In the eyes of contemporaries the semi-revolutionary strike movement, which engulfed the manufacturing districts of Britain in the summer of 1842, assumed an importance which the historian has seldom recognised. Graham, who was then Home Secretary, thought it `more serious’ than the Chartist disturbances of 1839. To Melbourne, according to the Queen, it recalled the tumults of the Reform Bill struggle. Lieutenant Colonel Maberley, the Secretary of the Post Office, whose duties afforded him a unique insight into conditions prevailing in different parts of the country, went so far as to describe it as `a commotion such as we have not witnessed for half a century’.
It would be unsafe to dismiss these opinions as being wildly exaggerated. There are objective grounds for believing that, limited though they were in duration to a period of two months, the disturbances of 1842 were the most intense of any that occurred in Britain from the time of the French Revolution to that of the Chartist détente of 1848. They covered a wider geographical area than Luddism, embraced more trades than the Agricultural Labourers’ Rising of 1830, and broke with more concentrated force than the Chartist unrest of 1839 and 1848. No fewer than fifteen English or Welsh shires and eight Scottish counties were affected by them. The main impact, it is true, was upon the lowlands of Scotland and on a concentrated block of English territory stretching from the Aire and the Ribble in the North to Shropshire and Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Leicestershire in the South. But there were ripples of the main wave in Cumberland and Glamorganshire, on Tyneside, and at Chard in Somerset. Even the capital was stirred. Public meetings were arranged there to take cognizance of the `awful state of the Country’, and a tumultuous procession surged through the City at midnight.
The movement has been described as a `general strike, the first not only in Britain but in any capitalist country’. The stoppage was never completely general in the sense of nationwide, but in many towns and districts there was, indeed, an almost complete suspension of labour in factories, coalmines and other large establishments, whilst domestic handworkers often turned out to demonstrate and to compel others to join them. But it was also much more than a strike. A local postmaster writing from Accrington at the height of the outbreak observed: `It is more like a revolution than anything else in this neighbourhood, and we fear that plunder and mischief is not at an end.’ Graham and Melbourne, too, harped in their correspondence upon the insurrectionary character of the strike. Nor was this mere moonshine. It would be wrong to conclude that a genuine revolutionary situation existed, for in the last analysis the state’s monopoly of power was not in imminent danger of being overthrown. However, authority was undoubtedly challenged. Workmen pledged not to return to work until the constitution was changed, many thousands of strikers took virtual possession of large towns for hours on end, and even thought of marching on London to set the nation right. On one occasion the mob even unseated a detachment of cavalry by pelting it with heavy stones. The speed with which rumour spread provided a further indication of abnormality, found in other societies when in process of dissolution. Sir Robert Peel, writing from his country house in Staffordshire, told of a report brought by a railway guard from London that the Queen had been assassinated at Windsor. This had apparently circulated like wildfire.
The 1842 outbreak furnishes the opportunity, therefore, to study revolutionary processes at work in a normally stable society, and this will be attempted briefly. We shall hope thereby to throw some light upon the extent of the danger to which the country was exposed, and also upon the reserves of stability. But first the pattern of the disturbances must be briefly sketched. Although there had been sporadic local turnouts, provoked by wage reductions, from the earliest months of 1842, the period of continuous unrest may be dated from a strike which began on the North Staffordshire coalfield on July 8th. From that time forward events unfolded in four main stages. During the first of these, which lasted until August 2nd, the stoppage was confined to the collieries of North and South Staffordshire, and its purpose, like that of previous outbreaks, was the redress of certain economic grievances, notably low wages, truck payments and a fraudulent system of remuneration known as Bildas. Nevertheless, two essential features of the later, more generalised, disturbances became apparent. One was the raking out of boiler fires, and the drawing of boiler plugs, to prevent the pit engines from resuming work. The other was the practice of marching in force from establishment to establishment to compel a suspension of labour. Sometimes the distances covered by the mobs were quite considerable. The North Staffordshire miners got as far as the Poynton colliery near Stockport, a distance of some twenty-five miles, before being repelled by the troops. The second phase opened on August 3rd, and continued until about the 11th of that month. Its principal characteristic was an extension of the geographical and occupational coverage of the strike. On August 3rd. 10,000 colliers and iron miners of the Airdrie district of Lanarkshire left their pits, and started to plunder the potato patches of the neighbouring farmers for food. Two days later there was a strike at Bayley’s cotton factory in Stalybridge, and roving cohorts of operatives carried the stoppage first to the whole area of Ashton and Stalybridge, then to Manchester, and subsequently to towns adjacent to Manchester, using as much force as was necessary to bring factories to a standstill. As yet the movement remained, to outward appearances, largely non-political. Although the People’s Charter was praised at public meetings, the resolutions that were passed at these were in almost all cases merely for a restoration of the wages of 1820, a ten-hour working day, or reduced rents.
