Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Sources for Chartism: Harrison on 1842

…Meanwhile throughout the summer of 1842 preparations were going forward for the November municipal elections. A Central Municipal Election Committee was set up in July to organise the return of Chartist councillors. The officers appointed at the first meeting were Joshua Hobson (chairman), William Barron (treasurer) and William Brook (secretary). Ward committees were established as it was hoped to put forward several Chartist candidates. The Northern Star in an eve-of-poll editorial stressed the ‘necessity for the Chartists acquiring local power’; and urged Chartists to capture ‘those outposts to general government, the local offices’, since ‘local power is the key to general power’. This power is within the reach of Chartists - ‘It rests with themselves to put forth their hand and clutch it. It offers itself to their grasp - let them seize it!’ However, only two Chartist candidates actually stood in 1842 and neither was successful. Hobson, who contested the West, Hunslet, and Holbeck wards polled 205 votes in Hunslet, where the main contest was fought, nearly 400 in Holbeck, and in the West ward a mere 53. William Barron polled only a handful of votes in the East ward.

This result was not unencouraging, however, for the immediate background to the elections had been by no means auspicious. In August. the West Riding had been convulsed by the Plug Riots. Beginning in Lancashire the movement had spread across to Todmorden and the towns of the West Riding, where the prevailing unemployment and distress provided ample basis for spontaneous sympathetic action. During the third week in August excitement in Leeds ran high. On Saturday came news of the turn-outs in the West Riding, to be followed on Sunday by movements of troops through the town. William Beckett, M.P. (Colonel of the Yorkshire Hussars), the Earl of Harewood, Prince George of Cambridge, and Lord Cardigan, all arrived to command various units of Hussars and Lancers; and on Monday 1,500 special constables were sworn in. Reports of riots and clashes in Halifax came in during Tuesday, and a meeting of 4,000 operatives on Hunslet Moor passed resolutions in favour of the Charter. Then on Wednesday the turn-out began in the villages near Leeds. Some 6,000 operatives stopped all mills in Calverley, Stanningley, Bramley, Pudsey, and the immediate neighbourhood. Next they drove in the plugs at mills in Armley, Wortley, Farnley, Hunslet and Holbeck. By five o’clock in the evening they were marching down Meadow Lane, Leeds, from Holbeck. All mills in the town were stopped, including Marshall’s, where J. G. Marshall attempted to defend the mill gates, but was driven back. There was a clash with the police at one of the mills, and Prince George and the Lancers were brought up to disperse the strikers. During an attack on the mill of Titley, Tatham, and Walker, in Water Lane, the Riot Act was read, two pieces of artillery were paraded, and thirty-eight people were arrested. On Thursday morning the town was quiet, except for a turn-out at the coal pits at Hunslet and Middleton. The pits were again visited on Friday when fourteen prisoners were taken. A meeting on Hunslet Moor was dispersed by police and soldiers. About 1,200 infantry arrived in the town, the White Cloth Hall was used as a temporary barracks, and General Brotherton was sent from London to take command of the district.

Such was the extent of the disturbances in Leeds. Of the thirty-eight prisoners taken during the affray on Wednesday evening, twenty-seven were committed to York for trial on 3rd September, and received sentences varying from two to eighteen months’ imprisonment. The fourteen prisoners from Beeston and Churwell, who were mostly colliers, were similarly treated. There is little evidence to show that the local Chartists were responsible for the riots, though they were certainly prepared to make political capital for the Charter out of them. None of the leading Chartists in the town were among the prisoners, nor were there many strangers among the rioters. The affair was basically a violent reaction of unemployed operatives, spurred to desperation by hunger and destitution. Nevertheless the Chartist name was almost inevitably connected with the outbreak; and this, coupled with the government’s policy of arresting Chartist leaders, did not augur well for the Chartist cause in the autumn of 1842

J.F.C. Harrison, ‘Chartism in Leeds’, in Chartist Studies, ed. A. Briggs, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 1965, pages 88-90.

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