Friday, 24 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Richard Marsden

Richard Marsden[1] was born in humble circumstances in or near Manchester in 1802 or 1803. Nothing is known about his early life, but he was a hand-loom weaver by trade. He left Manchester in search of work during the slump of 1829 and settled with his family in the weaving township of Bamber Bridge, near Preston. Marsden became the most prominent representative of the Preston Chartists, and played a significant role in the national movement for democratic reform in the late 1830s and 1840s. He was secretary of the Preston committee that submitted evidence to the royal commission on hand-loom weavers and was the principal witness before Commissioner Muggeridge during the latter’s visit to Preston in May 1838. He chaired the first Chartist demonstration in the town in November of that year, when he introduced Feargus O’Connor to a large and enthusiastic audience. After making a fiery speech supporting the Charter, Marsden was elected to represent north Lancashire at the national convention in London. He was a consistent and unyielding advocate of ‘ulterior measures’, urging the need to prepare direct action for the day when the Chartist petition would be rejected by parliament. During the spring of 1839, Marsden travelled as an official ‘missionary’ for the convention in Sussex and the Welsh borders, toured Ireland on his own initiative and made a speaking tour of north Lancashire, continually asserting the people’s right to armed self-defence.

Although he became known nationally as a spokesman for ‘physical force’ Chartism, Marsden seems to have believed that its use would never be necessary. In August 1839, he returned to Preston for the unsuccessful general strike in support of the Charter, vanishing almost immediately to avoid arrest on a warrant relating to a violent speech he had made in Newcastle earlier in the month. Marsden was in Bradford during the abortive Chartist rising in January 1840 and then moved to Bolton, where he lived under an assumed name and worked at his trade. Arrested there in July, he was soon released, and eventually returned to Preston as a full-time itinerant lecturer for the Chartists. He was again arrested in a confrontation between strikers and the military just outside Preston in August 1842, but this time no charges were laid against him. In the mid-1840s he rarely left Preston, but remained an active Chartist and exerted a wider influence through a series of letters to the Northern Star.

Unlike many more prominent regional figures, Marsden became less liberal and more vigorously anti-capitalist after 1839, coming increasingly to stress that Chartism was a class movement aiming at the emancipation of working people and opposed to all middle-class involvement. He took an active part in the Ten Hours movement, in the campaign of 1844 against proposed changes to the master and servant laws, and in promoting trade unionism in the cotton mills. At the end of 1845, he was appointed secretary of the newly established Preston Powerloom Weavers’ Union, and in 1847 moved to Blackburn to take charge of the weavers’ union there. Chosen again to represent north Lancashire at the Chartist national convention of 1848, Marsden was sent out once more as a missionary to the north-east and the midlands. His speeches were now subdued and pessimistic, in keeping with the dismal prospects for the Chartist movement as a whole. With its virtually complete collapse in north Lancashire after April 1848, Marsden’s withdrawal from political life was immediate and almost total. There is no further record of his presence at public meetings, and his flow of letters to the local press ceased. Unlike many old Chartists, Marsden played no part in the great Preston strike of 1853–4. He died in obscurity, from chronic bronchitis, at 16 Club Street, Bamber Bridge, on 28th January 1858; he was fifty-five. Nothing is known of his private life; the mark of Jane Moss, who was present at his death, is on his death certificate.


[1] J. E. King Richard Marsden and the Preston Chartists, 1837–1848, 1981 and People’s Paper, 27th February 1858.


Anonymous said...

I believe Jane Moss may have been Ricahrd's sister, who married Thomas Moss in Walton le Dale in 1826. The 1871 census has a widowed Mary (should be Margaret)Marsden with her grown up children at 16 Club St. With them are Thomas and William Moss, nephews. In 1861 the Mos family is also living in Club St.
I hope this adds a little to Richard's family background.

Karen Lyons said...

The 1851 census has Richard's birthplace as Leyland.
Richard was the eldest child of John and Ann Marsden of Leyland, being baptised on 9 Jan 1803 in St Andrew’s Leyland. There is a marriage, by licence, of a John Marsden to an Ann Abbott at St Andrew’s on the 2nd March 1802. John was a weaver, and neither John nor Ann signed their name. The witnesses were Nicholas Plaskett and Thomas Marsden. Other children were born to John and Ann: Thomas 1805, John 1807, William 1809, and Jane 1811. All were baptised in Leyland.