During the third stage, from August 12th to 20th, the strike was at its height. By dint of the exertions of the large armies of turnouts which marched from town to town it quickly became general in the manufacturing districts of Lancashire, Cheshire and the West Riding, and began to spread into Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire. Meanwhile, conferences of delegates assembled in Manchester to direct the movement, and these endeavoured, with some apparent success, to harness it to the People’s Charter. It was at this stage that the revolutionary and anti-governmental features of the outbreak were most in evidence. Manchester was placarded, as London had been at the height of the Reform Bill struggle, with notices calling for a run on the banks, and there were sanguinary clashes between the mob and the military at Preston and at Blackburn, in the Potteries and at Salter Hebble in Yorkshire. This was also, however, the period when the central government intervened, with troops and official exhortations, to curb the violence and procure the arrest of the leaders. The fourth phase, therefore, which stretched into late September in some districts, was anti-climactic. It was a period of diminished violence and steady trickle back to work, and although certain categories of workers, notably the cotton operatives of south-east Lancashire continued to hold out, it was for wage increases that they contended and not for the People’s Charter. The wheel had come full circle. What had begun as a wage dispute was a wage dispute once more.
To return to our main task, discussion of the mechanics of revolution is bound sooner or later to raise the question of the necessity of leadership. This has long been an open question among writers on the subject, whether they be historians or political scientists, sociologists or active revolutionaries. As Crane Brinton formulates it, the division lies between, on the one hand, the ‘school of circumstances’, which regards revolution as a ‘wild and natural growth’, the more or less spontaneous reaction to intolerable oppression, and on the other, ‘the school of plot’, which sees it as a ‘forced and artificial growth’, sparked off by `a series of interlocking plots initiated by small but determined groups of malcontents’. Broadly speaking, the conflict reflects the divergence between the apologists for revolution and the conservative opponents of it, although Communist explanations with their unashamed emphasis on the role of leaders consciously planning a revolt provide an exception to this rule. We may perhaps agree with Crane Brinton that both extremes are nonsense. ‘Chance’, as Pasteur said, ‘favours only the mind which is prepared’, and while sudden and unexpected events like famines, or slumps, or the dislocations of war, do provide the motive power of revolution, the presence of leaders who can channel the anger or despair of the mob into purposeful activity is essential to the achievement of real success. Depending upon the nature of the objects sought, these leaders need not be instruments of an intellectual elite or concentrated pressure group. They may, as Chalmers Johnson implies, be mere hedge preachers and village prophets, but leadership in some form and to some degree is indispensable.
It will be useful to apply this analysis to the General Strike of 1842. The explanation of this which found most favour at the time was that of ‘the school of plot’. The Chartists blamed the Anti-Corn Law League; the Leaguers blamed the Chartists; the Conservative government blamed both, and added the trade unions for good measure. The case against the Anti-Corn Law League need not detain us long. Elaborated by John Wilson Croker in a clever political polemic which appeared in The Quarterly Review, it ran to the effect that, pursuant to a long-term plan, the League engineered the strike both by incitement and by the action of its member millowners in effecting a reduction in the wages of the cotton operatives. Croker made many telling points against the League, and there can be little doubt that the continual harping upon the damage inflicted by the Corn Laws, and on the selfishness of landlords, helped to encourage the insurgents and to demoralise the upholders of law and order when the conflict came. Nevertheless, the League can almost certainly be acquitted of direct conspiracy to foment the outbreak. Both in Staffordshire and in southern Lancashire Tory employers shared with free-trading liberals the responsibility for making the offending wage reductions, and Bayleys of Stalybridge, whose stubbornness was immediately responsible for the outbreak in Lancashire, were in the last resort prepared to withdraw their notice of reduction. It was the men who then refused the olive branch.
