Thursday, 4 October 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The strikes of 1842

 The experiment of class collaboration in 1842 took place in an atmosphere of widespread industrial unrest and Chartist activity. No lasting gains were forthcoming and the revolutionary undercurrents of 1839 were far less in evidence but this was another high point in the movement’s popularity and again coincided with a severe trade depression.

 The 1842 Petition

Chartism’s resurgence as a mass movement perhaps began with the release of O’Connor from York Castle at the end of August 1841. This began a succession of mass demonstrations and triumphal processions as O’Connor toured the country and signatures were gathered for the second great Petition, which with plans for a Convention were launched in September. The latter eventually met in London for three weeks in April 1842 to oversee the presentation of the Petition that went further than that of 1839 in demanding the repeal of the Poor Law Amendment Act and the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland as well as attacking various economic abuses. The attachment of other demands to the Charter was controversial especially in Scotland. The Convention was much better organised with elected delegates limited to 24 from English constituencies and 25 from Welsh and Scottish ones. They were elected by paid-up members of the NCA rather than at mass meetings. Gammage commented that[1]

“Meanwhile the Executive were directing the attention of the country to the subject of another petition for the Charter, and they submitted a draft of the same for adoption. This second Petition did not, however, stop at the Charter; but, as well as stating a host of grievances, prayed for a repeat of the legislative union between Great Britain and Ireland. Here again was a bone of contention. A portion of the Scottish Chartists were opposed to the introduction of any other subject into the Petition than the Charter, and a controversy on the subject took place between Dr. M’Douall and John Duncan, one of the best and ablest of the Scottish Chartists. The majority, however, went with the Executive, and the signing of the Petition proceeded very briskly. A Convention was appointed to sit in London for three weeks, for the purpose of superintending its presentation. It consisted of twenty-five members, whose names were as follows:--Abraham Duncan, E. Stallwood, James Leach, J. R. H. Bairstow, C. Doyle, W. P. Roberts, George White, Feargus O’Connor, N. Powell, R. Lowery, James Moir, S. Bartlett, William Beesley, J. M’Pherson, G. Harrison, P. M. M’Douall, Morgan Williams, R. K. Philp, Ruffy Ridley, W. Woodward, J. Mason, William Thomason, Lawrence Pitkeithly, J. Campbell, and J. Bronterre O’Brien. It will be seen that only six out of the twenty-five were members of the first Convention. This body met in London on the 12th of April, 1842, and received the signatures to the National Petition, which in the aggregate were stated to amount to thirty-three thousand.”

The petition was also better organised and contained three million signatures; Epstein calls this ‘a testament to Chartism’s enormous popularity’[2]. This achievement needs to be emphasised as there were twice as many signatories as in 1839. Gammage again[3]

“The Petition was presented to the House of Commons by Mr. Duncombe on the 2nd of May, on which occasion there was a large procession, which left the Convention Room and proceeded through several of the principal thoroughfares to the House of Commons. The authorities had strictly ordered that no vehicles should pass along the thoroughfares, so as in any way to interfere with the procession, which order was rigidly enforced. The concourse of people assembled on the occasion was immense; many strangers being present from the country to witness the proceedings. Duncombe presented the Petition, which was wheeled into the House, and stated the purport of its prayer; he then gave notice of a motion that the petitioners be heard at the bar of the House, through their counsel or agents, in support of the allegations which the Petition contained. When Duncombe brought forward his motion there was the usual quantity of speaking. Macaulay was the great opponent of the motion. He stated that he had no objection to any one point of the Charter but universal suffrage, which he described as amounting to nothing short of the confiscation of the property of the rich. He uttered during his speech the most unfounded and abominable calumnies against the working class. Duncombe’s speech was noble and manly, and elicited the warm esteem of men of all parties; but no amount of good speaking was sufficient to draw forth a response from the House of Commons, and only fifty-one members, including tellers, were found to vote in favour of his motion. That House was too cowardly or too callously indifferent to the condition of the people, to consent to meet the veritable representatives of the suffering poor face to face, and listen to an exposure of their wrongs from those who were best qualified to make it. Duncombe declared that so much was he disgusted with the conduct of the House of Commons, that if the people ever got up another petition of the kind, he would not be a party to their degradation by presenting it...”

