Monday, 30 July 2007

Chartist Lives: William Ashton

He was born in the Yorkshire linen-weaving and coal-mining town of Barnsley about 1806. His father was an Englishman, and a linen weaver, and his mother was an Irish Catholic. Ashton[1] always identified strongly with his mother’s nation and faith and often spoke of himself as an Irishman.

Although linen weaving was still a hand trade, the number of workers coming from other branches of textile manufacture and from the declining Irish industry, as well as the continual pressure to lower prices, led to a series of conflicts between weavers and employers on questions of prices, wages, and working practices. By his early twenties, Ashton was among the leaders of the weavers and was arrested for his part in a strike and in a series of riots in 1829. At the York assizes in August 1830, he and another young weaver, Francis Mirfield, were sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation and were sent to a penal colony in Australia. A memorial for their release was organised in Barnsley, and after seven years both men were released and returned to England, their fares having been raised by the Barnsley people.
Ashton and Mirfield arrived back in the spring of 1838 and were immediately involved in the local Chartist movement. Barnsley had one of the earliest and most active Chartist groups in the country, and Ashton soon became a prominent leader. In the troubled summer of 1839, he escaped briefly to France, but returned after a few months and was arrested in the autumn of 1839. At the York assize of March 1840, he and two other Barnsley Chartists were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for sedition.

Ashton gave an account of the Newport rising of November 1839, and of the various plots which undoubtedly existed in other parts of the country, which has been taken seriously by some historians; but the events have never been entirely elucidated. Ashton claimed, in letters and at a public meeting held after his release from prison, that he had acquired advance information about the lack of enthusiasm among provincial leaders for the proposed rising, and sent a message to Feargus O’Connor asking him to warn John Frost of the potential lack of support. The message was never delivered to Frost, who was taken and sentenced to death. There are many problems with the story, not least the fact that Frost appears never to have relinquished his friendship with O’Connor, and so could hardly have felt betrayed in the way Ashton suggested. At the public meeting, Ashton was howled down by his fellow Chartists and left immediately afterwards with his family for the United States, financed on his journey by the government, who were offering imprisoned Chartists assisted passages on their release. Ashton did not settle in the United States, however, but returned to Barnsley after less than a year away and soon became active again in Barnsley politics.

In spite of the controversy aroused by his accusations against O’Connor, which he renewed in a letter to the Northern Star newspaper on 3rd May 1845, Ashton seems to have continued to be an active and leading member of the Barnsley Chartists and he represented them at the 1848 Chartist convention. Soon after this, however, about 1850, Ashton again emigrated with his family, this time to Australia. He spent the rest of his life there, dying at Craigie, Victoria, on 26th September 1877. He made his living in Australia mainly as a shopkeeper, but still wrote regularly to the Barnsley Chronicle about Australian life, as well as recounting his memories of the Chartist movement. Like many Chartist emigrants, he was disappointed by the experience of life in a more democratic system, commenting in a letter of March 1866 that ‘The same system prevails here as is the general rule at home; the rich get richer whilst the poor get poorer’.

[1] The major sources for William Ashton are: D. Thompson The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution, 1984 and J. H. Burland Annals of Barnsley, c.1881


jrycenga said...

Dear Dr. Brown - There is a chance that I have an odd historic lead on the presence of Mr. Ashton in the United States in 1862. I am preparing a social history of an American Abolitionist educator, Prudence Crandall. During the American Civil War, she was living in Illinois, engaging in pamphlet distribution. She writes of a store operated by one James Pilkington, but currently being watched by W.H. Ashton. Here is how she described them "The owner of the shop is Mr. James Pilkington, an Englishman who has helped off many a slave to Canada, and the present occupant, Mr. W.H. Ashton, who engaged in the Chartist agitation in England in 1848, and was a delegate to the Chartist Convention and was one of the sixty who volunteered from Illinois, and joined John Brown, Jr., in Kansas. They both have hearts as great as Big Thunder." This comes from The Liberator, May 23, 1862, page 82 (32:21:82). Seems likely to be the same person - unless there is contradictory evidence. Let me know your thoughts! Jennifer Rycenga, Professor, San José State University, California, USA

Richard Brown said...

Dear Professor Rycenga

It is highly probable that you have found a reference to William Ashton. We know that he had close links with Australia having been transported there in 1830 and then later emigrating with his family in 1850 where he made his living as a shopkeeper. The Victoria Record Office has computerised records of arrivals in the colony if that was his original destination. He also had links with the United States in 1840-1841. So standing in for James Pilkington is quite plausible. That he was an abolitionist is no surprise since many Chartists were. Ashton's presence in the United States during the Civil War and his enlistment in Brown's sharpshooters certainly suggest a willingness to fight against slavery even if by May 1862 he was clearly in a non-combatant role. Might be worth trying to find out a bit more about Pilkington.

Richard Brown said...

Was the store Prudence mentioned in Ottawa, Illinois? It was an important centre for the underground railway to Canada. There was also a Pilkington glass works there later though this may just be a coincidence.

jrycenga said...

Thanks for the likely confirmation. It is an especially obscure but interesting link between these radical movements, Chartism and Abolition. In answer to your queries, she describes Pilkington as running a shoe store, but the Illinois Business Directory lists his business as a drug store - here's a link:, (page 303 in printed text)

The store was in Mendota, which is quite close to Ottawa - about 28 miles/45 km. They are in the same county jurisdiction, La Salle.

Pilkington was apparently originally from Rhode Island, moving to north-central Illinois a few years before Crandall, in 1836 - here is that reference.
No author. 1877. Voters and Tax-Payers of Bureau County, Illinois, containing, also, a Biographical Directory of its Tax-Payers and Voters; a History of the County and State; Map of the County; A Business Directory; An Abstract of Every-Day Laws; Officers of Societies, Lodges. Etc.Etc. Chicago: H.F. Kett and Co.
Pilkington originally from RI – “In the Spring of 1836 a colony was organized in Providence, R.I., for the purpose of making a settlement in the west. The agents of this colony, after looking at many localities in different parts of the state, selected Indantown, in this county, for their future home. At that time most of the township was vacant, and they entered a large tract, to be drawn for by the members of the colony. The town of Providence was laid out, and the lots sold to the colonists. This colony, like all others in the West, did not meet the expectations of its projectors; but it brought to the county many worthy citizens. Among those who remained here were Asa Barney, Caleb Cushing, Alfred Anthony, Hosea Barney, J. Shaw, James Harrington, James Pilkington, John Lannon, Thomas Doe, Mathew Dorr, James Dexter, and Elias Nickerson.” 98 - btw, the Caleb Cushing mentioned here is NOT the famous wavering anti-war political figure, but I would guess a relation (the famous one died childless, so not that one).

I am still trying to determine birth and death dates and later locations for Pilkington. Crandall does reference his work on the Underground Railroad, and his friendship with Ashton would imply a radical cast to his character.

Thanks for the work you did researching Ashton and sharing it with the world on the internet!

Richard Brown said...

Presumably as Prudence described Pilkington as 'an Englishman', he had emigrated to the US in the 1820s or early 1830s as he was in Rhode Island in 1836. This raises questions about how he could possibly have known Ashton who we know was transported to Australia in 1830 and did not return to England until 1838. Their connection presumably predated that and this suggests a Barnsley or Blackburn (where Pilkington was a common name) connection between the two.

jrycenga said...

Yes, yes- I was incorrect in attributing a R.I. birthplace to him. Until we have a birthdate on Pilkington, and hopefully an emigration to the U.S. date, the likelihood of their meeting prior to AShton's transportation to Australia is hard to determine.