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

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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

Portraits of Chartist Political Prisoners in 1841

Chartist meetings were banned by proclamation of the government in 1839. Mass arrests followed with Chartists being imprisoned and transported. In a movement that nurtured personality cults and where Chartist leaders vied for the hero-worship of their followers, rancour and rivalry was inevitable.

William Lovett, a member of the ‘London Workingmen’s Association,’ published his People’s Charter in May 1838. Among its provisions, the Charter made a number of political demands which become known as the ‘six points’: (i) universal manhood suffrage; (ii) payment of Members of Parliament; (iii) equal electoral districts; (iv) abolition of property qualifications; (v) annual parliaments; (vi) the ballot. The people who subscribed to the aims of the People’s Charter became known as the Chartists.

As a movement, Chartism is best described as an umbrella group which comprised people from widely differing protest groups. Although some Chartists advocated non-violent means to achieve their aims, such as petitioning (three national petitions, in 1839, 1842 and 1848, were rejected by Parliament which refused to reform itself) and became known as ‘moral force’ Chartists, other Chartists favoured the use of firearms to achieve their aims and became known as ‘physical force’ Chartists. However, most Chartists were inclined to support whatever method they thought was more likely to succeed at any moment in time. Some believed that the very act of acquiring arms – which was legal at the time – would of itself intimidate the government and force it to submit to Chartist demands. Though many never intended to use arms, there were instances when they were used. In August 1848 James Bright, a police constable, was shot dead in the street by Chartists from Ashton-under-Lyne.(1)

Many of the working-class Chartists who were involved in the movement during the late 1830s and 1840s often lived in abject poverty. According to the Chartist historian Mark Hovel, ‘intolerable conditions of existence’ were the driving force behind Chartism.(2) In addition to the many hardships they had to endure, they also risked the blacklist and imprisonment for their involvement in the movement. Chartist meetings had been banned by proclamation of the government in 1839 and many Chartists had been arrested. In May 1840, more than 200 Chartists were in prison, eighteen had been transported, eleven of them for life. Six months later, the number of prisoners being held had risen to 480.(3)

In October 1840, Chester Castle held fifteen Chartist prisoners, ‘twelve of them for collecting arms’.(4) Many of these were from Ashton-under-Lyne and Stockport. We know something about the prisoners and what their conditions were like. This is because in 1841 the Home Office appointed prison inspectors to investigate the treatment of Chartist prisoners after receiving complaints from the public. The document ‘Confidential reports made by the Inspector of Prisons upon the cases of political offenders in custody on 1st July 1841’, gives us a revealing insight into prison conditions, the backgrounds of the prisoners, their grievances and the attitudes of the authorities towards them.(5)

Although described as ‘political offenders’, while in gaol the prisoners were treated as criminals. A common complaint among the prisoners in Chester Castle concerned the food. Many complained of ‘want of meat’ and their diet largely consisted of bread, gruel and potatoes. They complained of indigestion but could purchase food for themselves if they had the money. Some were receiving money from the ‘victim fund’ (Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor had founded a national defence fund for arrested Chartists in June 1839) or from subscriptions or from relatives. Many complained about being locked up too early – 7.00 pm – and they also complained that they were only allowed to read The Times and no other newspaper. Prisoners were allowed visits from relatives, sometimes unsupervised, and correspondence could be confiscated and inspected.

The Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens, who was a Chartist prisoner, complained about the power of visiting magistrates who could reduce the men’s diet, enforce prison dress and impose solitary confinement. They resented what few privileges the prisoners enjoyed and did their best to restrict them. The prisoners were also allowed to purchase books and could exercise in a yard.

Timothy Higgins, aged 35, from Portland Street, Ashton-under-Lyne, was one of the Chartist prisoners held in Chester Castle. He was a cotton spinner and was married with four children. He had been convicted of conspiracy at the Autumn Assizes at Chester in 1839 and had been imprisoned for 18 calendar months.

According to a report in the Manchester Guardian on 3rd July 1839, the police had searched the home of Timothy Higgins and found two long narrow chests. Inside the chests they found 17 muskets with bayonets, four doubled barrelled guns, a rifle, one large horse pistol, four common-sized pistols, and a quantity of bullets and cases. When he’d been asked why he had the weapons, Higgins replied that he had them from the manufacturer, George Thompson, for the purpose of sale. At the courthouse the following day, Higgins had been given bail and released after his solicitor Richard Corbett submitted to the Magistrates that there had been no grounds stated which would justify the constables entering the prisoner’s house and seizing the arms.

In prison, Higgins was interviewed by Inspector WJ Williams. He said that he’d received about £6 by way of subscription and that his wife had received £2 from the victim fund. He said he’d used the money to buy books and food. The report says that he could read and write well and had been writing poetry while in prison and reading ‘Scott’s novels and common historical works’ and improving his arithmetic. He complained of having no meat and of being locked up at 7.00 pm. He also said that his wife was ‘about to be thrown upon the Parish’.

Although the pretext given for these prison interviews was to make inquiries about the prisoners’ conditions, it is clear from the reports that the inspectors were assessing each prisoner to make judgements about them and their political views in order to report back to the Home Office.

