Thursday, 3 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Manchester 2

At every stage in the rise and decline of Chartism, the class issue is paramount, aggravated usually by economic distress: this is obvious even from the 1790s. At that time, Thomas Walker and other middle class reformers set up the Manchester Constitutional Society that failed partly because of the ‘loyal opposition’ of the working classes. During the Napoleonic Wars, there was a good deal of economic depression in Manchester and the working classes began to demand political reforms as a means to socio-economic improvement. In 1817, the March of the Blanketeers took place, followed in 1819 by the Peterloo Massacre. In 1830, the Manchester Political Unions were very active and in the 1830s, Manchester had a number of active opposition groups: trade unions, the 10-Hour Movement and anti-Poor-Law agitation. These merged into Chartism. R.J. Richardson[1] was secretary to both the Manchester Operatives Trade Union and the South Lancashire Anti-Poor-Law Association in the mid-1830s. He became secretary of the new Manchester Political Union and an active Chartist in 1838. Donald Read says that, “Lancashire Chartism represented a desperate and despairing attempt by the operatives to improve the grim conditions of industrial life.”[2]

On 22nd March 1837, a meeting in favour of all six points of the Charter was held in Stockport although the Charter was not mentioned by name. This was the first meeting in the Manchester area. It was followed in April 1837 by a meeting was held in Manchester to petition for annual general elections, a secret ballot and universal suffrage. In July 1837, after the end of official proceedings for the nomination of candidates for the general election, O’Connor and O’Brien addressed the working class remnant in favour of ‘democratic principles’ - probably the Charter. On 5th December 1837, the Salford Reform Association passed resolves in favour of short parliaments, a secret ballot and universal suffrage. Apparently, this Association was not ultra-radical.

In 1838, two Chartist bodies were founded in Manchester: the Manchester Political Union and the Manchester Universal Suffrage Association. On 24th September 1838, a monster meeting was held on Kersal Moor near Manchester. It was the greatest of a series of large-scale Chartist meetings held during the summer of that year and it had a dual purpose. It was intended firstly to demonstrate the strength of Chartism and secondly to elect delegates for the Chartist National Convention. As a demonstration, it was a huge success. It attracted an impressive display of speakers and delegates from all Chartist areas including the London Working Men’s Association, Birmingham, Newcastle and Leeds. John Fielden took the chair and Joseph Rayner Stephens and Feargus O’Connor were the main speakers. Various estimates of the numbers present have been made. The Manchester Guardian estimated an attendance of 30,000 but the Morning Advertiser said that 300,000 were there. Archibald Prentice, after careful calculation reckoned that the true number was 50,000.

For the rest of 1838, regular meetings were held throughout the area; many by torchlight. These processions and meetings alarmed the middle-classes by their violent speeches and threats. The physical force element predominated, although evidence suggests that they alienated many of the working classes. By spring 1839, Chartism had lost much of its unorganised support. Chartist leaders had also begun to quarrel among themselves. On 6th May 1839, a special meeting of the North of England delegates had to be called to revive the spirit of union within Chartist ranks. It became a rally of the physical force element that went on to look at ‘ulterior measures’. Those in attendance virtually repudiated the National Petition, even before parliament rejected it. The threat of physical violence surfaced. The Manchester Guardian of 24th April had already reported that William Benbow said, “Every man and every boy of twelve years of age should have a stiletto a cubit long, to run into the guts of any who should attempt to oppose them.”

25th May 1839 was Whit Saturday. There is evidence from this second Kersal Moor meeting to suggest the decline of Chartism. Extremists in charge of the Manchester Political Union had high hope for the meeting and about 30,000 attended - many for the horse races afterwards. The Chartists turned their attention to planning a ‘National Holiday’ (a general strike).

On 25th June 1839, a delegate meeting was held in Rochdale, which decided to create a better organisation. This demonstrated the weakness of Chartism. Many delegates were arrested in July and August and few were left to organise the “National Holiday” intended for August. The plan was abandoned by the National Convention but was attempted by some men in Bolton. Some local Chartist leaders tried to achieve a strike and forced some factories to close. This shows what limited support they had. If the operatives had supported Chartism, they would not have gone to work in the first place. Handloom weavers supported Chartism long after the factory workers gave up. These were the poorest and most distressed of the working population of Lancashire and were more prepared to adopt desperate measures. By September 1839, the Chartists themselves were admitting failure. Apathy was widespread among the factory workers. In November, the Newport Rising took place. The Lancashire leaders may have also planned similar risings but they failed from lack of support. Donald Read says, “The comparative failure of the second Kersal Moor meeting the collapse of the National Holiday and the apathetic local response to the Newport Rising all showed how rapidly the Chartism position had declined in 1839. The first phase of the Chartist movement in Lancashire was almost over. The final blow came in the spring of 1840 when most of the Chartist leaders were imprisoned. The Chartist organisation was concentrated in the person of the leaders; without them it collapsed.”[3]


[1] On Reginald Jones Richardson (1803-?) see, Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 433-435. Born in 1803, R.J. Richardson was a master joiner from Salford. He also kept a bookshop. When he was 23 he took part in demonstrations against the introduction of power looms. Eleven years later, he was secretary of the South Lancashire Anti-Poor Law Association and the flowing year, in September 1838, he was the chief organiser of the Kersal Moor meeting. When the carpenters contributed union funds to build Carpenters’ Hall in Manchester, Richardson acted as one of the trustees for the money. He was a man of more than usual education and he was an avid reader all his life. He wrote a pamphlet in prison called The Rights of Women in which he strongly advocated female suffrage. In April 1838, Richardson issued a placard calling a meeting at which the Manchester Political Union was formed. This became the Manchester section of the National Charter Association. In 1838, Richardson was the Manchester delegate to the National Convention but was replaced by Christopher Dean. He was one of the active trade unionists as secretary of the Operatives Trade Union who took the cause of the charter to the organised workers. He was an advocate of physical force and was arrested on a charge of seditious conspiracy in 1839. He was sentenced to nine months in Lancaster Castle. On his release, he went to Scotland to work as editor of the Dundee Chronicle, a Chartist paper. He died in 1861.

[2] Donald Read ‘Chartism in Manchester’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, page 42.

[3] Donald Read ‘Chartism in Manchester’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, page 50.

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