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

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