Inspector Williams writes: “Higgins avows himself a republican and is a member of the Workingmen’s Association. Is a man of considerable intelligence, not devoid of feelings. He shed tears when I spoke to him of his family.” Williams quotes Higgins as saying:

“‘I was brought up a cotton spinner – it was my agreeable calling when I first followed it, but they have got into the habit of applying self-acting machinery and man is of no use. I know some of the most intelligent in society who cannot get bread. They take a man now for his muscular appearance not for his talent – machines have become so simple that attending them is commonplace labour.’ This man was appointed an agent of Thompson’s for the sale of arms; a very trifling encouragement would induce him to emigrate to the U.S….”

George Thompson, a Birmingham gunsmith, had been supplying arms to Chartists in Ashton, Manchester and Stockport. He had also been convicted of conspiracy and given 18 months imprisonment in Chester Castle. The report says: “reads and writes well… is of a petulant temper and of ordinary ability.” He was allowed beer and wine by direction of the surgeon – he suffered from chronic rheumatism – and was allowed to exercise outside the yards. In his observations Williams says:

“This individual was called upon by…M’Douall whom he supplied with arms and then established agencies for the sale of them… the agents all being notorious Chartists. I do not believe it was anything more with him than a money making transaction but one of a mischievous character.”

The Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens, who had been appointed to the Ashton-under-Lyne circuit in 1832, was aged 34 when he was convicted at the Assizes in Chester in 1839. He was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for the offence of “using seditious language at a public tumultuous assembly.” He was allowed to maintain himself and could use a private room to study and to eat. He told Inspector Williams:

“I have been insulted by one set of Chartists here, who sided with M’Douall, although I have in frequent instances given them money and food.”

In his observations, Williams remarked that Stephens was:

“an object of suspicion to M’Douall and his followers who call him traitor and are indignant at his pocketing the whole of the money raised by subscription for his defence by counsel, when he defended himself and employed none.”

Peter Murray M’Douall was aged 26 at the time of his imprisonment in Chester Castle. A physical force Chartist, he was a surgeon who had a practice in Ramsbottom, near Bury. In July 1839 he had been sentenced at the Assizes in Chester to 12 months imprisonment for sedition and attending an illegal meeting in Hyde in April 1839. Though he had been released from prison in August 1840, there was a great deal of enmity between the Chartist prisoners who were split into two factions – those who followed Stephens and those who followed M’Douall. A number of Chartists had asked that they be kept apart from Stephens who they regarded as an apostate. There had been violence in the prison when one prisoner had sustained a broken jaw.

In a movement that nurtured personality cults and where speakers competed for the hero-worship of their audiences, it was inevitable that there would be fragmentation and rivalries. The rupture between Ashton Chartists had occurred in June 1839, when M’Douall had publicly accused Stephens of committing an indecent assault on the unmarried sister of James Bronterre O’Brien, the Chartist leader.(6) Though this allegation was never proven it did damage Stephens’ reputation.

Stephens’s hatred for M’Douall ‘had no bounds’.(7) While in prison, he had sought to expose M’Douall’s immorality by alleging that he had tried to seduce the turnkey’s daughter: M’Douall later married her. At his trial, Stephens had repudiated Chartism declaring his detestation of the doctrine. Though Stephens never was a Chartist and said so on numerous occasions, many Chartists believed him to be so and he was accused of apostasy. He had also defended himself rather than employ counsel. Many Chartists who had contributed to his defence fund felt betrayed. There were also requests for the money to be given back so it could be used for the defence of other Chartists awaiting trial.

One of the prisoners who asked to be kept separated from Stephens, was Isaac Johnson, a blacksmith from Stockport. He was aged 36 and was married with two children. He told Inspector Williams that three of his children had died while he’d been in prison. He had been sentenced to 1 year’s imprisonment for ‘uttering seditious words’. In his observations, Williams remarks that Johnson was a shrewd man but uneducated:

“Which he explains was owing to his being turned out of school after gaining six prizes in consequence of his Father obliging him to go to school in a white hat with a crape and green riband at Peterloo time, for which he was expelled and never went anywhere afterwards. He is devoted to M’Douall with whom he appears ready to go to all lengths.”

Another prisoner who was much attached to M’Douall was James Duke, aged 36, who was married with six children. A cotton spinner by profession, he was the landlord of the Bush Inn, Stamford Street, Ashton-under-Lyne. The pub was a well known meeting place for Chartists and it was here that Stephens was arrested by the Bow Street Runner, Henry Goddard. James Duke had been sentenced to 1 year’s imprisonment for ‘conspiracy to excite the people to arms’. He was also an agent for the arms dealer George Thompson and both he and M’Douall had visited Birmingham to buy muskets and bayonets.(8)

Some of the Chartist prisoners did enjoy greater privileges in gaol due to their social class. Inspector Williams believed that Stephens was unpopular with some of the Chartists prisoners because he had ‘greater privileges’. In the county gaol at York, Inspector Williams interviewed the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, a barrister/journalist who had been given 18 months for libel. He says: “his behaviour was most courteous and gentlemanlike’ and then adds:

“Mr O’Connor is placed in a light room with boarded floor and a fire place near to the infirmary…the Magistrates have supplied an additional officer to wait upon him and attend almost exclusively to his wants. This man sleeps within call and takes Mr. O’Connor’s orders respecting his meals etc and the hours which he selects for exercise in the yard. Mr. O’Connor maintains himself and there is no restriction upon his food or as to the introduction of wine, of which since his imprisonment he has had from four to five dozen. His room is furnished at his own expense…there is no restriction upon his candles, fire, or the hour of going to bed.”