But what of the Chartists and the trade unions? It was upon these, acting as he supposed in concert, through a conference of trade delegates meeting in Manchester, that the Home Secretary’s suspicions first alighted. `It is quite clear,’ he wrote to General Sir William Warre on August 15th, ‘that these Delegates are the Directing Body: they form the link between the trades unions and the Chartists.’ Later historians, however, reacting sharply against such conspiratorial explanations, have emphasised the strike’s total spontaneity. Mr. Christopher Thorne writes that ‘the Plug Riots, manifestations of utter misery…following wage cuts in the summer of 1842, were by no means Chartist-inspired…’, while Dr Ronald Read makes explicit the assumptions of the modern consensus in the words: ‘There was no causal connection between Chartism and the outbreak…The Chartists…merely attempted to exploit it once it had occurred.’ This paper is designed to suggest that the truth lies in between the contemporary and more recent interpretations.
It seems to me that the role of conscious, creative leadership did assert itself at two successive stages in the development of the strike. First in the inception. It is true that the ordinary coalminer or cotton operative, who struck work and endeavoured to persuade others to do likewise, did so out of a sense of exasperation induced by a long series of wage reductions. Without this impetus no amount of oratory would have produced an outbreak as widespread as the Plug Plot. Given this factor, however, the importance of leaders, who suggested when the time was ripe to strike, which factories should be turned out by force, and what should be demanded as the price of returning to work, can scarcely be denied. There is evidence that, in Stalybridge and in the Staffordshire Potteries, the workpeople had local trade committees to formulate their demands, but enthusiasm was principally sustained at large open-air meetings, where directions were also issued as to where the mob should proceed, what should be their terms, and how they should behave. From the official reports of the subsequent trials at the Lancaster Assizes, and from the columns of the Northern Star, it is possible to compile a list of the chairmen and principal speakers at the meetings in Stalybridge and Ashton, and also in Manchester, in the early days of the outbreak. Research into the background of these figures shows that they were mostly Chartists, and that many had no connection with the cotton industry, where the grievances which provoked the strike occurred.
The Star lists the speakers at a meeting in Stalybridge early on August 8th, which, after an adjournment, ended in a resolution to turn out factories in Stalybridge and Dukinfield. Six names were mentioned. The Chairman, Alexander (‘Sandy’) Challenger, was a hatter, who had once proposed a memorial to the Queen that she should employ only Chartist ministers. William Stephenson was nominated as a representative of Stalybridge to the General Council of the National Charter Association; so also was John Durham (mistakenly described as ‘Derham’), a Stalybridge newsagent. Patrick Brophy was an Irishman who had once been secretary of the Irish Universal Suffrage Association, and had become a Chartist lecturer. Fenton was presumably the notorious pike-selling Chartist from Ashton, once described in a piece of local doggerel as one of ‘Fergus’ dupes’. At a later meeting that afternoon which adopted a resolution `that the people of Ashton go to Oldham and those at Stalybridge and Dukinfield to Hyde’ the principal speakers were Brophy and Richard Pilling, a member of the South Lancashire delegate conference of the National Charter Association. Pilling afterwards headed the Ashton turnouts to Oldham. In Granby Row Fields, Manchester, on August 9th seven speakers were mentioned; four were certainly Chartists and two more probably so. At a further meeting in the same place on the following day Christopher Doyle, who had been a member of the Chartist Convention of 1842, urged the people to form a procession. In the Ashton context mention should be made of William Aitken (Aitkin), a local schoolmaster and Chartist leader, who went with Challenger as a delegate to Preston, to persuade the workpeople there to strike; also perhaps of Thomas Mahon, who formed the link between the Chartists and the Operatives’ Committee. Similar evidence of Chartist leadership comes from other regions, from the Potteries, from South Staffordshire, where Arthur O’Neill, the Christian Chartist, attended a meeting at West Bromwich on August 1st and moved resolutions embodying the miners’ grievances, and from Scotland.
It would be tempting to deduce from these cases a nucleated Chartist conspiracy to work up a general strike in favour of the People’s Charter. Only three years earlier a Chartist Convention had adopted such a plan, to rescind it when it found the project lacking in support. Closer examination of the evidence, however, casts doubt on this interpretation. For one thing Chartism was in 1842 too divided to be capable of devising a single national plan. It was split not only between O’Connorites and Complete Suffragists, but also between O’Connor and his editor of the Northern Star on the one hand and the chiefs of the Executive of the National Charter Association on the other. Moreover, the Chartists who put themselves at the head of the strikes in South Lancashire seemed uncertain themselves whether it was for the Charter or for the redress of trade grievances that they were contending. John Leach told a meeting at Hyde that `it would be more proper for them to stand out for the wage than the Charter question’, as `it was impossible for them to get the Charter at present’. At a meeting at the Haigh in Stalybridge on August 11th Fenton and Durham argued for the wages question; Stephenson and Mahon for the Charter. Yet all were Chartists.
