John Doherty was born in Ireland and moved to Manchester as a young man, working as cotton spinner.. In 1819 he was sentenced to two years in prison after taking part in a strike. Undaunted he led the Manchester spinners on two occasions and attempted to set up a national union for cotton spinners. He also supported factory reform and Irish independence. For a time he ran a radical bookshop and published radical newspapers.
John Doherty was born in Buncrana, County Donegal either in 1797 or 1798 and began work in the town’s cotton mills at the age of ten. A few years later he moved to Larne and thence on to the growing industrial city of Manchester where he arrived, probably in 1816.
John quickly became active in the cotton spinners’ union and played a leading role in a strike in the summer of 1818 whilst working in George Murray’s New Mill. The strike was well organised but unable to force the masters to concede.
He was involved marshalling and directing pickets to stop scabs (or “knobsticks” as they were known as in those days) going to work. There were outbreaks of violence and a spinner was shot dead. John was arrested outside Birley’s mill on 26th August. The crowd tried to free him and the Deputy Constable, a brutal fellow by the name of Nadin, had to call out a regiment of soldiers to escort his prisoner to the New Bailey prison. John was tried in Lancaster in January 1819, along with a number of other strike leaders, and sentenced to two years hard labour in Lancaster Castle.
The harsh sentence did not diminish his zeal and he recommenced his union activities on release. John was closely involved in an attempt to form a federal union of the spinners in 1824-25 and also in their successful agitation against the re-imposition of the anti-trade union Combination Acts. He was secretary of the Manchester spinners between 1828 and 1830 and again between 1834 and 1836.
John also led the Manchester spinners in a six month strike against wage cuts in 1829, issuing weekly addresses on the state of the dispute and calling for public support. The strike failed but undaunted he immediately tried to establish a national union of the spinners, The Grand General Union of Operative Cotton Spinners. Seventeen delegates from across Britain met in Douglas on the Isle of Man in December 1829 to set up the union which lasted until 1831.
John Doherty was also involved in an attempt to set up a national union for all trades – the National Association for the Protection of Labour . . After some initial successes in attracting trades and members the association declined and was finished by 1832.
By now he was working as a bookseller, running a bookshop, coffee-shop and newsroom at 37 Withy Grove, where he also lived with his wife Laura and four children. In 1834 the family moved to 4 Withy Grove. Not only did John sell the radical press but he also published a number of radical and trade union newspapers himself, including The Poor Man’s Advocate..
In 1833, influenced by the co-operative and labour-exchange ideas of Robert Owen and in particular his plan for the “National Moral Union of the Productive Classes”, John undertook a number of speaking tours in support of a plan to reduce the hours of adult workers to eight hours a day without any loss of pay. In Sheffield he spoke on the same platform as Robert Owen. Abstinence from drink was another cause he supported (Doherty was a member of the Manchester Temperance Society) and advocated in his newspapers.
In 1834 six agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle were sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia – ostensibly for administering unlawful oaths – but in reality for joining a trade union. There was a national outcry against the sentences and John spoke at a meeting on 7 April in the Reverend Scholfield’s chapel on Every Street, Ancoats in which he attacked the “crafty, base and cruel Whigs”, who like the Tories before them “now sought to trample them underfoot”. The Tolpuddle Martyrs – as they had now become known – were eventually pardoned and returned to England in 1838.
That same year John gave evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee which was enquiring into trade unionism at the instigation of Daniel O’Connell, who had presented evidence of violence amongst trade unionists in Dublin, Glasgow and other towns. The unions feared that the government was planning to bring back the Combination Laws and make them illegal again. Doherty was asked by the Manchester spinners to represent them at the enquiry although, as he admitted himself, he had not had anything to with them for some years. He gave evidence in defence of trade unions on 7th June and insisted, despite long cross-examination by O’Connell, that a workman would be perfectly free in Manchester to accept spinning work at reduced prices and without joining the union and still not be subject to violence.
