly lead a conventional life. Born in Eccles in 1833 and self-educated, she went on to become a significant pioneer of the British women’s emancipation movement. She was at the heart of almost every Victorian feminist campaign ranging from the demand for better education, the right to vote and the rights of prostitutes to the sensitive issue of marital rape.

Unfortunately, her rather forthright nature as well as the scandal surrounding her pregnancy out of wedlock meant that she was marginalised in official histories. In accounts by the Pankhurst family, she is unfairly portrayed as a bad mother, a scandalous ‘free love’ secularist; her partner Ben Elmy is painted as a cruel and unfaithful man. Maureen Wright, who teaches history at the University of Portsmouth, wanted to challenge that misrepresentation with a more balanced look at Wolstenholme-Elmy’s life.

In her book Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman, Wright portrays the complex and also contradictory nature of her subject. The book is broken down into eight chapters which chart Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy’s life from her birth to her death at the age of 84 in March 1918 – just days after hearing the good news that women had been granted the right to vote. Arwa Aburawa interviewed Maureen Wright for Manchester Radical History.

Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was born in Eccles, Salford in December 1833. Can you tell a little about her early experiences and how they help shape her activism around education and universal suffrage?

Maureen Wright: Although born in Eccles, Elizabeth’s father Joseph Wolstenholme was an Independent Methodist Minister and his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of Richard and Mary Clarke of Roe Green, Salford. By the time Miss Wolstenholme was 12 she had lost both her parents. Her mother had died when she was little more than a week old and her father died in 1845. At that time Elizabeth and her brother, Joseph Jnr., became the wards of their maternal Uncle, George Clarke of Worsley. While Joseph Jnr, aged 17, became a student of mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, Elizabeth’s two years of secondary education drew to a close when she was just 16, her Uncle having declared that by then she had ‘learnt everything it was necessary for a woman to know’.

But Elizabeth defied her guardian and studied privately, preparing herself to be a governess and, latterly, headmistress of her own girls’ school. She had no desire to remain in the domestic realm. She placed her commitment to feminism from the moment when, acting as a bridesmaid aged 17, she fully realised what marriage meant for women – a “lifelong sentence of pauperism and dependence” with no control over their actions or autonomy over their own bodies.

Elizabeth’s political commitment was to liberal ideals. She was brought up in the environment of the ‘Manchester Radicals’ – namely the group of Quaker-inspired activists gathered around Richard Cobden and John Bright and others who had led the anti-Corn Law movement in the city. She believed wholeheartedly in the rights of the individual. For her, votes for women was a simple matter of women receiving the vote ‘on the same terms as it is, or shall be, granted to men’ – for it must be remembered that, at this time, it was property, not individuality, that enabled men to claim citizenship. When she placed her signature on the petition for women’s suffrage in 1866 Elizabeth was asking not for special treatment for women, but equal treatment or “justice”.

Although Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy was part of a quite a small groups of women emancipators working in the nineteenth century, she never really got much recognition for her work. Why do you think that was?

Two of the earliest significant histories of British women’s suffragism were written by Ray Strachey and E. Sylvia Pankhurst. Strachey’s book, The Cause, (1928) told the story from the point of view of the ‘constitutional’ suffragists – those women who did not support the militancy of the suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Wolstenholme Elmy’s opinion of these activists was not always complimentary as she believed that their commitment to ‘the cause’ was not total. Many were content, she believed, “to give their name” to the movement without engaging sacrificially to its work. Elizabeth’s somewhat scandalous private life caused her to be criticised by many among this more conservative group, and thus she received only a couple of mentions in Strachey’s work.

The other significant book, The Suffragette Movement, (1931) was written by Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, Sylvia. While Pankhurst did acknowledge Elizabeth’s significant contribution to the early years of women’s suffragism from the 1860s, she clearly wanted to place her mother and her father (the “Red Doctor”, socialist lawyer Richard Marsden Pankhurst) in the premier roles. Elizabeth was, therefore, marginalised and damned with faint praise as an overworked woman and an ‘instrument in the grasp of progress’ – her small physical frame likened to that of a ‘Jenny Wren’. Subsequent scholars failed to realise her significance to the movement until the 1980s when revisionist scholars began to uncover the extent of her contribution. My biography is the first full-length narrative of Elizabeth’s life, some 30 years after the first call was made for it to be written!

Elizabeth’s early passion was education for women. Tell us a little about how that emerged and the role Manchester played in her development as a campaigner.

When Elizabeth returned to Worsley in 1854 from undertaking two years work as a governess in Bedfordshire it was to inherit a ‘small capital’ on her 21st birthday. Her guardian, who, remember, had advised her against undertaking higher education herself, now suggested that she invest her money in the establishment of a boarding school for middle-class girls. Elizabeth established precisely such a school, at The Grange in Boothstown Road, which catered for between 12-16 teenage pupils. In the spring of 1867 she moved her school to Moody Hall, a substantial Georgian residence in the town of Congleton where she continued in her role of Headmistress for another 4 years. Before her move to Cheshire Elizabeth founded the Manchester Schoolmistresses Association in 1865, and her pupils were among the first to sit the Cambridge Local Examination.

In 1866, Elizabeth had travelled to London to testify before the Royal Commission into Education – known as the Taunton Commission. She was one of the first women in the country to undertake such a role, but did not appear at all daunted at the prospect. If one reads the transcript of her evidence, it’s obvious that her answers were given in a clear and direct manner. As she tells of her work at The Grange, it’s clear too that the curriculum she taught was not one only of female “accomplishments” (such as singing, dancing and drawing) but included political economy, mathematics and other skills thought to be to ‘masculine’ in nature for a girls’ school. Elizabeth sought to fit her girls for not only the world of marriage and motherhood, but for the world of work, and many of them went on to become Headmistresses of schools.

It became increasingly difficult, however, at this time for Elizabeth to continue her career. This was because she was turning against the Christian faith – the teaching of which was, of course, a core element in the Victorian curriculum. The loss of her faith caused Elizabeth deep personal pain and unhappiness and ultimately she couldn’t force herself against her conscience to teach something in which she no longer believed. Thus she abandoned Moody Hall for a new life as the first professional employee of the women’s emancipation movement.

From around 1870, EWE’s role as a feminist took precedence over her vocation in education. What were the major campaigns she worked on and what long-term influence did she have?