Chartism was more popular than ever and was better organised. The result was, however, the same: rejection by the House of Commons by 287 to 51 votes. This created much bitterness in Chartist localities, a situation made worse by the worst economic recession of the century. The movement again faced the problem of what to do when constitutional agitation failed, especially as there was now general agreement that insurrection, or the threat of it, was no longer credible given the confidence of the authorities and the effectiveness of its repressive apparatus. It was at this high point of enthusiasm and frustration that the strike wave of the summer of 1842 broke and was (partially and temporarily) channelled into the Chartist cause.

Protests and strikes

The biggest popular disturbance associated with Chartism was the wave of strikes and protest meetings which took place in August 1842 in many industrial districts in the Midlands, Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire. The names historians use for these events are interesting in themselves. ‘Plug Plot riots’ was one such term. ‘Plug’ referred to one method of spreading and enforcing the strike, by compelling the withdrawal of boiler plugs in order to deprive factories of the steam needed to run their machines. ‘Plug plot strikes’ or ‘General Strike’ were other terms. ‘Plot’ conjures up the idea of conspiracy and planning; riots by contrast of disorder and lack of control. The term ‘strike’ draws attention to the industrial aspect of the action. The use of the term ‘General Strike’ suggests a broader political significance and invites comparison with 1926.

Whatever term is used, it is generally agreed that this was the most formidable mass action of the Chartist period and, arguably, in 19th century Britain. Study of it can tell us a great deal about the relationships between economic and political protest, leaders and led, local and broader action, popular protest and the response of the propertied classes and government. Furthermore, the general strike of 1842 had a great influence on the subsequent development of popular politics, up to and including in 1848. Because of this, and also because the general strike was a much more formidable mass action than anything which took place in Great Britain in 1848, there is a lot of material for you to work through

In 1842, the challenge to local and national authority came directly from the opposition of working class districts of the North and Midlands to unemployment, high food prices and wage reductions[4]. Up to half a million workers were involved in the series of strikes that swept across many of the industrial districts of the north and Midlands in July and August 1842. The strikes began in early July in the Staffordshire coalfields where the issues were wages cuts, a system of employment called ‘buildas’ (working without pay) and the truck system. However, the resolutions setting out the demands of the south Staffordshire miners on 1st August were proposed by two Chartists, Joseph Linney and Arthur O’Neill. This set a pattern. The Chartists did not create the grievances or the economic depression but they did organise workers’ reaction and turned local strikes and an inclination to riot into a concerted challenge to the authority of employers, the forces of law and order and ultimately the government itself. They did this effectively largely because they were not outside agitators with an abstract political programme, but members of their own local communities caught up in their own and their neighbours’ grievances.

At then end of July, factory masters in the Ashton-Stalybridge area, south-east of Manchester announced a twenty-five per cent reduction in wages. On 26th July, a large public meeting was chaired by William Woodruffe, an Ashton Chartist delegate and where the two main speakers William Aitken and Richard Pilling were both Chartists. A further meeting at Stalybridge on 29th July was also addressed by known Chartists. Both meetings were primarily about wage issues but they also supported the Charter and called for arms to be raised to protect the working classes. Further meetings were held over the next few days in Hyde and Dukinfield with the same and similar speakers to the same effect. As a result, some employers withdrew the cuts. On Sunday 7th August, a large meeting was held at Mottram Moor where the main speakers were again Chartists. Resolutions were carried in support of a strike for a fair day’s pay and the Charter and, in was announced that there would be a general turn-out throughout Lancashire and Cheshire the following morning.

The success of the turn-out in the Ashton-Staleybridge area suggests that this was not a spontaneous action but was organised by that group of Chartist speakers who had led the preliminary meetings. Richard Pilling, a weaver from Ashton was central to this process and in 1848 he boasted that he “was the sole cause of the turn-out in Lancashire, the originator of the whole proceeding”. On 8th August, he led a party from Ashton to Oldham to spread the strike and on the following day the strikers were ready to march on Manchester. The rally addressed by Pilling passed off peacefully and most factories turned-out with little or no violence. The Birley Mills in Oxford Street resisted and here a battle dragged on until the next day when it was ended by soldiers with fixed bayonets but by Saturday 13th August Birley’s too was forced to close.