Probably, therefore, these local Chartists headed the turnouts over wage grievances not simply to exploit them (although it would be naive to suggest that they were not, in many cases, also feeling their way to turn the situation to the advantage of the People’s Charter) but out of a deep-rooted sense of commitment to working-class interests which Chartism engendered. There was an established pattern of Chartist leadership in trade disputes going back for at least several months before the Plug Plot commenced. Aitken and Pilling were to be found taking the lead in resistance to a proposed 10 per cent reduction of wages in Ashton as early as March 1842. The action taken in August was in one perspective merely a legitimate extension of this.
If, however, at first, the Chartists contributed little to the shaping of the objects of the strike, they exerted quite a profound influence on the tactics that were pursued. It is possible to discern in the speeches which they made evidence of a design to unify discontents into a single focus of confrontation with the employers. This was apparent in Chartist contributions to strikes even before the Plug Plot began. O’Neill told a West Bromwich strike meeting in May that ‘the whole district should be forthwith canvassed, united and organised to enable them to resist not only the present reduction but also future attempts’. Perhaps there was something in Chartism with its class-conscious appeal to general working-class interests that led its adherents to advise union of forces as an appropriate weapon of defence in trade disputes, for when the strikes broke out in Lancashire in August, it was again the object of the Chartist orators to bring a concerted pressure of the whole area to bear upon the employers. It was resolved at a meeting on Mottram Moor on Sunday, August 7th ‘that on the Tuesday, they would march to Manchester, stop all labour, visit the Exchange and teach “the merchants how to give better prices for goods”‘. The events of the two following days were fully consistent with such a plan. By a sequence of rallies and turnout marches the operatives of the Ashton, Stalybridge, Hyde and Dukinfield district were slowly shepherded together, until a joint invasion of Manchester became feasible. It occurred on Tuesday, August 9th, when a section of the invading force did in fact make its way at the earliest opportunity to the Exchange. In this way the Chartists helped to expand and to unify the movement when it occurred, though it is by no means clear that they were acting in accordance with any revolutionary plan conceived before the outbreak began. At least they cast their influence against recourse to violence.
Once the strikes had been successfully launched, a second organised intervention occurred--that of the delegate conferences. These were of two kinds--a national conference of the National Charter Association held in Manchester on August 16th and 17th, and a series of regional conferences consisting of delegates from the trades of Manchester and district, which met in the same city from August 11th to 20th. In most historical accounts of the Plug Plot the former plays a central role. The latter, however, was in some respects the more important. It was the trade conferences that gave the first general lead to adopt the People’s Charter as the prime object of the strike. On August 12th, a meeting of the trades and mill-hands of Manchester and its vicinity with delegates from various parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, adopted a resolution: ‘that this meeting recommend the people of all trades and callings to forthwith cease work until the above document becomes the law of the land’. This was confirmed at a differently constituted conference in the Carpenters’ Hall that same afternoon. The deliberations coincided with and strengthened a growing movement in the country to give the turnout a political colouring. Moreover, in the Manchester district, at least, which was the home of the strike, the trade delegates rather than the Chartists came to be regarded as the leaders. Their continued sessions from August 15th onwards, held after further elections had taken place, were besieged by large crowds, which gathered in the streets outside their meeting halls, eager to know what transpired within, so much so that the delegates themselves, anxious to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities, repeatedly and vainly urged them to disperse.