Before her move to Congleton, Elizabeth had been active in many areas of female emancipation in Manchester. These included: The Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the Manchester Branch of the Society for the Employment of Women and the Northern Counties League for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. She was a founder member of the Married Women’s Property Committee (MWPC), established in the winter of 1867/8 to campaign for the rights of women in marriage. She was to be its Secretary until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act, 1882. In addition, she was an Executive Committee member of the Ladies’ National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts (LNA) from 1870.

Her paid work however (from 1871-74) was as Secretary of the Vigilance Association for the Defence of Personal Rights (VADPR). She was based in London and she termed her work as being as a ‘scrutinizer’ of parliamentary practice – for which her salary was the princely sum of £300 per annum. So effective a political lobbyist did she prove that MPs gave her a nickname – the ‘parliamentary watch-dog’ – and, upon seeing her tiny figure approaching them along the corridors of power, many of the country’s greatest would quake in fear. Elizabeth’s tenacity shines through here. She was a life-long advocate of “small government”, in which the individual’s personal right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ should be as free from government intervention as possible.

The ‘New’ Liberalism of the late-nineteenth century, with its increased emphasis on regulating public behaviour through legislation, was anathema to her. Elizabeth worked tirelessly and travelled extensively to promote the organisation’s objective of an equal right to live in a just society. She published copious reports, minutes, pamphlets and articles and Elizabeth continued her labours in other areas. She was, for example, a Committee member of the Central Committee of the National Society of Women’s Suffrage and remained strongly committed to the work of both the LNA and the MWPC. In fact, one begins to wonder how she ever found enough hours in her day!

One radical aspect of Elizabeth WE is that she was secularist and an advocate of ‘free love’. This was quite hard for many of her colleagues to deal with and was particularly problematic when she got pregnant. Was she perceived as too radical in some ways?

It was when Elizabeth was headmistress of Moody Hall School in Congleton she met the man who would become her life-long companion. Benjamin Elmy was from a Suffolk family, he owned three silk-crepe mills in Congleton but his avowed secularism was always a matter of concern for the town’s civic leaders. One of the most divisive issues was the charge that secularists advocated ‘free love’ (living together un-wed), something which undermined the rigid moral structures of mid-Victorian society.

The couple undertook a ‘commitment’ ceremony in the spring of 1874, making solemn vows to one another before witnesses. But when this and Elizabeth’s subsequent pregnancy became known more widely, there was general outrage and condemnation within their circle of friends. Despite her expressed wish that her marriage (with took place under some duress in October 1874 in London) should have no effect upon her work for women, the opposite was true and the couple were forced to retire from public life for a short period. Elizabeth did however continue her Secretary’s role with the MWPC, working ‘underground’ and unacknowledged in the organisation’s reports for another six years – until her ‘rehabilitation’ in 1880.

Those of Elizabeth’s colleagues who knew of her secularism were prepared to turn a ‘blind eye’ to it before her pregnancy – one reason being that they knew her work was exemplary and her shoes would be difficult to fill. However, the immanent arrival of her son Frank proved to be the catalyst that changed attitudes towards her.

Lydia Becker (a close friend and confidante of Elizabeth’s since 1867) demanded at one meeting that the Registers at Kensington be searched to confirm that the October wedding had taken place. Another close friend since 1866, the physically frail Josephine Butler, recorded in a letter from her sickbed that she wished she had ‘never heard of such people as the Elmys’. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, never especially close to Elizabeth, chastised her with the fact that she had brought the women’s movement into disrepute. For Elizabeth the hurt of their rejection of friends was so great that she retired to Congleton for the birth ‘wishing never to be spoken of again’. Obviously, her resolve on this matter did not last long.

Although Elizabeth WE preferred to work outside party politics (apart from her support for the Independent Labour Party), there were political movements and figures which influenced her. Could you talk us through the main players which informed her political consciousness?

Elizabeth believed that party politics ‘ruined work’, as it caused divisions and factionalism where there should be a united desire to improve life for all. The bedrock of this belief, I believe, came from the Quaker influences of her early life. She was a lifelong pacifist, a cause to which she held true even throughout the jingoism of the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. The family refused, in 1902, to join in the celebrations in Congleton Park after peace was restored and although there are no first-hand sources to confirm or deny this, I feel sure Elizabeth’s reaction to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 would have been one of complete horror.

Though of radical-Liberal heritage, Elizabeth found William E. Gladstone, three times PM of the United Kingdom, a trial. She believed he was the biggest stumbling block to women’s freedom, as he was known to use his veto as Prime Minister to prevent the passage of women’s suffrage bills through parliament. Elizabeth herself became a member of the Manchester Central Branch of the ILP in 1905 but her commitment to socialism in its strictest sense was never total, unlike that of her husband, who she wrote of as being an ‘ardent socialist’ until his death in March 1906.

The truth about Elizabeth’s politics is that she was, first and last, a humanitarian and she was not above using any party-political machinery she could to promote her work. As secretary of the Women’s Emancipation Union from 1891-99 she had as much contact with the labour movement’s Women’s Co-operative Guild and Trades’ Unions as she did with the Conservative’s Primrose Dames, using these and many other organisations to promote feminist views and propaganda.

The decision in 1909 to force feed the militants of the WSPU was seen by Elizabeth as ‘state torture’ – even though she condemned the actions of the women themselves, which grew increasingly more violent after 1912. She berated them for their antics of window smashing, axe throwing and arson for, she wrote, “how could they be certain not to hurt the innocent?” From that moment on (and bear in mind she was almost 80 years old) she continued her campaigning as a ‘non-militant’ – even leading the NUWSS procession into her home town of Congleton in 1913. By now, as an octogenarian, she had earned the respect even of her former critics.

One of the controversial topics which Elizabeth WE spoke about was marital rape- indeed she was the first woman to speak on the issue in a public platform. Why did she feel so strongly about this issue?

Elizabeth’s abhorrence of marital rape became clear in 1880, when she stood on the platform of the London Dialectical Society to declare her desire to see the practice criminalised. Her opposition was in part built on personal reasons and a desire to see a legal inequality quashed.
Wives were often beaten or starved for non-compliance or, as evidence from one notable legal case of 1891 shows, imprisoned against their will. Elizabeth saw the crime of marital rape as one common to women of all classes, and thus a cause of unity. At a moment when even polite society was concerned with the ever-increasing rise in sexually transmitted diseases she found a receptive audience, in some quarters, for her views.