Although O’Connor complained about the presence of a third person when receiving visits and the restrictions on his letters, he told Williams that he was generally satisfied with his treatment. He was eventually released after serving 10 months.

Despite the fact that the Chartist movement degenerated into sects and factions after 1839, it nevertheless overcame this and also survived attempts by the government to suppress it. By 1842, it had become more efficient as an organization and it increased its membership. However, as economic conditions improved, leading to higher wages, working-class support for the movement began to decline. In the mid 1840s some Chartists following their leader O’Connor when he set up the Chartist Land Scheme, where workingmen contributed small sums to purchase allotments of land. The scheme was an economic disaster. After 1848 support for the movement declined rapidly and many Chartists later became Liberals. The six points only began to be adopted after the Chartist movement had ceased to exist and when the political elite were ready to adopt it. With the exception of annual Parliaments, every political demand of the Charter was later to be granted.

The failure of the movement to achieve its immediate aims can be attributed to a number of reasons. Although a working-class movement, trade unions generally remained aloof from Chartism and it tended to appeal to those workers who saw themselves as victims of industrialization rather than its beneficiaries. The Chartists themselves were often at variance with one another and could seldom agree on social policy. The movement also lacked political support in the Commons and failed to form alliances with the middle-classes. It also lacked an effective leadership which in the opinion of the Webbs, ‘brought it to nought’.(9)

Sources:

1. Work, Class & Politics in Ashton-under-Lyne 1830-1860. R.G.Hall PhD Thesis 1991. P. 226
2. Ibid – P137
3. Some Working-Class Movements Of The Nineteenth Century. R.F. Wearmouth. P.211
4. Purge This Realm. A Life of Joseph Rayner Stephens. M.S. Edwards. P.91
5. Confidential reports made by the Inspector of Prisons upon the cases of political offenders in custody on 1st July 1841. Tameside Studies Library.
6. Purge This Realm. P.63/64
7. Ibid – P.93
8. Some Working-Class Movements Of The Nineteenth Century. P107
9. A History of Trade Unionism – Webb.

Article by Derek Pattison

Mary and Percy Higgins: Communists in Tameside

Mary and Percy Higgins, a couple from Tameside, were active politically on the left, first in the Labour Party and then in the Communist Party, from the early 1930s to the end of their respective lives.

Mary was born Mary Boardman on 22 August 1914 in Failsworth, of working-class parents. Her mother ran a hardware and china shop. Politics ran in the family: her parents were members of the Failsworth Secular Society and founders of the Independent Labour Party, whilst on her mother’s side her grandparents had been Chartists. Mary herself joined the Labour Party at the age of 16 and was elected to the executive the next year. She also became active in the Labour League of Youth (LLY, which in the 1930s had 30,000 members) and was elected as a delegate to the Manchester Federation.

She attended a national LLY conference in Leeds but came back disillusioned because, she felt, the young people attending were not allowed to discuss matters of real importance. As well as being active in Failsworth she also helped out at Mossley Labour Party (very likely because she had met Percy Higgins, her future husband, who lived in Mossley). By the late 1930s she was becoming disillusioned with the Labour Party and began reading the Daily Worker. Mary joined the Communist Party in Oldham in 1940, at first it seems as a paper member, because she carried on working in the Labour Party. After reading Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil and hearing Harry Pollitt (the national secretary of the Communist Party ) she made the final break with Labourism and become an active member of the CP in Oldham. She later said that: “I found that I could not reconcile pacifism with a belief that, should the time come for the working class to defend their rights, I would fight for those rights.”

Within months Mary had become the Party Secretary in Oldham. That same year she got married to Percy Higgins. At this time they were living on Dacres Estate, Greenfield.

Percy was born in Mossley on 3 January 1910, one of a large family, and attended St George’s Elementary School. “I learned very early in life what it means to be one of a big working class family in wartime and slump. There were nine of us in the family, but a sister died at the age of three and my father became estranged and separated from the family as a result of the 1914 war.” From a young age Percy had shown an aptitude for painting and drawing but with his father gone and family on the breadline Percy had to be sent to work in a mill at the age of 14 to earn money for the family, instead of going to art school, as both he and his mother had dreamed of. “I shall never forget the heartbreak it occasioned my mother, never shall I ever forget the way she wept when I went off on my first day to work in a cotton factory at the age of fourteen, instead of art school as she had always hoped for.”

Starting as a learner piecer at 10/- a week, Percy rose to become a big piecer by the age of 17, earning 25/- a week, enough for him to afford evening classes in art in Ashton-under-Lyne where he won prizes and improved his technique. Percy was thrown out of work in 1928 but after a few months got another job with a commercial firm in Rochdale.

Whilst unemployed, Percy heard a speaker on the Market Ground in Mossley proclaiming how Socialism could solve the problems of poverty and ignorance. “I thought it over and read some books.” These included the Socialist classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As a result he almost immediately joined the local Labour Party in which he became very active, assisting with the election of Herbert Gibson as the Labour & Co-operative candidate for Mossley at the general election in 1929. “I decided to give all the time I could to working for Socialism.” He started a Labour League of Youth and helped set up the Manchester Federation of Labour League of Youth (which is probably where he met Mary). In 1932 Percy organised a large demonstration by thousands of young people in Mossley against the Means Test and also stood for Mossley Council, but was defeated by 65 votes.