The assembling of these delegates apparently ex nihilo, and their uncompromising stand for the People’s Charter, is a phenomenon which calls for explanation. To Home Secretary Graham they formed the nub of the supposed conspiracy, linking the Chartists with the trade unions. Events, however, are capable of a less sinister interpretation. The immediate urge which led to the gathering of these bodies, appears to have been more or less spontaneous. Shortly after the march of the turnouts from Ashton into Manchester two separate initiatives were taken in the town to procure the appointment of trade delegates, one by the power-loom weavers and the other by the mechanics. There may, in fact, have been more than two, but that of the mechanics proved the most fruitful and eventually burgeoned into the conference in the Carpenters’ Hall on August 11th and 12th, which adopted the resolution to strike for the Charter. It seems that the mechanics were first goaded into an appeal for support from their fellow tradesmen because one of their own meetings had been interrupted by the soldiery. Behind these occurrences, however, lay a long period of unintended preparation. In Manchester and the surrounding towns the tradition of uniting trades by delegates for mutual support upon a regional basis stretched back at least to the Philanthropic Society of 1818, which included the towns of Manchester, Stockport, Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Bury. During the nine months preceding the outbreak at Stalybridge this tradition was revived by the attempts of both the Anti-Corn Law League and the Chartists to draw out an expression of support from the trade societies. As early as October 1841 a gathering of the Manchester Operative Anti-Corn Law Association had appointed a committee to invite the trades, mill hands and other bodies of working men to attend a meeting for the purpose of obtaining the extinction of the corn monopoly and compensation for those who had been robbed by it. By New Year’s Day 1842, a conference of deputies from the different working men’s associations of the Kingdom was being held in the Anti-Corn Law League’s rooms in Manchester, and this commissioned a deputation of workmen from Messrs Sharp and Roberts’ engineering works in Manchester to organise the trades upon the subject of Corn Law repeal, which was to be accompanied by an ‘equitable adjustment’ of the National Debt, financed by the landlords out of taxation.
Significantly, the leader of the deputation from Messrs Sharp and Roberts was Alexander Hutchinson, a smith, who was to serve as the standing chairman of the trade delegate conferences held in Manchester in the second week of the disturbances of August. Hutchinson was an Owenite Socialist, who, at the time of his arrest during the Plug Plot, planned to emigrate to the backwoods of America for the purpose of founding or joining a communitarian experiment there. His position was somewhat compromised by the fact that, when he was arrested, the police discovered in his house in Manchester a collection of firearms and gunpowder, which he had intended to take with him on his journey.
But to return to events earlier in the year, Hutchinson and his colleagues fulfilled their commission from the Anti-Corn Law League to organise the trades. Meetings, consisting of delegates from the bricklayers and the mechanics, the silk dyers and the calico printers, the engravers and the glass cutters, the shoemakers and the tailors were duly held. At the last of these, in the Hop Pole Inn, Manchester, on March 14th, with Hutchinson in the chair, the unexpected happened. Delegate after delegate rose to substitute an agitation for the People’s Charter for one in favour of Corn Law repeal, and eventually a motion for uniting the trades and political bodies of Manchester on the basis of the Charter alone was carried by fifty-nine votes. It was further resolved to invite the trades of Manchester and Salford to attend a demonstration on Good Friday, when Feargus O’Connor would lay the foundation stone of a memorial to Orator Hunt. The lead in favour of the Charter was begun by the representative of the silk dyers and was followed by those of the calico printers and the fustian cutters.
The outcome of this meeting reflects a development, the importance of which historians have only just begun to appreciate. Until recently it has been often assumed that Chartism and trade unionism were two mutually exclusive expressions of working-class endeavour. By some historians, notably Professor Asa Briggs, a pendulum explanation had been invoked to clarify the relationship between them. Working men concentrated upon trade union activity in times of good trade and turned to politics when trade was poor. This thesis is both valid and useful, as a general case, but it must admit of significant exceptions. Certain trades, the skilled handicrafts in particular, retained their organisation through the worst years of depression, and these sometimes turned collectively to Chartism, in response to wage cutting or the threat of downgrading, because reflection had taught their members that a political solution was relevant to their economic difficulties. The columns of the Northern Star during the first six months of 1842 furnish many examples of initiatives by various groups of tradesmen to declare for the Charter or join the National Charter Association. The ‘cordwainers of Colne’, the ‘associated shoemakers of Wigan’, the fustian cutters of Manchester, are all cases in point. Particularly interesting is the conversion of the engineering trades of Manchester, which took place in the two months prior to the outbreak of the Plug Revolt in Lancashire. On May 31st the mechanics, and on July 12th the hammermen, adopted at their general meetings resolutions to become members of the N.C.A. It is not suggested that these bodies were anything more than local societies or branches or that their conversion to Chartism in any way typified the attitude of national organisations like the Journeymen Steam Engine and Machine Makers Friendly Society, which were often as scrupulous as the Methodists in adopting ‘No Politics’ rules. Nevertheless, at the regional level, in places like Manchester, London and Glasgow, there was a marked coalescence of Chartism and the trade societies, and this exerted a profound influence upon the character of the General Strike.
