Saturday, 22 December 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Leeds 3

Municipal Chartism

All other avenues of practical ways of achieving the Charter had been exhausted in Leeds.  The educational, rational approach of the Leeds WMA had failed in 1838.  Physical force had met with little support and the Complete Suffrage movement collapsed.

The idea of Municipal Chartism originated in January 1840. Hobson was nominated as an Improvement Commissioner[1]. Nineteen citizens were elected annually and in 1838 and 1839 Tory Commissioners were elected. In 1840, a combination of Whigs, radicals and Chartists defeated the Tory bloc. Hobson was not elected, but another Chartist, John Jackson[2] (a Chartist corn miller) was. In 1841, the liberals’ list was carried again and in 1842, the Chartist list was carried. All nineteen members of the Improvement Commission were, according to the Northern Star, “staunch friends of the people’s cause”. In July 1842, a new one replaced the old Improvement Act. The commission was abolished and the town council implemented the Act. The Chartists would now need to elect town councillors to continue the new line of action. The qualifications needed for town councillors were lower than those for Improvement Commissioners. From 1842 to 1845, Chartists stood and were elected as Churchwardens. The Chartists prepared for the municipal elections, to have Chartists elected. In November 1842, two Chartists stood for local election but failed[3]. The Chartist cause was not helped by the Plug Plots of August, which convulsed the West Riding.  In November 1843, Hobson and Jackson were elected to Leeds council: they were outnumbered 62:2, so they could do little to affect policy. They did provide an ‘awkward squad’, though. By November 1844, there were four Chartists on the council (of 64 members) and between 1849 and 1850, seven Chartists were councillors. The Chartist label was last used in the 1853 municipal election and this represented the end of municipal Chartism in the town.

Leeds Chartists were not necessarily poor men. To stand for municipal office meant they had to be rated at £30 or £40. From 1842 it was the council that had the real power and, for a decade, Chartists either individually or as a body took part in municipal elections. In fact, the Chartists were not united and did not vote as a bloc especially on issues involving expenditure. John Jackson, a leading local Chartist, voted against a rate for drainage and a new sewerage system in 1844 but in favour of a larger courthouse and altering the market in 1845-6. George Robson[4], another Chartist, voted against Jackson on the former but supported the latter while William Brook[5] voted against Jackson on both issues. The Chartists were split on each of the six votes on the building of the town hall between January 1851 and May 1852. It was, however, Chartists who put forward some of the most important municipal innovations. Joshua Hobson pressed for the creation of a new shopping street in 1845 to include a new town hall. He, along with Robson and Brook, argued for an effective drainage system. The Chartist guardian, John Ayrey, first suggested the building of an industrial school, the only major Poor Law building project in the West Riding in the 1840s.

What gave consistency to the Leeds Chartists was their belief in democratic control. Brook favoured municipal spending when the economy was prosperous but opposed it in 1848-9 when the economy slumped and he did not want to increase his constituents’ rates. Popular involvement and control can be seen in many of the other ideas expressed by municipal Chartists. There were attempts to ensure popular participation in the 1842 Improvement Bill. In education, they favoured locally elected boards and rate-aided schools thirty years before the 1870 Elementary Education Act. They were strongly opposed to centralisation and in favour of locally controlled towns. The experience of Leeds was paralleled in other major towns. In Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester, Salford, Nottingham, and especially Sheffield Chartists became embroiled in municipal politics.  What was the impact of municipal Chartism in Leeds?

Municipal Chartism was not concerned with national issues so Leeds Chartism 1843-1848 became something of a backwater. Municipal Chartism may have proved a dead-end, as Harrison concludes. But it did provide yet another link to later political activism. In 1855, a Leeds Advanced Liberal Party was formed to unite old Radicals and Chartists under a single banner. At least eight of its fourteen founder members were old Chartists. They were to lay the foundations of the later manhood suffrage associations of the 1860s, and when the Leeds Working Men’s Parliamentary Reform Association was founded in 1860, it was to be led by the last of the Leeds Chartists.