Percy realised his life’s ambition when he set up business as a freelance commercial artist in 1934. Though now a small businessman he did not abandon his Socialism and was Secretary of the Mossley Labour Party from 1933 to 1939 as well as Propaganda Secretary for the Lancashire District Clarion Youth Committee. In 1935 he assisted workers at Mossley Woolcombing to fight and win a strike over pay and conditions. At the same time Percy was also elected Secretary of Mossley Smalltraders Association, organizing a shopping week that same year to mark Mossley’s 50 years as a borough. He was also active in Aid Spain during the Spanish Civil War and in the Left Book Club. He took the 12 month correspondence course for Labour Party election agents, but left the Labour Party and joined the Communist Party in 1940.

In 1941 he joined the RAF and during his time at Padgate camp led a successful deputation to protest at the inept training and the food. After a brief spell in the Shetlands (where he established a Communist Party branch in Lerwick along with Peter Jamieson), he was eventually posted to Allahabad in India in 1943. He remained politically active, organising a Daily Worker reading classes and making contact with the Indian Communist Party. He met Indian Nationalists, including the son of Gandhi. Percy also served in Burma. His activities led him being moved to Nagpur, though this did not dampen his fervour for he made contact with local Communist Party and organized a Daily Worker reading group. He was posted again to Burma where he organized a Forces parliament.

Percy was demobbed in 1946. According to biographical notes submitted for a CP National School in January 1946 the Higgins were living back in Greenfield and Mary was working as a short-hand typist at R Radcliffe in Mossley. In 1947 they moved to Wales, where Percy worked as a full-time organiser and election agent for Harry Pollitt who stood as Communist Party candidate in the Rhondda East constituency several times, though was not elected. They lived in Penygraig, near Tonypandy, at this time.

Percy attended a National CP School in May 1950. The assessment of him noted that that he was very co-operative and ready to tackle problems and contributed well to group and class discussions, “though he has rather a tendency to leap into discussion without sufficiently thinking out his points.”

By the early 1950s Mary and Percy were back in Lancashire. Percy was now organising sales of the Daily Worker in Lancashire, quite successfully, according to a report in the CP archives. Mary worked as a medical secretary at Manchester Royal Infirmary.

They were very active members of CND formed in 1958, and took part in the Aldermaston marches and also marches to Holy Loch where nuclear submarines were based. Mary was involved with the Women’s Peace Caravan which crossed Europe to Moscow. In their spare time (what there was of it) they enjoyed walking in the Pennines and Lake District and also spent time at Dent in the Yorkshire Dales. Percy painted landscapes of their beloved lakes.

Percy died on 7 November 1977 and Mary died on 20 March 1995. The Working Class Movement Library has a tape of Mary taking about her life and politics.

Article by Michael Herbert

Ernest Jones and the 1846 Chartist gathering on Blackstone Edge

Many places in Britain have been commemorated in verse – think of Tintern Abbey (Wordsworth), or Wenlock Edge (Housman), or Adlestrop railway station (Edward Thomas), or Little Gidding (TS Eliot). Blackstone Edge can join this list, thanks to the nineteenth century political leader and poet Ernest Jones. His verse The Blackstone Edge Gathering, written more as a song than a poem and set to a popular tune of the day, was composed in 1846.

Jones begins by looking down from Blackstone Edge over the plain – or at least trying to. Instead of his eye being led to far horizons, however, what greets him is industrial smoke and pollution, the product of the cotton mills which, as we have already seen, had been transforming the landscape and the economy of this part of Lancashire. It was not a pretty sight. In fact, Jones suggests, there is something about it which is against the natural order of things:

O’er plains and cities far away

All lorn and lost the morning lay

When sank the sun at break of day

In smoke of mill and factory.

On Blackstone Edge itself, however, high above the Lancashire plains, it’s a different story:

But waved the wind on Blackstone Height

A standard of the broad sunlight

And sung that morn with trumpet might

A sounding song of liberty!

We know exactly which ‘morn’ Ernest Jones was referring to: it was Sunday, August 2nd in 1846. The poem itself, as its title suggests, commemorates an event which took place here, up on the Pennine escarpment, during the heyday of the Chartist movement.

Walking past the Blackstone Edge rocks today it’s hard to imagine this as the setting for a mass political rally. Nevertheless, that Sunday in August saw about thirty thousand people gathered here, at least according to a report a few days later in the Chartists’ own newspaper the Northern Star. There would have been banners and pennants ready to be waved by the wind, there would have been speeches (and they would have been long), but there’d have been a party atmosphere too, rather like on most demonstrations today. Chartism was strong on both sides of the Pennines, both in the larger mill towns such as Halifax, Bradford, Rochdale and Oldham and in the smaller towns such as nearby Todmorden, and rallies on moorland tops were a feature of the movement, it presumably being rather easier to discuss radical politics away from the immediate attention of the mill-owners and their supporters. Blackstone Edge was a convenient place to bring together people from both the Lancashire and Yorkshire towns “all of whom” (this is the Northern Star, again) “must have travelled three miles, and many of whom had travelled thirty to renew the covenant with their fellow men.”