Ironically John was a great supporter of O’Connell and advocated the repeal of the Union in the newspapers he edited or published. When the Whig government introduced the Suppression of Disturbances Bill early in 1833 to crush protest in Ireland, radicals held a great protest meeting in Manchester on 4th March in Camp Field. John wrote that he hoped “the people of Ireland would not rashly fling themselves on the bayonets and bullets of the borough-mongering standing army; but first make a trial of their strength”. He also asserted that within six miles there were “at the least 20,000 real, stout, determined Irishmen, prepared to assist them by every means within their power, and that feeling was not merely confined to Manchester or this neighbourhood”. Doherty’s shop was one of the places where a petition could be signed against the bill, tithes and the Poor Law.
John became secretary of the Manchester Repeal Association with branches in the Irish districts of the town and in early 1834 meetings were held in different Lancashire towns in support of O’Connell’s campaign. On 10th February, for instance, Doherty and local radical John Knight spoke in Oldham where an association was set up for repeal and radical reform to be supported by weekly penny subscriptions. Having been denied rooms in Manchester an outdoor meeting attended by a thousand or so Irish weavers was held outdoors on 17th March at St George’s Fields near St Patrick’s church, which was addressed by Doherty and a number of other local radicals including Archibald Prentice and James Wroe.
Towards the end of the meeting the St Patrick’s Day parade organised by the Manchester Hibernian Society came onto the fields and John asked the crowd to give them three cheers, believing that they were about to join the meeting. Instead the marchers continued on their way and Doherty then attacked them in his speech, saying that “at the very moment when Englishmen and Irishmen were deliberating on the best means of relieving Ireland from her present degraded condition they had insulted the meeting by parading near the place where they were assembled”.
At the end of the four hour meeting James Wroe moved the successful motion in favour of a petition to parliament to repeal the Union. Doherty published a two penny twenty page pamphlet on behalf of the Repeal Association which sold over twenty thousand copies by May. By the following year, however, Daniel O’Connell had made his peace with the Whigs and the Repeal Associations lapsed until O’Connell revived the movement in the 1840s.
In 1835 Doherty became the Manchester agent of the weekly Dublin Satirist and in the autumn of 1836 he published the Life, Trial and Conversations of Robert Emmet in thirteen weekly parts. He does not seem to be have been involved in Irish affairs after 1840.
For two decades Doherty was active in the campaign for factory reform, which was trying to limit the excessive hours being worked in mills and factories. Workers set up Short-time Committees in northern towns to support the campaign for a parliamentary bill. In November 1828 , for instance, he chaired a meeting at the Manchester Mechanics Institute, called to adopt measures to prevent the overworking of children in cotton factories, where most of the speakers were spinners. In October 1832 he made a public speaking tour of the Lancashire cotton towns, ascertaining and publicising the treatment of workers by employers in each town. In January 1836 Doherty chaired a delegate conference in Manchester on how to take the long campaign forward.
In January 1842 he spoke for an hour and a half at a meeting on the necessity of a ten-hour bill. Victory was finally achieved when a ten-hour bill was passed in the Commons in June 1847
After twenty five very busy years, Doherty’s public political life seems to have ended by 1845. He died on 14th April 1854 at 83 New Bridge Street, largely forgotten. A character named Allen in Harriet Martineau’s novel The Manchester Strike was reputedly based on Doherty. His own words from August 1831 may serve as an epitaph.
“I want to better the condition of the people-to have them stand erect and look boldly in the faces of their masters, and to tell them “We are not your slaves; we are your equals. We are one side of the bargain, you are only the other. We give you an equivalent for what we get from you, and are therefore entitled to, at least, equal respect”. Whoever opposes the present system will be the object of attacks. I will persevere to oppose it in whatever situation I may be placed. I am so convinced of its injustice, that the idea of those who create all receiving scarcely anything is so monstrous, that I can never be persuaded to remain quiet as long as the system exists”
Michael Herbert, The Wearing of the Green ; a political History of the Irish in Manchester (2000)
R G Kirby, The Voice of the People, John Doherty 1798-1854. (1975)
Article by Michael Herbert