The Plug Plots in the Leeds Area: 1842

There was much distress in the Leeds area after four years of continuing depression. A fifth of the population was pauperised; 16,000 people (of a population of 80,000) existed entirely on workhouse relief. The Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of Leeds wrote to HM Treasury, in July 1842, “Never at any former period in our recollection has this manufacturing district experienced distress so universal, so prolonged, so exhausting and so ruinous”.


Date  Event
Saturday 13th August News of turnouts of factory workers in the West Riding.
Sunday 14th August Troop movements in Leeds
Monday 15th August 1,500 special constables were sworn in
Tuesday 16th August Reports of riots and clashes in Halifax. A meeting of 4,000 operatives on Hunslett Moor passed resolutions in favour of the Charter
Wednesday 17th August Turnout in villages near Leeds 6,000 operatives stopped all mills in Calverley, Stanningley, Bramley and Pudsey. They drove in the plugs at mills in Armley, Wortley, Farnley, Hunslet and Holbeck. By 5 p.m. they were in Meadow Lane, Leeds and stopped all the mils in Leeds. The Riot Act was read in Leeds and 38 men were arrested.
Thursday 18th August Leeds was quiet except for a turn-out at coal pits at Hunslet and Middleton
Friday 19th August

The pits were visited again and 14 prisoners taken by police. A meeting took place on Hunslett Moor, which was then dispersed by police and troops.

Those arrested were given prison sentences varying between two and eighteen months. There is little evidence to show that local Chartists were responsible for the riots although they made political capital for the Charter out of them. No leading Chartist was arrested in Leeds. The Leeds riots were basically a violent reaction of unemployed operatives spurred to desperation by hunger and destitution.

Chartism in Leeds after 1842

In November 1844, the Northern Star moved from Leeds to London, removing several top-level Chartists from Leeds, including Hobson and Harney. This was indicative of the shift of Chartism from the north to the south at this time. Leeds Chartists continued to meet but new names appeared Squire Farrar, James Harris, and John Shaw. Much time and energy was spent on the land question. In May and June 1845, the first meeting connected with O’Connor’s Land Plan was held. Thirty-five members enrolled because the appeal of a new life in rural surroundings attracted the workers of industrial Leeds. Chartists were in competition with the Owenites.

In 1847, there was a severe trade depression with mass unemployment and high food prices. Things did not improve in the following year because 1848 saw unrest in Ireland and European revolutions. Conditions similar to those of 1838 and 1842 were reproduced and there was renewed activity among the Chartists. In 1848 in Leeds, Chartist meetings which had been used to discuss Land Company business were replaced by meetings addressed by George White - this time talking about the rights of man and so on. White proposed a great West Riding demonstration on Hartshead Moor: the time to get the Charter had arrived.

The Hartshead Moor meeting was held March and processions were organised from Bradford, Leeds and Halifax. Republican flags were flown and radical addresses were delivered. In March and April 1848, there was great enthusiasm for the Charter in Leeds. Huge meetings were held with between 10,000 and 15,000 in attendance, with local Chartist speakers who attempted to broaden the Chartist base by linking up with the Leeds Irish population. The Tricolour was flown, with the inscription, “Republic for France, Repeal for Ireland, the People’s Charter for England, and no surrender!”

The Leeds Times thought Leeds Chartism was being taken over by wilder, extreme Irish elements. It feared for the “good sense and moderation” of the Leeds radicals. Hobson continued to condemn physical force. By May 1848, there was a new air or desperation in the West Riding. Arming and drilling was reported in many areas and from 28th May, sporadic violence occurred in several areas.

In Bradford[6], two thousand Chartists fought with a similar number of police, infantry, dragoons and special Constables. In Bingley, an attack was made on the police station to release Chartist prisoners. In Leeds, two hundred paraded for drill on Woodhouse Moor. JPs warned against this activity so the men went home. Of fifty-eight persons tried at York Assizes for riot and sedition in August, only one was from Leeds. The government’s policy of intimidation and arrests followed by harsh sentences, during the summer of 1848, successfully crushed the immediate threat, but did not extinguish Chartism. New ideas and personalities emerged.