It was the Chartists who helped define the shape of our modern democracy, arguing the case for a political system where voting is the responsibility and right of all, not just of those with money and wealth. And, much to the concern of the British state who periodically set about arresting and imprisoning the Chartist leaders, It was also the first time that a working class in Britain made its presence firmly felt on the national political landscape.

When Ernest Jones joined the crowds at Blackstone Edge, the Chartist movement had already been in full flow for eight or more years. Chartism took its name from the People’s Charter which carried the demands of the movement and which was first published in May 1838. There were six demands: universal male suffrage (or in other words, votes for all men 21 and over), a secret ballot, no property requirements to become an MP, payment of MPs, equal constituencies and annual parliaments. 1838 was a year of activity and mass mobilisation throughout Britain. Newcastle, for example, had a mass demonstration in June, Birmingham in August and Manchester in September. Each city and town made their choice of delegates to attend the Chartist National Convention, which met for the first time the following February. In June 1839, the first Chartist petition (three miles long, by the time it arrived in London) was presented to Parliament, and of course firmly rejected (the voting was 235 against to 46 in favour).

Thereafter followed several years of ups and downs. 1839 saw an abortive rising in Newport, Monmouthshire, and early 1840 would see other attempts at armed uprising, in places such as Sheffield, Bradford and Dewsbury. In general, this was a time generally when the state regained the upper hand, and several Chartists found themselves in prison for various alleged public order offences. The next high water mark for the movement was the year of 1842, when a second petition was taken to Parliament and when, later in the Autumn, the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire were convulsed by a wave of industrial protests known to historians as the Plug Riots. (This had nothing to do with bathroom plumbing. An effective way, the protesters found, to stop the mills from working was to remove the plugs from the boilers of the engines which drove the machinery). Thereafter once again the tide receded. Chartists began to turn their attention from demanding parliamentary reform to creating their own land colonies, a back-to-the-land strategy more than a century before the alternative movement of the 1970s and 1980s tried the same thing.

But Chartism was to have one final year of mass political activity, in 1848, a year which was also marked in mainland Europe by a wave of revolutions. By 1846, therefore, there was perhaps a sense that the movement was once again on the move. This certainly is how the Northern Star reported the Blackstone Edge rally: “Sunday last may be considered as the resurrection day of Chartism,” the report began. Ernest Jones himself was clearly moved by the spirit of the event. His verse (and it must be time by now to get back to that) continued:

And grew the glorious music higher

When pouring, with his heart on fire

Old Yorkshire came with Lancashire

And all its noblest chivalry:

The men who give – not those who take!

The hands that bless – yet hearts that break –

Those toilers for their foeman’s sake

Our England’s true nobility.

So brave a host hath never met

For truth shall be their bayonet

Whose bloodless thrusts shall scatter yet

The force of false finality.

This last comment was something of a barb at the man who had become Prime Minister earlier that 1846 summer, Lord John Russell. Russell had a few years earlier pronounced himself completely satisfied with the way the British electoral system functioned, declaring (and I may be paraphrasing his exact words a little) “Nobody else gets the vote, and that’s final”. Thereafter to his political enemies Russell came to be known as Finality Jack.

Jones and his fellow Chartists not surprisingly had a different idea from the Prime Minister. Jones continues The Blackstone Edge Gathering in optimistic mood:

Though hunger stamped each forehead spare

And eyes were dim with factory glare

Loud swelled the nation’s battle prayer

Of – death to class monopoly!

Then every eye grew keen and bright

And every pulse was dancing light

For every heart had felt its might

The might of labour’s chivalry.

Jones concludes his poem by returning to Blackstone Edge itself, the ‘high hill’ from which the message of Chartism is to be carried out to the world:

And up to Heaven the descant ran

With no cold roof twixt God and man

To dash back from its frowning span

A church prayer’s listless blasphemy.

How distant cities quaked to hear

When rolled from that high hill the cheer

Of hope to slaves! to tyrants fear!

And God and man for liberty!

The Blackstone Edge Gathering was written by Jones immediately after the rally, and published about three weeks later in the Northern Star. The event was important for Jones, for as well as being its chronicler Jones was also one of the main speakers, the first time he had taken the platform publicly in support of the Chartist cause. He had an unusual background: his father was an Army major, his mother came from a large landowning family in Kent, and his godfather was the Duke of Cumberland, uncle to Queen Victoria. Jones was born and brought up in Germany and this upbringing gave him a natural ability with other languages. His family returned to England in 1838 when he was nineteen, and thereafter he qualified and practised as a barrister. The initial years of Chartist agitation passed him by. But something happened to change the course of his life, and by the start of 1846 he had thrown in his lot with the Chartist cause. He went on to become one of the national leaders, suffering two years of harsh treatment in prison at the end of the 1840s on what were effectively trumped-up charges. He met Karl Marx a number of times (Marx told Engels that he found Jones a little egotistical) and probably read Marx’s writings in its original German. He tried to keep the Chartist flame alive in the 1850s and for a time produced his own newspaper The People’s Paper. He also continued to write poems and songs.