That is not to say her path in this regard was an easy one; far from it, for she found herself apologising to her 1880 audience for speaking, as a woman, on so ‘delicate’ an issue in public. Of all the disadvantages married women faced Elizabeth believed this ‘sex slavery’, as she termed, it to be the worst. For all her efforts, Elizabeth did not see a law passed against it in her lifetime – in fact this did not pass the Statute Book until 1991.

Reading through some of the exchanges and letters of Elizabeth WE it’s clear that whilst she was hard to work with at times, people respected her and her work for the feminist movement deeply. One example of this, is the financial support she received after the death of her husband.

Ben Elmy’s firm was a victim of the textile recession in north-west England in the late-1880s and was sold at a significant loss. After his death, Elizabeth and her son Frank had little more than their house and the £52 a year Frank earned as a local council rate collector. What saved them financially was the assistance of Elizabeth’s colleagues, led by Harriet McIlquham along with Frances Rowe and Louisa Martindale. These women could see beyond the sometimes acerbic exterior to the woman beneath and, to ease her material burdens, established the ‘Grateful Fund’ in the mid-1890s, which provided an income for the Elmys of £1.00 per week. The ‘Grateful Fund’ and, latterly, a Testimonial organised in 1910 by (among others) Lady Constance Lytton and Emmeline Pankhurst, provided for her care in the final years of her life.

Sometimes, as Elizabeth’s letters show, the money kept the family from real poverty – although she only accepted it on the grounds that it let her work continue. The reality is that as many as found Elizabeth difficult found her vulnerable, and they loved her with real devotion and commitment, understanding that she worked from pure, selfless motives. Elizabeth’s significant collections of letters and other documents, which form the documentary base for the biography, are wonderful resources and they tell many times of her gratefulness to her benefactors. Often written late at night, after she had completed a full day of domestic and political work, her letters to Harriet McIlquham are full of love and tender concern.

Also, albeit infrequently, they show what one eminent historian has referred to as ‘bile and vitriol’, spiteful commentaries regarding colleagues who, Elizabeth believes, have fallen from the true, selfless, feminist path. Particular targets of criticism include Florence Fenwick Miller, Ursula Bright (sister-in-law of John Bright), Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the leadership of the NUWSS. It is true that some of these letters can be read as being excessively critical of some of her colleagues, but the context in which she wrote them is important – particularly when she was under severe strain following Ben Elmy’s business failure in 1888. The fact that she was herself working over 50 hours a week in the textile mill to try and save its fortunes, plus her ‘normal’ domestic duties and feminist campaigning, perhaps makes her somewhat harsh style a little more understandable.

What do you think is the key aspect of EWE’s legacy?

Simply, her tenacity. Without her single-mindedness and untiring focus, I wonder just how successful Victorian feminists would have been in changing so many of the laws that repressed women in all circumstances of life. Elizabeth was foremost in campaigns which made it possible, for example, for working women to have a right to their own income; for separated wives to have increased rights of access to their children; and for the campaign for the vote to be rooted not in the possession of property but simply on grounds of individual autonomy. She died having achieving much of what she had set out to do. The parliamentary vote had been granted to women over thirty year of age (and to women University graduates) a mere six days before her death.

As I have written in the conclusion to the book, it is satisfying that she died at a moment of triumph in feminist history but she still would not have been content because the issue of ‘sex slavery’ had still not been resolved. Her true legacy though is that she never stalled in her objectives, no matter how ill or tired, no matter what her age or personal circumstances, she put all thoughts of self aside. Her place in history should be, perhaps, as one of England’s greatest humanitarians.

Title: Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy and the Victorian Feminist Movement – The biography of an insurgent woman
Author: Maureen Wright
Price: £65.00 (hardback)
Published: 2011
Publisher: Manchester University Press
ISBN: 978-0-7190-8109-5

Article by Arwa Aburawa

Celebrating the Luddites’ 200th anniversary

November 2011 – January 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprisings: a “great opportunity to celebrate this struggle for workers’ and working-class rights, and to redress the wrongs done to them and their name”. In a guest post, David King introduces the history of the Luddites in Manchester and Lancashire and highlights some of the upcoming events in the commemoration.

In the case of the Luddites, history has been written by the victors. Nowadays the word ‘Luddite’ means someone opposed to all technology and progress. In fact, the Luddites opposed only technology ‘hurtful to Commonality’, (i.e. the common good): they destroyed some machines whilst leaving others alone. The current meaning was invented in the 1950s when Britain was shifting its economy away from manufacturing and towards high technology. The aim was to stigmatise those with valid concerns about issues like nuclear power, and automation in the workplace.

In Lancashire the Luddites were fighting the introduction of power looms to the cotton industry, which were undercutting the cloth produced by handloom weavers, who largely worked in their own cottages. As in other parts of the North and Midlands, the weavers were suffering severely from a depression in trade, caused by the wars with France, and a series of bad harvests which had drastically increased food prices. The weaving communities around Manchester had petitioned Parliament repeatedly in the period before 1811, asking for measures to relieve their situation, but were ignored by Tory governments obsessed with the then-new free market economic doctrines.

In Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire the Luddite raids followed a guerrilla warfare pattern, involving night raids by small bands of disciplined men. However in Lancashire, Luddism involved large riots, with much more violence on both sides. This was partly because the new industrial production in Lancashire was based in massive mills, with hundreds of machines that could not be easily destroyed by small groups, except by burning the whole mill. The Luddite riots in Lancashire often took place in the daytime and involved hundreds of people from many different trades, including women. Because there were fewer large mills to defend, the thousands of troops that the government had stationed throughout the North (more soldiers than were currently fighting with Wellington in Spain) were able to defend the mills more easily, and this led to a great deal of bloodshed, most notoriously at the Burton mill in Middleton, where up to thirty people were killed.

In May 1812 at the Assizes in Chester 10 were hanged, 38 transported and 18 imprisoned. Overall, the Luddite attacks were less successful, with one mill (at Westhoughton) largely destroyed, and one warehouse burned. Thus, although Lancashire Luddism involved more sound and fury than in Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire, it was considerably less effective. It burned brightly between February and April 1812, but then died away.