Success in converting the unions to the Six Points was partly the result of a deliberate Chartist effort to achieve it. Numerous initiatives were taken in the two or three months before the Plug Plot, some of them local and uncoordinated, like that of the Preston Chartists in June for the establishment of a standing joint conference of Chartists and trade unionists, which would refuse to separate until it had achieved the protection of trade and the constitutional liberties of the people. As yet Feargus O’Connor and the editor of the Northern Star newspaper showed no interest in the movement, but three of the leading members of the Executive of the National Charter Association appear to have been involved in it, whether individually or collectively. P. M. McDouall and James Leach were active in lecturing to the trades on the virtues of Chartism, whilst John Campbell, the Secretary of the Association, published a Letter to the Chartists of Great Britain in the Star on June 11th, calling for a union of the Chartists and the trade societies. `Without union’, he urged, ‘we are powerless; with it we are everything’. There are strong indications, however, that the missionary activity undertaken by the Chartists was only successful because it coincided with a spontaneous development within the trades themselves. Some groups were clearly influenced in their decisions for the Charter by deputations sent to them by other trades--the hammermen by the mechanics, the mechanics by the carpenters. Moreover, in the dialogue conducted at the lodge meetings, the argument for becoming Chartist which carried the greatest weight was the economic one. Political power was necessary to secure the object for which the unions had themselves been founded--the protection of the labour of working men. This could be made relevant to the needs even of those aristocratic trades, which were merely threatened with wage cutting, dilution of labour and machine competition, and not yet seriously oppressed. In this connection it is useful to note an address issued in June 1842 by the Committee charged with the responsibility of preparing the monument to Henry Hunt in Manchester. It reminded ‘the aristocratical portion of the trades’, which had hitherto stood aloof from Chartism, that ‘the same circumstances are at work still which have brought down the wages of, and impoverished other trades, and will continue, if not checked, and operate upon theirs also’. In an age when, as Mr Edward Thompson has shown, the forces of economic change were operating to produce a widespread insecurity among artisans of all kinds, this was a powerful case to use. Its employment reveals not merely the greater sophistication with which Chartists were coming to present their arguments, but also the extent to which the trade societies were deflected towards Chartism by factors present in their own shop-floor experience.
It would seem, therefore, that the sudden assembling of the trades delegates during the Plug Plot disturbances and their declaration for a strike in favour of the People’s Charter can be satisfactorily explained by these features of the recent history of the trades, and without recourse to any notion that the delegates were the instruments of a Chartist plot.
Thus far pursued, our investigation tends in its result to support the generally accepted conclusion that no deep or premeditated nodal conspiracy underlay the disturbances of 1842. We have been led, nevertheless, to attribute to leadership a larger part than has been usually allowed. This leadership was opportunistic and often decentralised, moulding events rather than creating them, arising from disseminated assumptions rather than responding to a single controlling voice. Nevertheless, it existed and its presence rendered the outbreak more serious than it would otherwise have been. It remains to consider briefly how effectively direction was exercised when it reached the level of the conferences of trade delegates.
The men who assembled in the Sheardown Inn, Tib Street, on 15th August, 1842 to resume the task of directing the strike took a serious view of their responsibilities. They clearly regarded themselves as a sort of alternative government, charged with the duty of bringing order out of the chaos that had arisen. In a published Address to the Trades of Manchester and the Surrounding Districts they claimed to be the ‘true and bona fide representatives of the people of those districts’ and a ‘personification of the public will’. One of their number told the crowds assembled outside their meeting place that they ‘considered themselves a committee of public safety at the present crisis’. Perhaps this was largely rhetoric, derived from Tom Paine and the English Jacobin tradition, which had formed part of the culture of the artisans since the time of the French Revolution. It had, nevertheless, practical implications. The delegates were deeply aware, almost pathetically aware, of the need to provide the country with leadership. When the magistrates of Manchester broke up their meeting on August 16th, they used the last few minutes available to them to pass a resolution re-affirming their recommendation to the people to cease work until the Charter became the law of the land, and proposing to send delegates to every part of the United Kingdom to enlist the co-operation of the middle and labouring classes in carrying the same. Admittedly, there was a dissentient minority in their ranks anxious to order a return to work, but of eighty-five delegates assembled on August 15th, fifty-eight declared for going on with the strike until the Charter had been enacted. Even after the disaster of Tuesday 15th, when the authorities entered their meeting place at the Hall of Science and gave them ten minutes to disperse, the delegates met again each day that week, and carefully explored every avenue of approach for keeping the strike going. This they did notwithstanding the fact that their ranks were being continually thinned by arrests.
