The Staffordshire potteries saw the worst of the 1842 general strike and the harshest crackdown. During the strike, which had been sparked by wage cuts, workers stopped the pumps that kept coal mines clear of water and closed down every factory that they could. But the strike leaders failed to keep control, and in the riots that followed police stations were raided for arms, prisoners were released, poor-rate books seized and destroyed, and the houses and offices of magistrates, coal mine owners, rate-collectors and parsons set on fire or pulled down. A detailed account of events is contained in the far from sympathetic account by John Ward in his The history of the Borough of Stoke-on-Trent, published in 1843.
“Early in the month of July, 1842, a dispute arose between Mr. Sparrow, a principal iron and coal-master of Longton, and his workmen, on account of a reduction he required in their wages. The men refused to submit to his terms, and turned out in a body from his employ. They imagined that by inducing the colliers in general to follow their example, and stopping the works of the other proprietors, they should obtain the rate of wages they contended for.
They proceeded, therefore, systematically to compel the vast body of working colliers in the district to cease working, visiting the different pits, and threatening or coercing the refractory. This state of things having lasted for several weeks, bands of colliers proceeded through the Pottery towns, and all round the neighbourhood, soliciting relief for supporting themselves and families during the struggle with their employers; and the boldness of these beggars became at length most annoying and alarming.
On Saturday, the 6th August, three men, carrying a begging-box through the alleys of the shambles in Burslem-Market, were taken into custody by the police-constables, and placed in the lock-up, under the Town-Hall, on a charge of vagrancy. Their incarceration becoming known to their Hanley comrades, they assembled there towards midnight, to the number of about 200, proceeded to Burslem, broke open the Police Station, carried off their friends in triumph, committed much other mischief, by the demolition of windows, and the illuminated dial of the Town-Hall clock, and then retired before dawn of day, without being known or identified. A general stoppage of the manufactories was necessarily produced by the stoppage of the Collieries, and the workman, suffering from these privations, became the convenient and ready instruments of the seditious demagogues, who had been long disseminating the deleterious doctrines of “The People’s Charter,” as the sovereign and sole remedy for poverty, and all political grievances.
These notions had taken deep root among the ignorant and most excitable portion of the working people, and many were ripe for insurrection. Although danger was apprehended from the combinations of the Colliers, and the distress produced by the stoppage of business, and the magistrates took precautionary means, by swearing in special constables, to maintain the peace, yet was the district very ill prepared to meet any outbreak of popular fury. No military force was at hand until, upon the urgent representations of the magistrates, a small troop of dragoons and a company of infantry were sent to Newcastle about the beginning of August. The weather was beautifully fine, the fields covered with abundance, and the ring-leaders of sedition hence conceived that the time was particularly auspicious for the assemblage of large mobs, and the achievement of their traitorous designs.
The very general stagnation of trade at this period produced similar effects in Lancashire, und the town of Manchester was for some time at the mercy of a mob. The “Delegates” of the Chartist conspiracy had (there. is good reason to believe) resolved upon a grand demonstration on the 16th of August, the anniversary of the “Peterloo Massacre”. It was commemorated indeed at Burslem, as will presently be seen. On Monday the 15th, after some inflammatory sermons by Cooper (a talented Chartist orator from Leicester), on the day before at Longton and Hanley, the fraternity of Chartists and the surly advocates for a fair day’s wages (which was all the Colliers in general sought for, and no more than they had a right to expect), assembled in formidable array at the Crown Bank in Hanley, where the Chartist Meetings had been usually held, proceeded thence to stop the engines at Earl Granville’s works, broke open the Police Office at Hanley, also a print-works, also a principle pawnbroker’s shop there, and the house of the tax collector; proceeded to Stoke, demolished the windows of that Post Office, and afterwards those of Fenton and Longton.
The rectory-house at the latter place was the especial object of their fury; it was gutted and set fire to, though the fire was extinguished before it destroyed the premises. The house of Mr. Mason at Heron Cross, that of Mr. Allen of Great Fenton, and that of Mr. Rose, the police magistrate at Penkhull, were in like manner visited and treated by parties of marauders, who, returning to Hanley in the evening, were again lectured, and commended by Cooper for what they had done, though he reproved them for their drunkenness, as being likely to expose them to detection. Terror and consternation spread around, and many families left home for security. The scenes of the night were expected to surpass the atrocities of the day, and so they did.
