Sunday, 2 September 2007

Chartist Lives: Benjamin Rushton

Rushton[1], a hand-loom weaver and radical agitator, was born at Dewsbury in Yorkshire, but later moved to Halifax, where he found employment as a fancy-worsted weaver, residing at Friendly Fold in the village of Ovenden. He married Mary Helliwell (b. 1786) of Ovenden at Halifax parish church on 16th August 1809, but by 1851 was a widower, living with his daughter, son-in-law, grandchildren, and sons. His sons, Zimri and Henry Hunt Rushton, bore respectively the names of an obscure Old Testament rebel leader and a celebrated contemporary radical orator, while his grandchildren’s names commemorated the Chartist leader Henry Vincent and the legendary Swiss freedom fighter William Tell, reflecting the radical sympathies of this weaving family across two generations.

At a public meeting in Halifax in January 1838, well before the publication of the People’s Charter, Rushton supported a resolution calling for five of its six points, maintaining that ‘until they had universal suffrage the aristocracy would continue to rob them’. He also proposed a motion for the repeal of the new poor law, lamenting the prospect of ending his days in a ‘bastille’[2]. He later addressed a vast Chartist open-air demonstration at Hartshead Moor in support of the first national petition in May 1839; harangued meetings of rioters in Halifax in August 1842, for which he was arrested and imprisoned; chaired a Chartist rally on Skircoat Moor in April 1848 in support of the third national petition; spoke at a mass meeting at Blackstone Edge on the eve of the return of Ernest Jones to Halifax, following his release from prison in July 1850; and served as treasurer for the West Riding Chartists.

Rushton was remembered by contemporaries as a passionate speaker with a tendency to use ‘rather broad language’. Occasionally his tone was menacing, for example, when he unambiguously advocated armed action and openly expressed sympathy with continental revolutionaries following the rejection of the third Chartist petition in May 1848; but the imagery and rhetoric of his public oratory drew heavily on the Bible. He observed cynically at a general election meeting in 1841 that all the candidates were promising ‘plenty of gold and silver like the stones in the Jerusalem streets and loaves as large as Goliath of Gath’ while the banner of the Ovenden weavers proclaimed ‘Be not ye afraid of them, remember the Lord, who is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your houses’[3].

Rushton was received into membership of the Methodist New Connexion at Salem, North Parade, Halifax, on 19th February 1815, and subsequently supported the development of the cause at Ovenden, serving as a Sunday school teacher and popular local preacher, appearing at chapel anniversary services in a clean brat, patched knee-breeches, highly polished clogs, and a tall hat. However, he became increasingly critical of organised religion and vociferously anti-clerical. At an anti-poor law meeting in Halifax in 1837 he criticised the Whig government’s provision of a salary of £15,000 for the archbishop of Canterbury and later seconded a resolution at Hartshead Moor binding the meeting ‘not to attend any place of worship where the administration of services is inimical to civil liberty’[4]. He probably withdrew from the Methodist New Connexion around the time of William Cobbett’s appeal to Methodists to refuse to pay their dues, later declaring that ‘he had given nothing to the parsons since 1821’, but continued to preach on Methodist property until the end of the decade, to the growing consternation of the Methodist authorities[5]. Thereafter he occupied the pulpits of radical and secessionist congregations across the West Riding, taking as his text ‘The poor ye have with you always’ on one documented occasion at the Chartist chapel at Littletown in the Spen valley[6]. His Methodist background and predominantly radical sympathies were characteristic of a generation of popular preachers who brought radical instincts into Methodism and Methodist insights into radicalism until expulsion or withdrawal severed their increasingly tenuous links with the Methodist movement. Indeed, before his death he pointedly requested that no paid minister be allowed to speak at his funeral.

By 1847, in order to supplement his meagre earnings from weaving and enable him to buy shares in the Chartist land company, Rushton had acquired the additional occupation of tea dealer. He continued weaving into his late sixties and was observed by the Chartist Ernest Jones working on intricate patterns at his loom shortly before his death. Rushton died on 17th June 1853 at Friendly Fold, Ovenden, Halifax. He died, as he had lived, in poverty. The local Chartist executive decreed that he should have a public funeral at their expense on Sunday 26th June 1853 and that, in accordance with his wishes, a petition calling for the People’s Charter should be adopted ‘over his remains’[7]. In the event, the petition was adopted at a rally held immediately after the funeral ceremony, which was conducted at the Halifax general cemetery, Lister Lane, by R. G. Gammage of the Chartist national executive and members of the Ovenden Oddfellows, of which Rushton had been an honorary member, with a eulogy hailing Rushton as ‘a noble patriot’ delivered by Ernest Jones[8]. Rushton was borne to the grave by a hearse drawn by beplumed horses along a route lined, as Ernest Jones observed, by ‘a continuous wall of human beings ranged for a length of two miles on either side of road’[9]. Five special trains brought Chartists from Bradford, and attendance at the funeral, estimated by the Halifax Guardian at between 6000 and 10,000, was greater than that at the funerals of national Chartist leaders. The Chartist historian Dorothy Thompson has concluded that ‘Rushton epitomised the type of West Riding local leader’, the majority of whom were weavers, ‘earning their living at their work but always taking time to attend, and very often chair great demonstrations or local meetings’[10].

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[1] Sources: D. Thompson The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution, 1984, B. Wilson ‘The struggles of an old chartist’, Testaments of radicalism, ed. D. Vincent, 1977, pages 193–242, K. Tiller ‘Late Chartism: Halifax, 1847–1858’, The Chartist experience: studies in working-class radicalism and culture, 1830–60, ed. J. Epstein and D. Thompson (1982), pages 311–344, E. V. Chapman John Wesley and Co., 1952, G. R. Dalby ‘The chartist movement in Halifax’, Transactions of the Halifax Antiquarian Society (1956), F. Peel Spen Valley: past and present, 1893, E. Yeo ‘Christianity and chartist struggle, 1838–1842’, Past and Present, volume 91 (1981) and E. P. Thompson The making of the English working class, 1963.

[2] Halifax Guardian, 23rd January 1838.

[3] Halifax Guardian, 3rd July 1841.

[4] E. Yeo ‘Christianity and chartist struggle, 1838–1842’, Past and Present, volume 91 (1981), page 120.

[5] E. P. Thompson The making of the English working class, 1963, page 438.

[6] E. P. Thompson The making of the English working class, 1963, page 439.

[7] Halifax Courier, 25th June 1853.

[8] B. Wilson ‘The struggles of an old chartist’, Testaments of radicalism, ed. D. Vincent, 1977, page 220.

[9] K. Tiller ‘Late Chartism: Halifax, 1847–1858’, The Chartist experience: studies in working-class radicalism and culture, 1830–60, ed. J. Epstein and D. Thompson, (1982), page 329.

[10] D. Thompson The Chartists: popular politics in the industrial revolution, 1984, pages 225-226.

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