It is true, of course, that the exertions of the delegates were strangely out of proportion to the extent of their direct authority. Elected upon a local basis, they were in no sense the apex of a nationwide organisation. Although it was claimed that one of their meetings, on August 12th, was attended by delegates from Yorkshire as well as from Lancashire, the subsequent gathering on the 15th, which was more carefully screened, seems to have been mainly constituted by the trades of Manchester and a group of towns and townships lying to the north and east of Manchester. From the lists given in the local press it seems that there were representatives from Oldham, Royton, Clayton and Lees, from Bury, Heywood, Middleton and Radcliffe Bridge, from Ashton, Stalybridge, Hyde and Mossley, and from the cotton spinners of Bolton. But the only delegates from the west of Manchester were from the vicinities of Eccles and Leigh, while none were recorded from the towns to the south. Indirectly, however, the delegates had scope for exercising a much wider influence. If only they could have rallied the trades of the Manchester district behind the strike for the People’s Charter, they could have carried far distant regions with them too, for there was a pronounced tendency in many areas to look to Manchester for a lead as to what to do. At Merthyr Tydfil, while the miners hesitated whether to strike or not, the authorities placarded the town with notices of the failure of the turn out in Manchester in order to place a damper on the proceedings. The Chief Constable of Glamorganshire commented as follows on the situation there: ‘Unless the news from the North be bad I do not apprehend an outbreak. I believe this to be a shadow of the Manchester affair and their object the Charter, and their cry is now or never.’ Likewise at Carlisle, in the week beginning August 14th, public meetings were held on three successive evenings to hear reports from `the conference of the working classes’ and on the state of the Manchester district. At Trowbridge in Wiltshire, also, the working men waited upon information that the operatives elsewhere intended to persist in the struggle before deciding whether to commit themselves to it. They expressed the desire for a public body to sit either in London or in Manchester to direct the movement.
Inasmuch as the trade delegates in Manchester endeavoured to rise to their responsibilities it would be difficult to maintain that the general strike for the People’s Charter failed for want of leadership. Why, then, did it fail? There are three main reasons.
Firstly, it failed because it was bound to fail. The time-scale was against it. In a society less artificial than our own, the mere suspension of labour by the industrial working class could not subdue the government in less time than it would take to reduce the strikers by starvation. By their insistence on abstaining from work until the People’s Charter had become the law of the land, whilst at the same time refusing to countenance any violence, the trade delegates sitting in Manchester committed themselves to logical inconsistencies which they were ultimately unable to resolve. The dilemma was recognised in their debates. Candelet, a delegate from Hyde, observed in terms which recalled Benbow’s fiery pamphlet of 1832, that ‘there was plenty of provisions for them on the hills--plenty of good crops with which they might supply their wants’, but another member immediately inquired: `How could supplies be obtained during the turnout consistently with “Peace, Law and Order”? To be sure they were told to go to the hills and find provisions, but the man who had reared those vegetable productions had a first and inalienable right to them.’ The point was a fair one for at their meeting on the previous Saturday the delegates had issued a placard headed `Justice!!!, Peace!!!, Law!!!, Order!!!’ In fact, the only way in which a general strike could have been sustained for a lengthy period without violence was by getting the shopkeepers to extend credit to the workpeople while the turnout lasted; and by drawing on voluntary contributions from the well-to-do. The delegates entertained hopes of being able to effect these purposes, for they negotiated through a friendly shopkeeper named Williscroft both with other shopkeepers and with meetings of dissenting ministers. Almost their last throw before giving up the struggle was to convene a meeting of shopkeepers on Friday, August 19th. Nevertheless, despite the fact that printed invitations were delivered at several thousand shops, the project turned out to be a fiasco. Only a handful of people attended. The truth was that, although the shopkeepers and publicans of Stalybridge and Ashton-under-Lyne formed committees to assist the operatives to obtain `a fair days wage for a fair days work’ in the early stages of the strike, these bodies issued notices threatening to withdraw their support as soon as the movement took a political turn. The delegates could rely on some aid from the lower middle classes in a struggle for higher wages, if only because the repeated wage-cuttings of recent years had diminished the shopkeepers’ custom, but they could not have it in a strike for the Charter.