Religion and justice must be exhibited as public victims on the altar of Chartist divinity. Accordingly the parsonage of the Rev. R. E. Aitkens in Hanley, and Albion House in Shelton, the residences of William Parker, Esq., one of the county magistrates, were, with all their valuable furniture, burnt and destroyed. The offices of Earl Granville in Shelton shared the same fate. The morning of the 16th discovered their smoking ruins. The mob, after the excesses of the night slowly congregated at their usual place of rendezvous and was addressed in violent language by Ellis, a local Chartist, who encouraged them to proceed in their laudable career till the Charter was established as the law of the land. It appears the Chartist emissaries had made previous arrangements for a general inroad of their forces on the morning of this day in the town of Burslem. A large body from Macclesfield and Congleton bivouacked during the night in the streets of Leek, and pressed all they could lay hold of the accompany them. These were to form a junction at Burslem with the Hanley brigade. The latter entered Burslem at about nine o’clock in formidable numbers, and immediately forced the George Inn, rifled the money drawers, and being then driven out by a few soldiers, broke all the front windows of the house. This was the second serious injury of the kind which Mr. Barlow, the landlord, had sustained within a few days, his house having been one of the objects of attack on the morning of the 7th.
The town of Burslem was fortunately prepared for a proper reception of the Banditti. A small troop of the 2nd Dragoon Guards had arrived there from Newcastle, under the command of Major Trench, and a large body of volunteers, from among the friends of law and social order of all classes of society, had been hastily organised as special constables, by the praiseworthy exertions of Samuel Alcock, Esq., he chief constable of Burslem.
About the time of the arrival of the Hanley mob, Capt. Powys, an active magistrate, aware of their movements, rode into the town, and under his directions the troop of Dragoons were assembled, and the constables called out. The military as the proceeded to form were assailed by the populace, the riot act was then read by Captain Powys, and after an interval of about an hour, passed in preparing and skirmishing, the mob from Leek arrived with which the Hanley forces formed a junction on their approach. Their united phalanx numbered from 6000 to 8000 men, armed with cudgels, or furnished with stones, eager to repeat the scenes of spoliation and destruction which had been acted the preceding day in other parts of the Borough. The military were drawn up at the entrance into the market-place from Leek, opposite to ‘The Big House’, with the special constables in their rear. The mob advanced upon them, brandishing their cudgels and discharging at them collies of stones; their fury and numbers could be checked only by the weapons of the soldiers. They were ordered to fire on the insurgents, when one man fell dead upon the spot, another received a wound all but mortal, and several others wounded less or more, ran or were carried away, some of whom are supposed to have afterwards died. A charge was made by the Dragoons and constables upon the rioters, who then dispersed in all directions, and thus the authority of the law vindicated, and anarchy subdued at Burslem on the memorable 16th of August, 1842.
Sturdy bands of the discomfited mob went about the country for some days afterwards, terrifying and plundering wherever they came, and robberies and burglaries were committed to a great extent. The slow, but no less sure, arm of the law however followed these proceedings, and the county jail was soon filled with prisoners. Cooper and Ellis were apprehended, the former in Leicester, the latter in Glasgow, and Ellis was committed on a charge of high treason (but which was finally relinquished, and he indicted and convicted of arson). A special commission was appointed for trial of the delinquents concerned in these outrages, with others of a less aggravated kind committed in the South of Staffordshire. The trials occupied three learned judges, sitting in three separate Courts, for the space of a fortnight (i.e. from the 1st to the 15th of October).
Sir W. Follett, Solicitor-General, with several auxiliary Counsel, conducted the prosecutions, which were carried on at the sole expense of the Government and superintended by the Solicitor to the Treasury. Many acquittals took place, rather from the humanity of the judges than from defect of evidence; but enough was done to satisfy the demands of justice.”