The Luddites200 group is aiming to encourage local celebrations of the Luddite uprisings around the country, because we believe that this is an extremely important episode in English social history, and as EP Thompson argued, a key stage in the creation of the English working class. It also has important lessons for today as, for example, technology continues to be deployed in order to implement the public sector cuts. Workers, from librarians to court stenographers and even coastguards are being replaced by digital machines.

We were very surprised to find that, whilst in Yorkshire a consortium of local museums and archives and Huddersfield University are organising a programme of activities to celebrate the anniversary, there is very little happening in Lancashire. In particular, we were astonished that the People’s History Museum, the obvious place for such activities, has no plans to celebrate the anniversary, and no permanent exhibits on the Luddites. In fact, they have a timeline of the development of trade unions and the movements for parliamentary reform in the 19th century, that has a large blank space exactly where the Luddites should be.

How can this be? It is difficult to come to any other conclusion than that the PHM, like much of the conventional Left, shares the popular misconception of the Luddites as reactionary, as well as somehow not ‘really’ being part of the organised working class. Despite the efforts of Marxist historians like EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm to situate the Luddites firmly within working class and trade union history, many still subscribe to these outdated misconceptions. The Luddites can hardly be blamed for not forming trade unions, since they were illegal at the time, but like the Yorkshire croppers and Nottinghamshire framework knitters, the cotton weavers maintained a well organised quasi-legal organisation for petitioning parliament, and were often highly politicised, sometimes going so far as to openly and seditiously support the revolution in France. As Hobsbawm has pointed out, this tradition of ‘collective bargaining by riot’ and machine breaking had a long history in the labour disputes of the 18th century, and was often a highly effective method of forcing employers to accede to workers’ demands.

Luddites200 will be holding a workshop at the Manchester & Salford Anarchist Bookfair on December 3rd, where you can learn more about the history of the Luddites and their significance for debates about technology today. We hope you will be able join us.

The Suffragette Attack on Manchester Art Gallery, April 1913

On 3rd April 1913 three suffragettes – Annie Briggs, Evelyn Manesta and Lillian Forrester – attacked a number of pictures in the Manchester Art Gallery as part of the militant campaign for votes for women which by this period had escalated to the use of violent tactics, including mass window-smashing, attacks on politicians, damage to property and arson.

The Manchester Guardian reported the event as follows:

“Just before nine ‘clock last night, when the Manchester Art Gallery was about to close and few people were about, an attendant in a room leading to the big room of the permanent collection heard crackings of glass follow each other rapidly. He immediately rushed into to the big room followed by another attendant, who was nearby. They found three women making a rush around the room, cracking the glass of the biggest and most valuable paintings in the collection. They had already completed their work on the right side of the room going in, where pictures by such great artists as Watts, Leighton, Burne- Jones and Rossetti were hung , and were going around the top of the room. The outrage was quickly and neatly carried through, and when the attendants came running in the women were within reach of two more large pictures – one by Millais, the other by Watts. The attendants at one rushed to arrest them but as there were three to two of the women escaped from the room. The attendants, however, called to the door-keeper and immediately the big doors were closed and the retreat cut off.
The women were quietly kept within closed door while the Town Hall were informed. The Chief Constable and a superintendent at once went across and took the women to the Town Hall. There they questioned them and, after charging them, allowed them out on bail until this morning, when they will appear before the stipendiary magistrate.”

The pictures damaged were
– The Last Watch of Hero – Leighton
– Captive Andromache – Leighton
– The Prayer – Watts
– Paola and Francesca – Watts
– The Hon J L Motley – Watts
– Astarte Syriaca- Rossetti
– The Flood – Millais
– Sybilla Delphica – Burne-Jones
– The Flood- Millais
– Birnam Woods – Millais
– The Last of the Garrison – Briton-Miliere
– The Golden Apples of Spring – Strudwick
– The Syrinx – Arthur Hacker
– The Shadow of the Cross – Holman Hunt

The women appeared at the magistrates’ court charged under the Malicious Damage Act and were bailed to appear for trial later that month. Lillian Forrester made a statement stating that “we broke the glass of some pictures as a protest but we did not intend to damage the pictures”. They had supporters in the gallery who unfurled a “Votes for Women” banner.

The attack was part of a wave of protests across the country against the sentence passed on Mrs Pankhurst on 3rd April at the Old Bailey. She was sentenced to three years in prison for “inciting persons unknown” to burn down building. As well as the attack on the paintings some eleven post boxes in Manchester were attacked with black liquid which damaged 250 letters.

Other “outrages”, as the press called them, included:
– The blowing up of a carriage on an empty train at Adswood, Stockport
– An explosion at the railway station at Oxted, Surrey
– The destruction by fire of an unoccupied house in Hertfordshire.

The women’s trial took place on 22nd April at the Manchester Assizes. The accused were stated to be members of the WSPU and were charged with “unlawfully and maliciously damaging” thirteen pictures in the gallery. Annie Briggs was 48 and a housekeeper, Lillian Forrester was 33 and married (her occupation was not given) and Evelyn Manesta was 25 and a governess.

Evidence was given by the police and the art gallery staff. It was stated that the cost of repairing the glass was £85 and repairing two of the canvasses was £25.

The three women did not deny the charges and did not therefore enter the witness box but chose to make speeches to the jury.

Annie Briggs said that she was not guilty of the charges brought against her. “I gave my comrades my fullest support but in no way aided them. Our women take their course on their own deliberate responsibility. This is not a personal but a world question.” She added that women had to protest against things which were intolerable to them. If she were sentenced she would feel she was sentenced because she was a member of the WSPU.

Lillian Forrester made a long speech, beginning by saying she did not stand there as a malicious person but as patriot. She thought motive was taken into account in the actions of all lawbreakers. She was political offender and the fact of being a political offender had led to the imprisonment only in the First Division in such cases of the late Mr W T Stead and Mr Jameson, who was responsible for a raid that caused the loss of life. Motive in those cases had been taken into account. She would make a stirring appeal to the jury to bring in a verdict of not guilty. If it was desired to inflict punishment they had already been punished by appearing before the courts three times and going through the present ordeal. Such a decision would redound to the credit of Manchester where the present movement had begun. She praised Mrs Pankhurst and said that after the sentence on her she had thought that Manchester should make some protest and she had considered whether she and other should speak in Albert Square. She added that her husband approved of what she did . She had a degree in history and her knowledge of history had spurred to this fight for women’s freedom.

