Friday, 4 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Manchester 3

The second phase of Chartism had to begin with a reorganisation that laid more emphasis on structure and less emphasis on personalities. This took place between July 1840 and June 1841. On 20th July 1840, a National Delegate Conference was held in Manchester with James Leach in the chair. Leach was as violent as O’Connor was. Eventually, out of a host of rival schemes, there emerged the National Charter Association. The NCA, with the same title but with varying purpose, dominated Chartism for the rest of its existence as a political force.  In August 1841, O’Connor was released from York prison and agitation immediately grew. During the autumn, O’Connor made a triumphal tour of northern England. On 27th September, a great demonstration in O’Connor’s honour was held in Manchester. Between 2,500 and 3,000 members of Chartist Associations and Trade Unions marched in procession. It was a striking example of renewed Chartist strength, but divisions existed between the supporters of O’Connor and O’Connell - mainly Irish - because O’Connor opposed the Anti-Corn Law League and O’Connell supported it. O’Connor’s supporters arranged for the police to attend their meeting to prevent violence from O’Connell’s supporters. The curious spectacle ensued of a Chartist meeting assembling under police protection.

During the winter of 1841-42, Chartism made rapid progress as cotton operatives turned to political reform in the hope of relieving their economic distress. The north of England dominated the new Chartist movement and found important allies in the craft trade unions. Sixty-four trade union delegates attended a Chartist meeting in March 1842, which shows a revival of the combination of working-class political and industrial organisations that had been prominent in 1838-9. Donald Read noted that, “Despite this widespread support the National Petition achieved nothing. It was thrown out by parliament, and once more Chartism was left to face its own ineffectiveness. Once more cotton operatives began to despair and to realise that Chartism could not bring relief to their distress; and once more the movement went into a rapid decline”.[1]

Despair did not lead to an apathetic acceptance of distress, but to direct industrial action. At the 1842 National Convention, the second Petition was the work of the NCA and certainly displayed class hostility in the preamble. There were riots in Manchester after its rejection, followed by the Plug Plots in the summer of that year. It was a time of economic distress and almost fifteen per cent of the houses in Stockport were empty. Some wit had erected a placard that said “Stockport to let”. There were soup kitchens in Manchester. On 7th August, a protest meeting, attended by between 8,000 and 10,000 operatives, was held on Mottram Moor against the threatened reduction in wages. They passed a resolution for the Charter and for a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. By 9th August, the cotton industry virtually was at a standstill and the plugs were smashed from the boilers to stop production. On 11th August, two hundred trade delegates met in Manchester and demanded a ten-hour working day and fair wage rates for weavers and factory workers.

The strike was spontaneous, not the beginning of a planned revolution. Neither was there any causal connection between Chartism and the strikes because the strikers were more interested in work and wages than in politics. The Chartists merely exploited the situation. The problem was that they were divided. The Plug Plots suggested that the workers were not hostile to factories or industrialisation but were opposed to low wages and poor conditions. By smashing the plugs, they hindered production and thus damages their employers’ profits, to make the bosses ‘feel the pinch’ too. This was different from the handloom weavers in London who objected to machines per se. Manchester was more violent than elsewhere in Lancashire because the plight of the workers was worse. The strikes had fizzled out by the end of August, although men had been arrested and trials again were held. One such trial was that of Richard Pilling[2] at the Spring Assizes in Lancaster; others were those of Lloyd and Warden.

Chartism in Manchester never really revived after 1842 because of a revival of trade prosperity after 1843 that removed the economic stimulus for Chartism. Many operatives turned to economic action, especially the Ten-Hour movement, trade unions and anti-Poor-Law agitation. Some workingmen also began to see the value of the Anti Corn Law League following Peel’s economic reforms. The Plug Plots were overcome for several reasons.  First, the refusal of the masters to capitulate to violence. The workers had either to go back to work or to starve.  Secondly, the strategic placing of two thousand troops and six artillery regiments in the Manchester area. Sir Charles Napier was important here. He was a humanitarian and a sympathiser with the plight of the workingmen. He wanted to use his troops as a preventative force and adopted tactics such as keeping the troops moving so that there seemed to be more of them than there were. He held artillery drills in public parks so that people could see the effectiveness of the weapons and soldiers. Consequently, there were no serious disturbances in Manchester.  Finally, the effective use of the provincial police, which had been established in 1839

The trade depression returned in 1845 and 1847 was a terrible year. The Manchester Examiner of 15th May 1847 reported 84,000 operatives on short time, 24,000 operatives unemployed and 77,000 operatives working full time. Also, Irish immigration had increased because of the potato famine, there was a cholera epidemic and O’Connor was touring the country selling his Land Plan.  In March 1848, rioting occurred in Manchester and attacks were made on a workhouse and several mills but this was the work of boys and youths. The Chartist leaders helped the authorities to put down the riots. In April 1848, a series of meetings was held to support the National Petition which was presented to parliament on 10th April and on that day, nearly every Lancashire town held a meeting. After the rejection of the third petition, Chartism in Lancashire gradually declined [3].


[1] Donald Read ‘Chartism in Manchester’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, page 57.

[2] For Richard Pilling (1799-1874), see Joyce Bellamy and John Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour Biography, volume vi, Macmillan, 1982, pages 216-223.

[3] William Henry Chadwick was born in 1829. At the age of 14 he was already an accomplished speaker and had been enrolled as a Wesleyan preacher. At the age of 19, in 1848, he was appointed as corresponding secretary of the Manchester Chartists. He continued his activity for the Charter and was one of those arrested and put on trial at Liverpool in 1848. He was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment arising out of a speech in Stevenson’s Square in which he told the crowd that they would “never be free men until they had a sword hung by their side”. Chadwick became active in the trade union movement and was one of those who assisted the cotton operatives in their efforts to raise their wages. Later he helped the agricultural workers when they were trying to form a union under the leadership of Joseph Arch. He died in 1908.

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