Thursday, 20 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Leeds 1

Leeds Chartism[1] was different and distinct from Chartism in Lancashire, as was the economy. Leeds[2] was a woollen town with a longer history of radicalism than Manchester and was a mixed zone of traditional domestic and new mill manufacture of woollen cloth. In this sense, Leeds was very similar to Birmingham. Rivalry existed between the Yorkshire woollen and Lancashire cotton industries. There was also a strong tradition of Tory radicalism in Yorkshire: Tories believed in economic reform.

The industrial revolution in Yorkshire was distinct from that in Lancashire. The priorities of the woollen industry were different from those of cotton because wool relied on home-produced raw materials[3]. Consequently, the woollen industry was as affected by the Corn Laws and trade recessions. A quarter of all the handloom weavers in England lived in Yorkshire and there was still a close link between masters and men in many areas. Putting-out and small workshops dominated the industry. There is more evidence in Yorkshire of self-help movements and moderate, traditional radicalism than there is in Lancashire. There was a very strong connection between the workers, the Tory party and Tory Radicalism. Wilberforce, Sadler, Oastler and Shaftesbury were all from the county.


In the 1820s and 1830s, Leeds was second only to Manchester as a centre for working-class radicalism and working class movements. In 1819, the Association of the Friends of Radical Reform was set up in Leeds. Radical literature and ideas flourished in the town and working men attended meetings where there would be readings from Wooler’s Black Dwarf, Carlile’s Republican and Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register. All of these demanded political reform. This agitation did die down after 1823.

In 1829, the Leeds Radical Reform Association was formed and was part of the Political Union network. The Association organised meetings on Hunslett Moor that were addressed by Cobbett and Hunt. It had a programme of annual elections, a secret ballot and universal suffrage. In 1831, the Leeds Radical Political Union was founded with William Rider as secretary. He later became an active Chartist leader. In the 1830s, the support of Leeds’ working class men was also attracted to

  • Trade Union activity
  • Short-Time Committees for factory reform
  • The struggle for the unstamped press
  • Co-operative shops
  • Extension of the franchise

All were expressions of a general discontent and for a desire for an equitable society. Eventually they merged. In 1835, the Leeds Radical Association was formed and displayed a deep distrust of Whiggery and had a strong alliance to Toryism as the potential socio-economic reformers, after Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto of 1834. The Association had a programme of equal representation, annual parliaments, universal suffrage, secret ballot and no property qualification for MPs. When the Six Points were adopted in 1838, they were familiar ideas to the Leeds radicals.

In September 1837, a meeting was held on Woodhouse Moor to form a Leeds Working Men’s Association. John Cleave[4] and Henry Vincent[5] of the LWMA spoke at this meeting. The Leeds WMA drew in diverse elements of earlier movements and its leaders all had been involved in other agitations for social improvement.  The shape of Leeds Chartism was determined by its origins in earlier radical and working-class movements, underlying which were economic and social factors. In the 1830s Leeds was a rapidly expanding centre of woollen, flax and engineering industries and a growing commercial and manufacturing population. By 1839, ten thousand operatives were employed in power-driven mills. In addition, Leeds had a strongly Nonconformist middle-class. At least ten thousand handloom weavers could be found in the out-townships and around the Leeds area but only 1,289 handloom weavers lived in Leeds itself. Leeds had a total population of 61,675. There were few depressed hand-workers unlike Bradford[6] and Halifax[7]. In Leeds, there was no basis for a continuing mass Chartist organisation drawing its strength from a large class of desperate hand-worker. Chartism had to win support from the factory operative, shopkeepers and small tradesmen.

Chartist Leaders

Joshua Hobson[8] was born in Huddersfield in 1810 and had little formal education. He was apprenticed to a joiner, and then became a handloom weaver near Oldham. He wrote for local papers there and then returned to Huddersfield and was caught up in the work of local Short-Time Committee that was formed to support Hobhouse’s Factory Bill of 1831. Hobson became associated with the Tory radical Richard Oastler and the ‘Yorkshire Slavery’ campaign. In June 1833, the first issue of Hobson’s Voice of the West Riding appeared. It was intended as the voice of the Short-Time Committees but led Hobson into other forms of working class agitation. In August 1833, Hobson was imprisoned in Wakefield gaol for publishing an unstamped paper. He was gaoled for the same offence in 1835 and 1836. In the autumn of 1834, he moved to Leeds and set up as a printer and publisher. For twelve years, he was the main publisher of radical material in the West Riding, including the Northern Star (1837-1844) that he also edited for a time. In addition, he printed and published Owen’s New Moral World (1839-41). He was responsible for printing and publishing almost all the Owenite and Chartist pamphlets and books in this period and wrote pamphlets defending Owenite Socialism.

John Francis Bray was the first treasurer of the Leeds WMA[9]. He was born in 1809 in Washington, America but was from a family of Huddersfield farmers and clothiers. He returned to England in 1822 and was apprenticed to a printer in Pontefract and then in Selby. He later ‘went on the tramp’, looking for work; during this time he experienced great hardships. In 1832, he got a job as a compositor in Leeds and in 1833 he volunteered to go to Huddersfield to print the Voice of the West Riding while Hobson was in gaol. He then went to York to discover why the working class was so poor. As a result of his discoveries he decided to become involved in the labour movements of the time.