Joseph Barker[7] of Bramley, Leeds was the son of a Wesleyan preacher. He was a self-educated man who became a Wesleyan Methodist preacher himself. His religious progress was downwards: Methodist, Quaker, Unitarian and then secularist. In 1848, Barker was helped by Unitarian friends to set up a print shop at Wortley where he published cheap reprints and began publishing The People, most of which he wrote himself. He published three volumes in all, covering 1848-51. It declared itself republican and ultra-democratic, and attempted to adapt Chartism to new needs and conditions. It emphasised the need for some general union of all reformers and represented the old idea of “the Charter and something more”. His republican ideas came from the 1848 Revolutions but more importantly, The People emphasised the need for some general union of all reformers.

Chartism in Leeds 1848-1853 represented a coming together of reformers from several fields of popular endeavour:

  • Chartism plus the social content of nonconformity
  • Owenite Socialism
  • The Land Company
  • Temperance
  • Trade unionism
  • Co-operative shops

The name ‘Chartist’ came to mean one who favoured a policy of independent working-class radicalism, tied neither to middle-class Liberals nor to Radicals. In 1853, the last Chartist councillors (R M Carter[8] and John Williamson[9]) were elected. After this, Chartists stood as Radicals and/or Liberals. Chartism as an organised movement ended but revived in 1855 as the Leeds Advanced Liberal Party. Of the fourteen originators, eight were ex-Chartists and three more were ex-Owenites. Their programme included the six points of the Charter and municipal reform. In 1860, the last of the Leeds Chartists founded the Leeds Working Men’s Parliamentary Reform Association.


Chartism in Leeds as a powerful force suffered for several reasons.

[1] Brian Barber ‘Municipal government in Leeds 1835-1914’, in Derek Fraser (ed.) Municipal reform and the industrial city, Leicester University Press, 1982, pages 61-110 provides a valuable context for ‘municipal Chartism’.

[2] The first successful candidate put forward by the Leeds Chartists at a municipal election, Jackson was elected an Improvement Commissioner in 1840 as part of a bloc of Whigs, Radicals and Chartists formed to defeat the Tories. Jackson, a corn miller from Holbeck, was successfully re-elected in 1841. He was to be elected a Leeds town councillor for the Holbeck ward in 1843, one of the first two successful candidates (with Hobson). Jackson lost his seat to the Liberals in 1846 and failed to regain it the following year.

[3] William Barron was a member of the committee established to organise the first Chartist attempt to win seats on Leeds town council in November 1842, and one of two unsuccessful candidates (with Hobson). Barron was a tailor and draper, and treasurer of the Leeds Charter Association.

[4] Elected as a Chartist candidate to Leeds town council in West Ward in 1844, he retained his seat in the election of 1847. Robson was a butcher.

[5] Secretary of Leeds Charter Association and of the committee established to organise the first Chartist attempt to win seats on Leeds town council. William Brook was a tobacconist and tea dealer in Kirkgate, who later set up a small nail-making business in Swinegate. He was elected as a Chartist candidate to the council in 1844 for Holbeck ward and retained his seat in the 1847 election.

[6] On disturbances in Bradford see, D.G. Wright The Chartist Risings in Bradford, Bradford, 1987.

[7] Joseph Barker (1806-75) is considered in Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 38-41. He was elected to Leeds town council as a Chartist candidate either in 1848 or 1849, along with his brother Benjamin. Barker was born in 1806 at Wortley, near Leeds. He was a wool-spinner and Methodist preacher and supported ‘moral force’ Chartism, the temperance movement and was an Abolitionist. He was the author of The People (Wortley, 1848-51) and The Liberators (Wortley, 1852-53). Barker left Britain for Boston, Mass., and Omaha, Nebraska in 1851, to join farmer-brother. He was in the United States between 1851 and 1860, and again from 1865 to his death in 1875 in Nebraska.

[8] Robert Meek Carter was elected as a Chartist candidate to Leeds town council in 1850, and successfully re-elected in 1853, on the last occasion on which Chartist candidates stood. Carter was a coal merchant and co-operative pioneer.

[9] John Williamson was elected as a Chartist candidate to Leeds town council in 1853, the last occasion on which Chartist candidates stood. Williamson was a greengrocer.


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