Some delegates--they were in a minority--were ready to cut through the knot by diminishing the insistence on Law and Order. The extremists were mainly Irishmen, like William Duffy, who had once been a lecturer for the Anti-Corn Law League, but had apparently turned against his former employers by the time that the delegates met, because, having threatened the government to stop the supplies if the Corn Laws were not repealed, they had then proceeded, as magistrates of Manchester, to put down public meetings during the strike. Duffy was the principal activist during the meetings of the delegates. He was continually striving to bring the conference into conflict with the authorities by urging it to issue a placard denouncing a proclamation, made by the magistrates against public meetings, as unjust and unconstitutional, and to call for a run on the banks. The wonder is that he was not prosecuted. This could indicate that he was still secretly an agent for the Anti-Corn Law League and that the magistrates of that party managed to protect him. My own conviction is that he appears to have been primarily an Irish nationalist, seeking to make trouble for the Tory government without overmuch concern for the English faction which he happened to be in league with at the time. The same explanation almost certainly goes for Patrick McIntyre, who eventually stormed out of a meeting of the delegates, accusing his fellows of being ‘frightened from their propriety by the very “name” of an army’, affirming his belief that `the way to an Englishman’s understanding was through his belly’ and thanking the Almighty that `he did not belong to a nation whose intellectual susceptibilities were aroused by such carnal instincts’. The role of Irish discontents in the Plug Plot is a subject which, so far as I am aware, has never been investigated, but, to judge by the names of men who played a leading role in fomenting it--Patrick Brophy, Daniel Donovan, Bernard McCartney, Patrick McIntyre, William Duffy, Christopher Doyle--one which would repay exploration.
The general strike for the People’s Charter failed secondly because it lacked sufficient support from workers in the basic industries. This is sometimes obscured by the fact that the conference of trade delegates had so large a majority in favour of it. The delegates, however, although they represented a wide range of occupations, were not nicely proportioned in number to the strength and importance of their constituents. More than a half of those present on August 15th came from what is loosely designated the aristocracy of labour: the unrevolutionised skilled handicrafts and the mechanical or engineering trades. Out in the country, in the mill towns about Manchester, nothing like a firm consensus for adopting the Charter developed at any stage in the outbreak. Some towns like Hyde and Glossop declared enthusiastically for a Chartist strike; others such as Stockport, Macclesfield, Stalybridge, Mossley, Lees and Bury, remained basically in favour of keeping to a demand for higher wages. Chartist orators, or invading mobs from other towns, sometimes persuaded their inhabitants to declare temporarily for the Six Points, but the decisions thus reached were often quickly rescinded. The divisions within the working classes cannot be easily explained. They were often more a matter of locality than of occupation. It is, nevertheless, clear that the proposal to abstain from work until the People’s Charter became the law of the land was not endorsed by the workmen in some important sectors of British industry. The dissentients included not only the men of the cotton towns of south-east Lancashire, who had begun the strike for higher wages, but also the colliers of Monmouthshire, who answered an appeal from their colleagues of Merthyr with the words: ‘You left us in the lurch at Newport, and now you may go to the devil your own way.’
Finally, the strike failed because of the action taken by the government to restore order. This was swift and determined, more vigorous perhaps than that of any government since Lord Sidmouth was at the Home Office. It quickly removed the leaders, demoralised the participants in the turnout mobs, and created a framework of stability within which a return to work could and did commence. One incidental effect of the Home Secretary’s policy was that, by encouraging the magistrates to suppress all large meetings in the disturbed areas on the grounds that in present circumstances they had ‘a manifest tendency to create terror and to endanger the public peace’, he removed one of the principal means by which advice to strike until the People’s Charter became law was disseminated. This was instrumental in robbing the strike of its political character. It did not, however, take away the matter of the discontent on which Chartism fed. Only time and the adoption of a more humane approach to social problems could do that.
F. C. Mather, ‘The General Strike of 1842: A Study in Leadership, Organisation and the Threat of Revolution during the Plug Plot Disturbances’, in Popular Protest and Public Order: Six Studies in British History 1790-1920, eds. R. Quinault and J. Stevenson, George Allen & Unwin, 1974, pages 115-35.