Between December 1835 and February 1836, Bray published a series of letters in the Leeds Times called “Letters for the People” which dealt with natural rights and human equality. In 1837, he found employment as a compositor with The Yorkshireman. He went on to play a leading role in the founding of the Leeds WMA. He stressed the need to change society as well as to obtain political changes. In November 1837, Bray gave three lectures on ‘The Working Class - Their True Wrong and Their True Remedy’. He said that every man should own the whole product of his labour. Hobson printed the lectures in 1842 in his Labourer’s Library series. Marx used Bray’s work later but at the time it was too philosophic and intellectual for general consumption. His work is a good example of the best contemporary working class thought and shows the importance of Owenism as an element from which Chartism was to emerge.

William Rider[10] and George White[11] were both members of the Leeds WMA in 1837 and were the chief exponents of O’Connorite Chartism in Leeds. Neither was influenced by Owenite Socialism. White was an Irish wool-comber. He was determined, inflexible and brave; ready to do anything for the cause, from collecting subscriptions to beating in the heads of policemen. Later O’Connor employed him as a correspondent for the Northern Star. In 1844, he moved to the more militant Bradford. Rider probably was a printer and was employed by O’Connor.

Robert Nicoll was a traditional radical. He edited the Leeds Times and urged the formation of the Leeds WMA along the lines of the earlier Radical Political Union. He was impressed by the LWMA and wanted to establish an independent working-class organisation to agitate for the five political points of his ‘Radical Creed’.

From the start, the Leeds WMA was divided into at least three separate groups.

  • Hobson and Bray were Owenites, wanting social rather than political change. They attracted some factory workers to the Leeds WMA, but it largely consisted of artisans and ‘little mesters’ who sympathised with the Charter but were mainly Owenites.
  • Rider and White were supporters of O’Connor and attracted factory workers to the National Charter Association.
  • Robert Nicoll believed in moral force and the traditional radicalism of political agitation through peaceful association. His followers were mainly craft-orientated artisans.

[1] J.F.C. Harrison ‘Chartism in Leeds’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, pages 65-98 remains the most detailed examination of the movement in Leeds.

[2] Derek Fraser (ed.) A History of Modern Leeds, Manchester University Press, 1980 is the best introduction to the subject especially pages 270-326 and 353-409.

[3] D.T. Jenkins and K.G. Ponting The British Wool Textile Industry 1770-1914, Scolar Press, 1987 is the most accessible introduction to the woollen trade in Yorkshire.

[4] Valuable biographical information on John Cleave can be found in Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography volume vi, Macmillan, 1982, pages 59-63 and Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 138-141.

[5] William Dorling Henry Vincent: A Biographical Sketch, London 1879 remains the only detailed study of his life. Additional material can be found in Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography volume i, Macmillan, 1972, pages 326-334 and Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 519-522.

[6] Theodore Koditschek Class Formation and Urban Industrial Society: Bradford 1750-1850, Cambridge University Press, 1990 considers in depth the social and economic development of a ‘boom’ town and provides an important context for Chartism. Adrian Elliott ‘Municipal government in Bradford in the mid-nineteenth century’, in Derek Fraser (ed.) Municipal reform and the industrial city, Leicester University Press, 1982, pages 111-162 is excellent on municipal politics in the 1840s and 1850s.

[7] A.J. Peacock Bradford Chartism 1838-1840, York, 1969 looks at developments in the first phase.

[8] Stanley Chadwick ‘A Bold and Faithful Journalist: Joshua Hobson 1810-1876, Huddersfield, 1976, a short biography including Hobson’s years as printer and publisher of the Northern Star.

[9] A short biography of John Francis Bray can be found in Joyce M. Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography volume iii, Macmillan, 1980 and Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 79-81. Bray was born in 1809 in Washington, DC, of English parents and went with father to Leeds at age of 13. He became a printer, trade union organiser in Leeds in 1829 and a ‘Moral force’ Chartist. He was the author of Labour’s Wrongs (1838); A Voyage from Utopia (1839); American Destiny (1864) and God and Man, a Unity (1879). He visited France, 1842 and left the UK for Boston, Mass., the same year to join brother. Married and went to farm in Pontiac, Michigan. Printer and trade unionist in Detroit till his death in 1897. Bray was described after his death as ‘the Grand Old Man of American Socialism’.

[10] William Rider (?-?) can be examined in detail in Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 435-436. Rider was a member of the provisional committee of the Leeds Working Men’s Association, founded in 1837. Rider had been secretary of the Radical Political Union established in 1831. He chaired a meeting at Walton’s Music Saloon in Leeds in October 1838 in preparation for a public meeting planned the following week at which delegates to the first Chartist Convention would be elected. Rider was himself to be elected a delegate, with Feargus O’Connor and Pitkeathley. Rider resigned from the Convention when it failed to support his call to arm itself. He left Britain in 1855 and stayed at Bussey’s Boarding House in New York. He returned home ‘after twenty years in America’, according to letter received by Gammage: see Gammage, History of the Chartist Movement, page 414.

[11] George White is considered in Stephen Roberts Radical Politicians and Poets in Early Victorian Britain, Lampeter, 1993, pages 11-38. He was a member of the provisional committee of the Leeds Working Men’s Association, founded in 1837, and mover of the resolution to establish it. White was an Irishman who worked as a woolcomber, who was later employed by Feargus O’Connor as a reporter and agent for the Northern Star. White became secretary of the Leeds Northern Union set up to replace the Leeds Working Men’s Association. White was first arrested and imprisoned after visiting shops in Leeds in 1839 with a subscription book (in aid of the Chartist movement) and a black book into which he entered the names of “enemies of the people” who would not contribute. Imprisoned again in 1840 at Wakefield House of Correction, he suffered considerable hardship and was said to have fallen from the treadmill twice through ill health. Later White moved to Bradford, where he worked with a more militant group of Chartists than could be found in Leeds. He left Britain in 1850 and was reported in Kansas City and California but returned to Leeds in 1860s.

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