Evelyn Manesta referred to women in the streets and said that the laws applying to men and women were unequal, particularly the divorce laws. She said that she was a political offender.
In his summing up the judge said that the jury should be impartial and not decide because they agreed or disagreed with their views. They had to administer the law and the jury had to say that they were satisfied on the evidence that the prosecution had proved the guilt of these ladies.

After a brief retirement the jury acquitted Annie and convicted Lillian and Evelyn. Lillian was sentenced to three months imprisonment and Evelyn to one month. The judge stated that if the law would allow he would send them round the world in sailing ship as the best thing for them.

Manchester suffragettes wrote to the Chief Constable, Mr Peacock, asking for permission to hold a demonstration in Stevenson Square on Sunday 4th May followed by a procession to Strangeways in protest at the raid on WSPU head-quarters in London and also at the sentences on Lillian and Evelyn. The Manchester Guardian reported that the WSPU had received a letter from the prison governor stating that as the two women were refusing to do any prison work, they would not be allowed to receive any letters or visitors and would not be receive any remission of sentence.

Mrs Pankhurst was released on special licence after 10 days and taken to a nursing home because she had refused to eat. She was not forcibly fed as had happened to many other suffragette prisoners. The government was perhaps fearful of the consequences.

Many years later there was a postscript to the Manchester story. In 2003 Home Office files revealed that in September 1913 the Home Office had ordered that photographs of all the suffragette prisoners be secretly taken without their knowledge. This was done because many of the women had refused to have their pictures taken. The files include a disturbing picture of Evelyn Manesta taken in prison. She has the arm of a prison warder around her to hold her still. The picture was used in a wanted poster of Manesta circulated by Scotland Yard but on publication the image had been doctored to hide the arm.

Article by Michael Herbert

The Manchester Mechanics Institute

The Mechanics Institute began with a meeting between William Fairburn, Thomas Hopkins and Richard Roberts, who agreed to each contribute £10 towards the foundation of an Institute to teach young men the application of science to manufacturing and art. Fairburn was a noted engineer, born in Scotland, who had come to Manchester in 1813 where he made mill-machinery before moving into making boilers and ship-building. Roberts was also an engineer, born in Wales, who came to Manchester about 1815 and made his money in manufacturing high precision machine tools and also through inventions such as the self-acting spinning mule. All three men were members of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society, at which Hopkins had contributed a number of papers.

Following this initial meeting, a public meeting was held at the Bridgewater Arms public house on High Street on 17 April 1824, chaired by Benjamin Heywood, the banker. Those present resolved to set up an institution to be known as the Manchester Mechanics Institute with the object of delivering lectures on the various sciences and their application to the arts and also to establish a reference and circulating library. Sufficient funds were pledged to allow land to be purchased on Cooper Street, where a building costing £7,000 was put up.

Control of the Institute was firmly in the hands of Manchester’s self-made manufacturing class who firmly rebuffed any suggestions for change from the working people attending the lectures. In March 1829 Rowland Detrosier led a breakaway group who founded their own Institute. Detrosier had been abandoned as a child and brought up in Manchester by Charles Barnes, a member of the Swedenborgian church. He worked as a clerk and also lectured at the Swedenborgian Sunday school. For a time he was connected with the Stockport Bible Christian church.

Although Detrosier moved to London where he lectured and became secretary of the National Political Union, he retained his links with Manchester and on 25 March 1831 he gave a lecture at the New Mechanics Institute which was later published as a pamphlet entitled On the Necessity of an Extension of Moral and Political Instruction among the Working Classes with the assistance of Francis Place, one of his London friends.

Lacking the funds of its wealthy parent, the New Mechanics Institute was based in a joiner’s shop in a timber yard near the top of Brazenose Street. It was run on democratic lines and had a small library. This group of working people appears to have connections with the Owenite movement for they were amongst those who encouraged the Owenites to build the Hall of Science in Campfield. The New Mechanics Institute appears to have lasted ten years and it seems likely that once the Hall of Science was opened they transferred their classes and library to the new building which survived until 1844.

The original Institute held regular classes in music , French and German, nature study, art appreciation and science. In 1837 it was agreed to hold classes for women for, as one of the directors pointed out, “much good would arise from the proper cultivation of their minds”. Victorian notions of the proper place of women were much in evident, however, for their classes included how to make wax flowers and household management. In addition to classes for adults the Institute also ran a school for boys and girls from 1834, which was attended by several hundred pupils.

In August 1847 a meeting was held in the Institute to set up the Lancashire Public School Association with the aim of “promoting a general system of secular education”. At this time there was no state education, only private schools which few could afford. There were religious schools but, of course, these naturally promoted the particular religion they were affiliated to.

The Institute was able to attract well-known personalities including the actors William Macready (famous for his Shakespeare performances) and Fanny Kemble (who was active in the anti-slavery movement) and Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Institute eventually outgrew its original building and a new building was constructed on Princess Street (then called David Street), costing £20,000 which opened in 1857. The architect was John Edward Gregan. It opened with a major exhibition which thousands visited.

In June 1868 the Institute was used for a congress of trade unions, the first such meeting to be held and which annual meeting continues to-day

In 1870 the government passed an Education Act which for the first time made education compulsory for children between the ages of 5 and 12, establishing elected School Boards were set to build and run the new schools. This made some of the work of the Mechanics Institute unnecessary as basic provision for children was now under the aegis of the School Board. In September 1883 a Technical School was opened in the building by Oliver Heywood (son of Benjamin, who was continuing his father’s charitable work and whose statue can be seen in Albert Square). It was absorbed into the Manchester education system in 1892.

In 1910 a Day Training College was opened in the building to train teachers properly for there had been complaints for many years of the poor standard of teaching in schools., especially by pupil teachers who often had no formal training at all.

In 1917 another change took place when the building was designated the Municipal High School of Commerce. It ran day and evening classes for those hoping to pursue careers in business and included foreign languages in the curriculum. It moved out of the building in the 1960s.

By the mid 1970s the Institute was in a very bad state of repair although registered as a grade 2 listed building. Concerned trade unionists set up a campaign called MANTUC with the aim of restoring the building and re-opening it but after several years work this was not successful.

Another attempt succeeded some years later when, as the building neared collapse, a Trust was formed with backing from the City Council and the trade unions which restored the building and re-opened it as a trade union centre with meeting rooms, a main hall and a bar. The restoration included a meeting room set out with furniture, wallpaper and portraits in the style of 1868.