The turn-outs spread northwards and eastwards to Rochdale and Bolton and over the Pennines to Halifax as the strike went into its second week. Factories were immobilised by driving in the boiler plugs and bringing the factories to a standstill. Very little damage was done and there was little indiscriminate looting. Outright violence was the exception and where there were clashes with the police or military, the main weapons were stones. In Preston, a stone-throwing crowd ran up against a small detachment of troops who killed four rioters when they opened fire and on 15th August at least three rioters were killed and several injured when troops confronted strikers at Burslem in the Potteries.

Despite such events, most of the strike was conducted with considerable restraint. The extent of the organisation of the strikes from Manchester was what worried the Home Secretary most. The central leadership of the strikes took the form of the Great Delegate Conference under the chairmanship of Alexander Hutchinson, an Owenite Socialist and Chartist who was secretary of the Manchester smiths and a member of the NCA executive. On 11th August, a delegate conference of mechanics, engineers, millwrights, moulders and smiths met to agree a common programme of action. The following day, a delegate conference of the mill trades did the same thing. Both conferences also carried almost identical resolutions in favour of the Charter. The two conferences arranged to meet on Monday 15th August but this was postponed until the following day. 141 delegates representing eight-five trades met and voted by a large majority to cease work until the Charter became the law of the land. As the conference was coming to a close, it was ordered to disperse by the chief constable supported by troops and police. Hutchinson refused on the grounds that the meting was legal. After the magistrates had declared it illegal, the delegates then complied. Their ranks thinned by arrests and hurried departures out of Manchester, the rump of the delegates met the following day when they formed a central committee and urged the formation of local committees to direct the strikes.

The NCA executive was in Manchester on 16th August to commemorate Peterloo and clearly needed some response to the strikes. Previously, O’Connor had been reticent to support the strikes seeing them both as an Anti-Corn Law League plot and as a trap to discredit the Chartists. However, the resolution and two addresses that accompanied it agreed by most of the executive on 17th August committed Chartism to the strikes represented a reversal of policy. Although the strikes continued well into September, hunger, the arrest of leaders and a tightening of control by the police and military were already beginning to turn the tide against the workers. The national Chartist leadership had put its support behind the strikers too late and now found itself in the position of being blamed for something over which it had never had any real control. The strikes soon ended and various explanations have been suggested for this:

  • Misery forced men back to work.
  • O’Connor attacked the strikes in the Northern Star.
  • Trades delegates recommended a return to work (20th August).
  • The harvest of 1842 was good.
  • Trade improved.
  • Pay reductions were withdrawn.

Demand for the Charter was fading by the end of August as immediate wage-related issues returned to the fore. Gradually, groups of strikers returned to work in September but it was not until the end of the month that Manchester weavers went back and in most cases the proposed wages cuts were withdrawn. In some areas, wage increases were achieved. The strike itself can be seen as an impressive achievement though it never passed beyond a regional core of intense activity and never genuinely promised to achieve the Charter.


[1] R.G. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854, 1894, pages 208-209.

[2] Epstein The Lion of Freedom, page 294.

[3] R.G. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854, 1894, page 209.

[4] Mick Jenkins The General Strike of 1842, London, 1980 surveys the wave of strikes with a particular emphasis on Lancashire and Raymond Challinor and Brian Ripley The Miners’ Association: A Trade Union in the Age of the Chartists, Bewick Press, 2nd ed., 1990 looks at the 1842 strikes and beyond from the viewpoint of one occupation. Robert Tyson ‘The crisis of 1842: Chartism, the Colliers’ Strike and the Outbreak in the Potteries’, in James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience, Macmillan, 1982, pages 194-220 is a valuable local study. Brian R. Brown ‘Industrial Capitalism, Conflict and Working Class Contention in Lancashire, 1842’, in Louise A. Tilley and Charles Tilley (eds.) Class Conflict and Collective Action, Sage, 1981, pages 111-141 where the author engages in a sociological analysis of Lancashire Chartism and the mass strike of 1842.

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