Chartist orators must have had powerful lungs, particularly at large open-air events like that at Blackstone Edge. His skills as a barrister would have helped, too, to hold the large crowd. The text of the speech he made at the Blackstone Edge rally has survived and it shows him in powerful form. Here’s a short extract, just to give a flavour of his language:

“What? Are pounds sterling or living souls to be represented in our House of Parliament? What? Are the interests of a man possessing a million pounds to be cared for a million times more? This – this is what their argument involves. This, then is their philanthropy! Out upon them! They have but legislated for their money bags – we will legislate for our fellow-men. The interests they tried to promote was the interest of their vested capital – the interests we will further shall be those of humanity all over the world.”

At the time you might have accused Jones of being impossibly visionary in campaigning for votes for all and a democratic House of Commons. On the other hand, we know now that it was Jones and the Chartists who had the ear of the future, rather than Finality Jack.

This article is an excerpt from The Backbone of England: Landscape and Life on the Pennine Watershed by Andrew Bibby

The Hall of Science

Opened in 1840 by the Owenite Co-operative Movement, the Hall of Science was a centre for working class education and social activity for a decade.

Salford was an important centre for those inspired by the writings and ideas of Robert Owen to set up Co-operative enterprises.

In 1831 a small group of Co-operators opened up a school for children and adults, making the furniture themselves. They taught the three R’s as well as music, drawing, singing and dancing. Within six months they had 170 pupils, ranging in age from 12 to 40, most of whom were local factory workers keen to improve their education. For many, schooling had been denied them as they had no money to pay. The teachers at the Co-operative School were unpaid and there was no charge for tuition.

At the 3rd Co-operative Congress, held in 1832, the Manchester Society presented a report urging all societies to establish libraries and reading rooms to spread Co-operative ideas. At this time few working people could afford to buy books or even newspapers.

Having outgrown their original premises in 1835, the Salford Co-operators built and opened the Co-operative Social Institute on Great George Street. The costs were met by a local glazier, Joseph Smith. Robert Cooper, one of the teachers at the Salford Co-operative School, described the hall as follows.

“The windows were of stained class, the floors carpeted and the platform neat and elegant, ornamented with mottoes in gilt mouldings. Altogether it bore an aspect of comfort and respectability , such as I never saw before or since in connection with an almost purely working class movement.”

George Holyoake, who later became the most well-known historian of the Co-operative Movement, visited the Institute and recorded it as “a pleasant structure, costing £850 and capable of holding six hundred persons.”

In February 1837 Robert Owen addressed large audiences at the Salford Institute. These meetings became so crowded that they were moved to Bywater’s Rooms on Peter Street, which held 3,000 people. Members were enrolled and they went on to set up local groups and spread the Co-operative Movement’s ideals and principles. The third Congress of an Owenite organisation, The Association of Classes of All Nations, was held in the Institute during Whit week, 1837, where they were addressed by Owen himself.

By 1839 the Owenites had outgrown the Salford Institute and they moved to a new home. In January 1840 the Hall of Science was opened by Robert Owen on Byrom Street in Campfield, just off Deansgate in the centre of Manchester. The building had cost £7,000 and was the largest lecture hall in Manchester, holding over 3,000. The hall bore the motto “Sacred to the Investigation of Truth.” There were evening and Sunday lectures and also concerts, parties and excursions. The Sunday school had 250 pupils by 1842. The hall also attracted opposition. In April 1840, for instance, an attempt was made to burn it down. The perpetrators were never caught.

In the summer of 1842 a great strike swept across the Lancashire cotton towns. On 16 August a delegate conference took place in the Hall, chaired by Alexander Hutchinson. The Chartist newspaper The Northern Star commented that the meeting had been marked by great earnestness and good order. Many of those attending were later arrested after the strike ended.

Frederick Engels arrived in Manchester in December 1842 to work in the family firm Ermen & Engels and soon found his way to the Hall of Science, which was just a few minutes walk from the firm’s offices on Southgate.

He wrote (somewhat condescendingly):

“At first on cannot get over one’s surprise at hearing in the Hall of Science the most ordinary workers speaking with a clear understanding on political, religious and social affairs..…I saw the Socialist hall, which holds about 3,000, crowded every Sunday.”

Engels engaged in political dialogue and debate with the hall’s main lecturer, John Watts, and also wrote for the Owenite journal The New Moral World.

He described a meeting in the Hall thus: Watts “without removing his hat …comes onto the platform on which there is table and chairs. After raising his hat by way of greeting those present , he takes off his overcoat and then sits down and delivers his lecture, which usually gives much occasion for laughter, for in these speeches the English intellect expresses itself.”

The Hall only survived until 1850 when, after splits and divisions within the Owenite movement, it was sold and the Manchester Free Library was established in the building. In 1877 the Hall was demolished after its structure had become weakened by the weight of books and the library moved to the former Manchester Town Hall on King Street and in 1934 to its present home in Central Library.

The Manchester Martyrs

The Manchester Martyrs were three innocent Irishmen hanged in public outside the New Bailey prison in Salford on 23 November 1867. They had been convicted of murdering a police sergeant, killed in the course of a successful raid on Hyde Road, Manchester to free two leading Fenians.

The story of the Manchester Martyrs begins with the founding of the Fenian movement, which encompassed two separate but deeply entwined organisations; the Fenian Brotherhood – founded in New York on 17th March 1858 by John O’Mahon; and the Irish Republican Brotherhood – founded in Dublin by James Stephens, Thomas Luby and others who had taken part in the 1848 Rising.