In 1990 the National Museum of Labour History moved its labour history archives into the ground floor of the building. (The galleries were in the Pumphouse). The official opening was on 7 May 1990 when the opening address was given by Jack Jones, former general secretary of TGWU and chair of the museum’s Trustees. In his speech he said

“I strongly believe that this gem of a museum is going to prove of great benefit to Manchester and the North of England, because of its special interest to trade unionists, members of the Co-operative movement and activist in the cause of women’s equality and progress will attract visitors from Germany, France, the other European countries and America as well as people from all parts of these islands.One of our prized possessions in Tom Paine’s table on which he wrote important parts of his famous work The rights of man. This writing of his made an enormous contribution to the American revolution and had some influence on the French revolution….

The many colourful and unique items on show to-day and others which we will be exhibiting will, I believe, demonstrate the real history of working people and their efforts to rise out of their poverty. This, I suggest, is much more important and educational than the drearysome recounting or reciting of dates of Kings and Queens and battles of the past.

All of us have a responsibility to cherish and preserve the essentials of historical development. It would be foolish to and indeed criminal to ignore and neglect that responsibility. Instead of respecting our past all too often very many objets of considerable historical value have been wantonly or inadvertently destroyed in the past by trade unions…It surely behoves both sides of industry and citizens generally to assist in avoiding the destruction of significant relics of people’s history.”

In March 2010 the labour history archives were moved out to a new home in the extended People’s History Museum (as the NMLH had by now rebranded itself). The Mechanics Institute remains open for meetings and other functions. For information on facilities offered in this historic building, please visit their website.

Article by Michael Herbert

The 1842 Strike, Part II

This article continues the history of the 1842 Strike begun on this page.

Thursday 11 August

At 6.30am a crowd of over 10,000, many of whom, it was noted, were women, assembled in Granby Row Fields. The main speaker was Christopher Doyle who urged the strikers not to return to work until their demands had been met. As he was speaking the Mayor Mr Neil and a number of magistrates rode up to the cart and told them that the meeting was illegal and must disperse. The Riot Act was then read and one hundred soldiers appeared, fully armed and with two six pound artillery pieces. The crowd fled but there was no violence or casualties. Companies of soldiers were then stationed in Hunt Street, on Oxford Road near Little Ireland, and also opposite Esdaile’s Buildings.

A meeting took place at the Carpenter Hall attended by mechanics, engineers, millwrights, moulders and smiths which passed resolutions in favour of the People’s Charter which they declared “contains the elements of justice and prosperity and we pledge ourselves never to relinquish our demands until that document becomes a legislative enactment”. They also pledged not to return to work “until the decision of the trades of Manchester be ascertained.”

During the morning thousands of workers marched from Ashton and Stalybridge to Rochdale and brought out most of the mills and factories. A mass meeting passed a resolution declaring that they would not resume work until they had obtained a fair price for a fair day’s labour. They then marched to Heywood and turned out the mills and factories there.

At about 1pm Sergeant Dale was sent with a few policemen and a number of Chelsea Pensioners, who had been sworn in as Special Constables as reinforcement to police stationed near Charles Street, Oxford Road. As they passed through the crowd some stones were thrown and the pensioners fell back and then ran off. (The pensioners were disbanded on 23 August).

Friday 12 August

There was a meeting of various trades and mill hands at the Fustian Cutters room, 70 Tib Street at 10am which passed two resolutions, one declaring that the strike was for the Charter and the other declaring that the operatives offer themselves as “conservators of the public peace”.

The mechanics met at Carpenters’ Hall at 2pm where they heard reports from delegates from Lancashire and Yorkshire on the situation in their trades and their attitude to the strike. The conference concluded by passing a resolution which stated “that the only remedy for the present alarming distress and widespread destitution is the immediate and unmutilated adoption and carrying into law of the document known as the People’s Charter, that this meeting recommends the people of all trades and callings forthwith cease work until the above document becomes the law of the land.”

Saturday 13 August

The weekly Manchester Guardian, published on Saturday, carried an editorial which practically frothed at the mouth:

“…we have seen the resolutions passed at the meeting of delegates at the Sherwood Inn and the Carpenters’ Hall yesterday. To us, who well knew the real objects of the agitators, these resolutions convey no information. But to parties who have hitherto, either wilfully or ignorantly, shut their eyes to the truth, we recommend a perusal of the resolutions; and especially the second, recommending that the present forced cessation of work shall be continued until what is called “the charter” becomes the law of the land. Disguise it as we may the present movement is rising against the government and the law. Call it by what name we please, IT IS REALLY AN INSURRECTION.” (The Manchester Guardian 13 August 1842)

The Queen issued a proclamation referring to “great multitudes of lawless and disorderly persons have lately assembled themselves together in a riotous and tumultuous manner, and have , with force and violence, entered into certain mines, mills, manufactories, and have, by threats and intimidation, prevented or good subjects therein employed from following their usual occupations and earning their livelihood” and offering £50 reward for all offenders brought to justice.

Monday 15 August

At 10am the most important trades meeting of this period known as the Great Delegate Conference opened at the Sherwood Inn, Tib Street. Alexander Hutchinson who represented the Manchester wiredrawers and card makers, was elected chairman. There was intense public excitement with a large crowd gathered outside who were advised to go home for fear of an attack by the military.

The conference was attended by 143 delegates. Due to the number it was agreed to adjourn and move to the Carpenters Hall, the conference re-opening at 1pm. The credentials of delegates were examined which took some time after which reports from them were heard. A draft of an address was put to the meeting and agreed and a committee of three delegates appointed to redraft it.

The meeting was adjourned until the following morning.

Tuesday 16 August

Alexander Hutchinson opened the second day of the trades conference by stating that he had seen “a great change in the opinion of working men of Manchester… They were as earnest as ever and appeared to see more than ever the necessity of a great struggle for their political rights…they would not be men if they did not adopt every measure they could to ensure a triumph and gain political rights.”

The Northern Star reported that the gallery was “occupied by parties from the country who took great interest in the important business for which the meeting had been convened.”

Hutchinson read the address which had been agreed to and already published and expressed his hope that they would conduct the proceedings with calm and caution since the eyes of all England were upon the day’s proceedings.

“To the trades of Manchester and the Surrounding districts
Fellow citizens…we hasten to lay before you the result of our sittings. We find, by reference to the reports of the delegates assembled from various parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire …that no sufficient guarantee is afforded to the producers of wealth, but from the adoption and establishment of the people’s political rights, as a safeguard for their lives, liberties and interests of the nation generally…we, your representatives, call most emphatically upon the people to discontinue the production of the creation of wealth, until the result of our deliberations is made known to the people whom we represent… For ourselves, we have no other property than our labour; but in the midst of you we live and have our being; our parents, our wives and children are the hostages we present to you as our securities that we will do nothing ourselves, nor recommend anything to others inconsistent with their safety, nor recommend anything to others inconsistent with their safety, or your interest.”
Alexander Hutchinson, chairman; Charles Stuart, Secretary.

The assembled delegates continued to present reports which explained the attitude of those they represented to the strike and the Charter. Most were in favour of both. The Royston Powerloom delegate said he represented not just the weavers, but the whole village where meeting of 3,000 had voted for the Charter. The Ashton delegate said he represented 25,000 whom he believed were unanimous for the Charter. The delegate from Mossley said he represented a dozen factories.

There was long debate on whether to make the Charter the object of the strike. As this drew to a close the delegates became aware that magistrates, police and soldiers had surrounded the building. Richard Beswick, the Chief Superintendent of the Manchester Police, entered the hall and said that there had been alarm in the neighbourhood over the large crowds surrounding the hall and proclamations had been issued prohibiting all large assemblies. Alexander Hutchinson insisted that the meeting was legal, that the gallery was open to the public and that the press had been allowed to attend. Over some further argument two magistrates entered and declared that the meeting was illegal and must disperse within ten minutes. After they left the meeting resumed and a resolution in favour of the Charter was passed by over 120 votes, moved by Joseph Manory a bricklayer of Manchester, and seconded by A F Taylor, a power loom weaver. It was agreed to meet the following day at the Sherwood Inn, Tib Street at 10am

That same date the National Charter Association met in Manchester, the date having been chosen some months before to coincide with the anniversary of Peterloo. They issued two addresses in support of the strike which included the following.

“We have solemnly sworn and one and all declared, that the golden opportunity now within our grasp shall not pass away fruitless, that the chance of centuries afforded to us by a wise and all-seeing god, shall not be lost; but that we now do universally resolve never to resume labour until labour’s grievances are destroyed and protection secured for ourselves, our suffering wives and helpless children by the enactment of the People’s Charter.”

The government at first taken aback by the strike but now set in motion plans to crush it. On 23 August Lieutenant- General Sir Thomas Arbuthnot arrived in Manchester, having been sent by the Home Secretary Sir James Graham to take charge of the Midlands and the North.

Strike leaders and delegates to the trades conference were arrested, as were local Chartists. The strike gradually ran out of steam as strikers returned to work. The Manchester weavers held out to the last and did not return to work until the end of September.

At least 1500 strikers were arrested and were brought before magistrates’ courts. Many were imprisoned. On 29 August the Salford Intermediate Session opened at the New Bailey with 31 magistrates on the bench. Before them were 199 prisoners committed on charges of felony and another 159 on charges of misdemeanour. The chairman of the bench J F Foster stated that “…the tumult and disturbances, such as were recently witnessed in this neighbourhood, should be put down with the strong hand of the law, and the parties convicted of taking part in them severely punished.”

In March 1843 59 leading Chartists, including Feargus O’Connor, were tried in Lancaster, charged on nine accounts of inciting strikes, riots and disorder. Most were convicted but curiously they were never sent to prison, the sentences being suspended because of what was claimed was “a technicality”. It seems likely that the government, having defeated the strike and jailed many local leaders, was content to let matters lie.

Article by Michael Herbert

The 1842 Strike, Part 1

In the summer of 1842 a great wave of strikes engulfed Lancashire and Yorkshire. The wave began in the Staffordshire coalfield in July when the miners went on strike for fewer hours and more pay. They also linked economic with political demands when a meeting passed a resolution stating that “nothing but the People’s Charter can give us a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’.” Miners marched from pit to pit spreading the strike as far north as Stockport.

Cotton masters in Stalybridge and Ashton-under-Lyne gave notice that they intended to reduce wages by 25%. A mass meeting was held in Ashton on 26 July which was addressed by two Chartists and this was followed by other local meetings.

On Monday 8 August thousands of workers gathered at the Haigh in Stalybridge and brought out mills and factories in Ashton, Dukinfield and other villages. At 2pm thousands gathered in Ashton market square and then dispatched delegations to Oldham and Hyde to bring them out as well.

Tuesday 9 August

Perhaps 20,000 strikers gathered in Ashton and set off to Manchester along Ashton New Road, turning out mills and factories along the way. When they reached the junction of Pollard Street and Great Ancoats Street they were met by the magistrates, police and military. According to a letter later printed in the Manchester Guardian from Mr Daniel Maude, the chief magistrate, the procession “was led by large party of young women very decently dressed. Both they and the men who followed were arranged in regular file and nothing could be apparently more respectful and peaceable than their demeanour”.

Mr Maude refused to listen to the entreaties of the Chief Constable Sir Charles Shaw, who wanted to turn the police and military loose on the crowd, but instead placed himself at the head of the procession and led them to Granby Row Fields where they held an open air meeting which was joined by thousands from the neighbouring mills as they shut for dinner at noon. Richard Pilling stood on a cart and spoke of what had happened in Ashton and other towns. He told the crowd that they were determined not to return to work until the prices of 1840 were restored and they were seeking the co-operation of the people of Manchester for a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s labour. At 1.30pm the crowd gave three very loud cheers for the People’s Charter and then set off back to their homes.

During the afternoon the Manchester mills were visited and turned out as well. There was some trouble where mill managers refused. The lodge at the Oxford Road twist company was gutted but the mill was untouched. At Birley’s Mill in Chorlton-upon-Medlock the managers closed and barricaded the doors and turned hose–pipes on the crowd, which retaliated by hurling lumps of coal at the windows, smashing hundreds. The managers climbed onto the roof and hurled down stones and pieces of metal onto the crowd below, nearly killing a young woman. Eventually the police and military turned up and dispersed the crowd, arresting seven people.