The Fenians took their name from the Fianna, ancient warriors of Irish myth and legend, and their aim was the establishment of an independent Irish Republic, free from British rule, to be established by an armed uprising. The Fenian Brotherhood was a mass movement which men joined by oaths pledging allegiance to the future Irish Republic, while the IRB was a select and secret organisation which survived until 1922 when it was destroyed by the Irish Civil War.

The Fenians’ bedrock of support was in the United States, where hundreds of thousands of Irish people had emigrated in the wake of the Famine, and where in addition many Irish men served in the Union (and a few in the Confederate) armies of the American Civil War – often in Irish regiments – giving those who survived the bloody conflict valuable military experience. In 1866, for instance, the Fenians made a number of raids across the border into Canada.. They also built up their organisation in Ireland and in Britain. The Royal Irish Constabulary had several detectives permanently based in Lancashire in order to monitor Fenian activities, which they did principally through the traditional device of recruiting informers. RIC detective McHale, based in Liverpool, supported the view that the Fenians had a wide base in England.

“I find the great majority of Irish labourers in this town, London, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle, as well as those residing in towns of less note through this country, if not actually enrolled members of the brotherhood, are strongly impressed with the spirit of Fenianism, and there is another class of Irish resident in this country, who are in comfortable and easy circumstances…and who have the strongest sympathy with the movement & altho’ not enrolled members would, I am quite certain, give active cooperation if it so happened that there was a rising, or any attempt at rebellion in Ireland. There also numerous young Irishmen…who are Fenians. Many of them joined volunteer corps in order to acquire a knowledge of drill and military movements, for the express purpose of using in the Fenian cause…..”

Some arms shipments were made through Liverpool and by 1865 everything seemed in place for a successful rising in Ireland. Tens of thousands had taken the Fenian oath while Irish regiments in the British army had been infiltrated. At this critical juncture the Fenian leadership hesitated and delayed whilst the British government was alerted to the danger and struck first in September 1865, arresting a number of the most prominent leaders in Ireland, such as O’Leary, Luby and O’Donovan Rossa. They all received long sentences. Early in 1866 the government finally realised the extent of Fenian subversion in the army and rushed through a suspension of Habeas Corpus in one day on 17th February, enabling them to arrest thousands and imprison them without trial. The army court-martialled many soldiers, transporting some to Australia in the last convict shipment ever sent there, reaching Western Australia in 1868. Fenian organisation was fatally weakened and by the time the rising finally took place on 5th March 1867 it was easily defeated, despite some initial successes.

After the failure of the rising the Fenians sent two leading figures in the movement to Britain to rally and reorganise their followers . One was Colonel Thomas Kelly from Galway, who had replaced James Stephens as head of the IRB. Kelly had served in an Ohio regiment during the American Civil War, and had been responsible for rescuing Stephens from Richmond Jail, Dublin in November 1865. The other was Captain Timothy Deasy from Clonakilty, County Cork, who had also served in the American Civil War

Both men were arrested in Manchester on 11th September. This was a major coup for the authorities but Edward O’Meagher Condon, another Irish-American civil war veteran who was in charge of re-organising the Fenians in the north of England, immediately set plans in motion to free the two men, procuring arms from Birmingham and organising a party of men to effect a rescue. The two men were being held at Bellevue gaol on Hyde Road and conveyed to and from court in a horse-drawn police-van.

On 18th September Condon’s raiding party attacked the van on its way out of Manchester as it neared a railway bridge on Hyde Road, shooting the off-horse and sending the police escort packing. Then they began to break open the van in the course of which a man named Peter Rice accidentally shot dead Charles Brett, the policeman inside the van. The raiders got Kelly and Deasy out of the van and, despite strenuous efforts by the authorities to recapture them, the Fenian movement successfully smuggled them back to the United States.

The Manchester police arrested some of the rescuers at the scene and dragged in dozens of other Irishmen in the following days as the constabulary ransacked the Irish quarters, enraged by the death of their colleague. The government was equally dismayed. Home Secretary Gathorne-Hardy wrote in his diary, “This at Manchester! What are we coming to…. The Times is as the public will be ready for strong measures. England will never endure that such an event should happen unpunished.” The legal hearings in Manchester began on 27th September. Amongst the lawyers defending the Irishmen was William Prowting Roberts, who lived in Pendleton and had been an active Chartist in the 1840s, when he had even been imprisoned for a time. Roberts had been one of the speakers at the Free Trade Hall meeting on St. Patrick’s Day, 1848.

Twenty eight Irishmen appeared before the stipendiary magistrate and the number eventually rose to fifty. The court was ringed by troops, some of whom actually sat next to the magistrate on the bench. All the prisoners were in shackles and the magistrate refused to order their removal, despite protests from the lawyers. Roberts did his best, gaining the release of some prisoners, but the authorities merely filled the gaps in the ranks with newly arrested men. He was also heckled from the court gallery, which was filled with Manchester’s well-to-do come to watch the spectacle. “How dreadful it is to have to address such a spirit that reigns against these men”, he told the court, “ it paralyses the tongue”. The intimidation even continued outside the court. One evening a mob turned up outside Roberts’ hotel and he had to escape by the back entrance. The Times even devoted an editorial to attacking him, “……the prejudice which Mr. Roberts deprecates is not, we suspect, local as much as national, being no other than a prejudice against organised conspiracies for the defiance of the law and the murder of its authorised agents”. Ernest Jones was another barrister for the men. He had qualified as barrister in 1844 and then joined the Chartist movement, becoming editor of the Northern Star, and also served a term of imprisonment.

The special commission which tried the prisoners started sitting at the Assize Courts in Manchester on 28th October, presided over by Justice Blackburn with the Attorney General Sir Thomas Karslake leading for the prosection. W P Roberts and the other defence lawyers petitioned in an attempt to get the trial moved to London but this was rejected. Manchester was filled with police and troops during the five days of the proceedings. Twenty-six Irishmen were tried, with five of them being found guilty of murder, seven of riot and assault while the remainder were convicted of lesser offences.

The sentence of death on Edward O’Meagher Condon was commuted because of his American citizenship. Another condemned man Thomas Maguire, a Royal Marine home on leave who had been swept up by the police in their raids, was given a free pardon after the press reporters at the trial got together and petitioned the Home Secretary, declaring their belief in his innocence. It was plain that he had played no part in the raid or the death of the policemen, having only just come back to Manchester after ten years away. And yet many witnesses had sworn on oath that Maguire had been a participant. What reliance could now be placed on the evidence given against the other three men?

There was a vociferous campaign for clemency for the three condemned men by Irish and English radicals. On 18th November a deputation went to the Home Office to present a memorial from a meeting held at Clerkenwell Green the previous day. The Home Secretary Gathorne Hardy refused to see them so the men forced their way into the Home Office and held an impromptu “indignation” meeting before leaving just in time to avoid the police. In Manchester a number of citizens met at the Trevelyan Hotel in Corporation Street and drew up a petition which asked the queen to exercise her prerogative of mercy “…..on the ground that the British government can always afford to exercise clemency even to its worst and most misguided prisoners, although not sentenced for a political crime, but solely for the high crime or murder, may be regarded in a sense as political criminals…..” Like all others this petition was turned down. Queen Victoria wrote in a letter to Sir Stafford Northcote at this time that the Irish “are really shocking, abominable people – not like any other civilised nation.”

The campaign for clemency failed and the sentences were carried out in public on 23rd November outside the New Bailey prison on Bridge Street where Allen, Larkin and O’Brien were hanged at day break on a platform built on the walls. Below them was a large, jeering crowd and hundreds of police and the army, ready to prevent any possible rescue attempt. Few Irish attended, having been told by their priests to go to Mass and pray for the souls of the condemned.

After the execution the bodies of the three men were swiftly buried in quicklime in the prison grounds. Frederick Engels wrote to Karl Marx predicting that “yesterday morning the Tories, by the hand of Mr Calcraft, accomplished the final act of separation between England and Ireland. The only thing that the Fenians still lacked were martyrs. They have been provided by Derby and G Hardy. Only the execution of the three has made the liberation of Kelly and Deasy the heroic deed which will now be sung to every Irish babe in the cradle in Ireland, England and America”.

In Ireland tens of thousands paraded in mock funeral processions in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and many other towns, with participants and spectators dressed in mourning and wearing green ribbons and rosettes and other items. Newspapers remarked upon the large numbers of young women who marched in contingents in the parades, something new in Irish political life. Many of the women wept as they walked and in Cork an eyewitness described the women “keening” when the procession reached St Jerome’s cemetery, “the occasion of the gathering rendered this wild cry of sorrow sadly impressive and moving.” As the processions gathered momentum across the country across the country the Lord Lieutenant issued a proclamation banning all future ceremonies under the Party Processions and Party Emblems Act.

Annual commemorations of the executions became part of Nationalist political life, with marches in many Irish towns every November, often in the dramatic form of a torchlight procession.

Many years later Edward O’Meagher Condon returned to Manchester to a hero’s welcome. On 26th September 1909 he crossed the Atlantic from the United States and was received in triumph when he arrived at Exchange Station in Manchester, accompanied by the MP John Dillon and John O’Callaghan, secretary of the United Irish League of America. The party made their way to the Grand Hotel on Aytoun Street, accompanied by a large crowd and the Michael Davitt and Thomas Davis branches of the UIL in Manchester in a torchlit procession. The following day Condon visited the various scenes associated with the events of 1867 and in the evening there was a great meeting at the Free Trade Hall to welcome both him and those who had accompanied him on the visit. Condon was pictured in the papers seated alongside O’Callaghan, F L Crilly (Secretary of the United Irish League of Great Britain) and Stephen Gwynne (MP for Galway).

A veteran Manchester Fenian, Seamus Barrett, formed a Manchester Martyrs Memorial Committee at the beginning of the twentieth century which put up the monument in Moston Catholic cemetery, unveiled by James Stephens, the former Fenian leader. Thereafter an annual commemoration was held, involving a parade from Bexley Square, Salford to St. Patrick’s Church on Livesey Street, where Mass was said. Afterwards the parade, led by an Irish pipe band, would proceed to the Shamrock Hall on Rochdale Road or to Moston cemetery. In 1974 the march was cancelled, following the Birmingham pub bombings, and the memorial was extensively vandalised and defaced. In recent years it has been restored.

Article by Michael Herbert