There was an attempt to start the mill the following morning but many workers were stopped from going in by mass picketing. The streets were cleared and patrolled by armed soldiers. On Thursday the there was fierce battle between the police and strikers, who only retreated after being charged by riflemen with fixed bayonets. The company closed the works at the end of the week, stating that on Friday and Saturday “a large proportion of the hands did not come and we reluctantly closed our Mills… We lament the necessity for suspending the payment of weekly wages to large number of usually contented and well conducted individuals, on many of whom others depend for support. “

The mill remained shut until 2 September.

Wednesday 10 August

There was meeting of 5, 000 at 6am at Granby Row addressed by a number of Chartists, including Christopher Doyle, who advised the crowd to apply to the workhouse for subsistence and not to go to work until the wages are raised. He advised people to go peacefully and not to break the law. The strikers marched to Ancoats, turning out mills on the way, the numbers growing to 10,000. The police blocked the way to the Kennedy mills, and there was some trouble with the cavalry being sent for.

Some of the crowd crossed Victoria Bridge into Salford, turning out mills along Greengate. The Manchester Guardian reported that

“ In passing along Broughton Road, one or two boys went into the shop of James Faulkner, provision dealer, and asked for bread. He gave them a 4lb loaf which was instantly torn to pieces in the crowd. There seemed to be at first an inclination amongst the younger member of the crowd to enter the shop and see if they could not get more bread, but the main body of the rioters forced them away saying that it would ruin their cause should they begin to plunder. Having proceeded as far as Broughton Bridge they halted in front of Mr Williams’s silk mill, having heard that there were some hands at work, but on being assured that such was not the case, they passed along Silk Street, Hope Fields, Adelphi Street, across Broken Bank, into Oldfield Road, from which they announced of making their way to Granby Row, to attend the meeting which was to take place there as stated in the morning”

By 9am all the mills in the areas of Ancoats, London Road and Oxford Road had turned out their hands. Deputations went to the managers of the mills and warned them that if the mills did not stop, there might be disturbances. Mr Jones mill on Chester Street initially refused but gave way after a crowd gathered outside.

At Messrs Stirling & Beckton on Lower Mosley Street (where they had been trouble the previous evening) the mill was visited several times crowds who called on the hands to come out. When they refused the crowd began throwing stones at the mill and Mr Beckton’s house. The cavalry arrived and, drawing their swords, they dispersed the crowds who ran in all directions.

There was another meeting at lunchtime at Granby Row Fields attended by thousands and chaired by Daniel Donovan. The speakers urged people not to return to work until their demands had been met and also urged people not to go to the bread shops. The meeting was adjourned until the following morning. The crowd then went in procession to Little Ireland.

Round about noon a crowd of several hundred young men and women, many armed with sticks, came down from the direction of Newtown Silk Mill to the Union Bridge over the Irk at the bottom of Gould Street and called down to men working in the river cleaning the filters to stop work. They then moved on to attack the gas works but driven off by a small number of police They returned in greater numbers and began hurling stones at the offices and house, before leaving the area. (The gas works was later guarded by police, soldiers, and sixty Chelsea pensioners who had been sworn in as special constables)

The crowd now set about a small house on Roger Street being used as a police station, eventually breaking in and ransacking the building, throwing the furniture into the street and hurling the policeman’s clothes into the Irk. Sergeant Almon, the only man left in the building (the rest having fled) hid under the cellar steps and was not found. The Manchester Guardian reported that after the crowd had moved, “their places were filled by a great number of lads, women and even girls who appeared to take delight in taking the work of destruction even further. They tore the handles and locks from the doors, broke the doors inside the house to pieces, pulled down mantelpieces, and even tore the grates out of the brick-work. The iron shelves of the oven were thrown out of the window, and everything was done to destroy the property.” Eventually fifty police and several dragoons arrived and seized a girl aged 14, who had thrown many things out of the window, and took her to the New Bailey prison. With the coast now clear Sergeant Almon emerged from his hiding place, clutching a sword. Nothing remained of the house except the floor and walls.

At about 12.15 a crowd of several hundred went down Princess Street, some of whom entered a provisions shop belonging to Mr Howarth and demanded bread. Perhaps not surprisingly he handed over several 4lb loaves. When the police arrived within a short space they arrested seven men who were still in the shop and took them to the New Bailey prison.

Later that same afternoon a crowd of thirty or so knocked on all the doors of house of Cooper Street, demanding money or bread from the house-holders who complied. The police led by Inspector Green stepped in and arrested the leaders.

Between 3pm and 4pm another group, who had already taken bread from shops on Deansgate, attacked a number shops on Oldham Street, stealing bread and other provisions and money. They then went off for a drink on the proceeds to the Cross Keys public house, Cross Street, Swan Street, where they were found by the police who arrested five men. The Manchester Guardian reported that they had been assured that “these parties consisted for most part of young thieves and not at all of workmen.”

At half past three a meeting of mechanics on a piece of waste ground near Oxford Road was attacked by a party of dragoons with sabres and the Rifle Brigade and dispersed, but not before they had agreed to meet the following day at the Carpenters Hall.

On Wednesday evening a public notice was issued summoning Chelsea pensioners to the Town Hall. The following morning some three hundred reported for duty and were sworn in as special constables

That same evening a group of women gathered in Great Ancoats Street and marched through the streets , their numbers increasing as they went. Their object was to bring out more mills. They were successful on Mill Street where the workers came out and they then moved onto Kennedy’s Mill, demanding that the mill to be closed. When this was refused they attacked the mills with stones, broke open the door and were about to invade the mill when the police arrived and set about the crowd. The Northern Star reported that the police “charged the people, sparing neither age nor sex, but laying about them right and left with their bludgeons and cutlasses; many were knocked down and beaten until they were unable to rise from the ground.” The women fought back with volleys of stones and the police eventually ran off “amidst the curses and execrations of the immense assemblage”.

Major Warre , the Manchester military commander, wrote to the Home Secretary requesting more soldiers, explaining that “I have but a very inadequate force in this town under the altered and excited state of things from the state of organisation among the working classes…..I did not expect that the general turn-out of work would take place in the towns of Lancashire to the south of this place… and that they should venture to march in bodies into Manchester notwithstanding the police and garrison.”

Until they had more soldiers, the town authorities advised mill-owners not to attempt to start up their mills as they could not provide enough forces to protect the mills and workers.

[Continued in Part 2]

Article by Michael Herbert