Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Aspects of Chartism: Manchester

Manchester was the heart of the cotton zone[1], and society in early industrial Manchester was centred almost exclusively on its cotton industry. In 1835, between 66% and 75% of Lancashire’s male population was engaged more-or-less directly in production or sale of cotton textiles. It was a pure factory town, owing its entire existence to cotton[2]. Not only was it the “showpiece of the industrial revolution”, it was also “the greatest mere village in England” (Daniel Defoe). There was a blend of fascination with the industrial revolution and a fear of what it had created. In 1844, Engels went to Manchester to gather information as evidence for the distribution of wealth. Karl Marx later used his work for his book, Das Kapital.

In Manchester,[3] the economic basis of class-consciousness was laid in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Masters and men faced each other in hostility; tension existed in booming cotton factories as the gulf in the class system developed. All that was needed to turn that consciousness into conflict was an economic or political crisis. This is what happened on occasions between 1790 and 1850. Lancashire was vulnerable because cotton relied on imported materials; any trade disruption hit hard. Manchester was also the home of economic radicalism. Traditionally it was an area of radicalism. In the 1790s, the Manchester Corresponding Society was set up and established its own newspaper, the Manchester Herald. The Peterloo Massacre had taken place there in 1819. In 1821, the newly established Manchester Guardian campaigned for David Ricardo’s economic reforms and the Anti-Corn Law League started in the town, which was the home of the “Manchester School” of free traders.

Economic Conditions in the 1830s

By June 1837, some 50,000 workers in Manchester alone were either unemployed or on short time because of the collapse in trade.  As factories increased in numbers, so the spread of machinery caused distress for hand spinners and weavers[4]There was a strong Irish element from immigration on a large scale. By 1841, some 34,000 Irish people had moved to the Manchester area and accepted poor pay and conditions because the worst in England was better than the best in Ireland. They tended to depress wages and conditions for English workers leading to growing anti-Irish sentiments.  Masters believed in the operation of a free market and were more interested in profits than philanthropy. However, there were some ‘good’ employers. Thomas Ashton at Hyde and the Greggs at Styal had built model villages for their workers.  Chartism in Manchester[5] was not really a political battle: it was more concerned with wages, factory conditions, working standards, living conditions, trade unions, and opposition to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. There were strong Owenite socialist undertones.

Joseph Rayner Stephens emphasised the economic basis of Chartism: “This question of universal suffrage is a knife-and-fork question, a bread-and-cheese question.” Stephens attacked management as unnecessary. He said the idea of complementary roles was nonsense and the concept that profit making by the masters benefited the whole community was selfish claptrap: “the truth was, the working men were all white slaves”. Stephens and his colleagues said that labour, not capital, was the most important element in industry and they exploited the opposition between masters and men. Working class men were told that democratic representation would ensure work and wages and Cook Taylor said in 1842, “In Lancashire, the cry for the Charter means the list of wages for 1836”. Donald Read noted, “Emphasis on the essential opposition between masters and men was thus the fundamental device of the Lancashire Chartist leaders”. The leaders had tried the same approach with some success during the period of activity of the Trade Unions, the anti-Poor-Law campaign and the Ten-Hour agitation of the mid-1830s. All of these movements filtered into Chartism. The cotton-masters had opposed all of these working-class movements very strongly[6].

In 1838, the cotton-masters began the Anti-Corn Law League that the Chartists saw as a great rival from the start. The workers refused to accept its motives and arguments as being sincere. The Chartists said that free trade might lead to greater profits and cheaper bread, but that then wages would be reduced and working class men would be no better off. The Anti-Corn Law League looked like a campaign for greater profits. In addition, the masters had opposed working-class movements and furthermore had been involved in the ‘Great Betrayal’ of the 1832 Reform Act. All of this enhanced the fear and hatred of the middle classes by the working classes.

Generally, the Chartists divided into protectionists - the smaller group - and qualified free traders. The protectionists believed that the evils of industry were because of the spread of machinery, not because of agricultural protectionism. They said that more trade would lead to more machinery and thus to lower wages. The qualified free traders said that the repeal of the Corn Laws was desirable but wanted other taxes and impositions, which hit the poor, removed also. Hostility existed between these groups, and between both groups and the Anti-Corn Law League.

Other divisions between masters and men came from the following areas.  The national debt that the working classes believed meant that the labour of the poor went into middle class pockets.  There was widespread concern in Manchester about the failure of the 1832 Reform Act - the ‘Great Betrayal’ - to deliver manhood suffrage and the subsequent introduction of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.  The demands of the Chartists were viewed as unacceptable. The middle class thought that the poor should educate themselves, not demand political ‘rights’.  The Chartists posed an apparent threat to property because of their violent actions.  The Chartists’ fear of the new Manchester police force, set up in 1839 after Manchester’s incorporation in 1838. The police officers were called ‘Blue-bottles’ and ‘Bourbon police[7]‘.  The incorporation of Manchester in 1839, which had been opposed by members of both the middle- and working-classes  Donald Read comments, “the feeling of class conflict, if not its rationalisation ... underlay the whole story of Chartism in Lancashire”[8].


[1] John Walton Lancashire: a social history, 1558-1939, Manchester University Press, 1987 is the best introduction to the subject especially pages 141-197. S. Peter Bell (ed.) Victorian Lancashire, David & Charles, 1974 contains several useful papers on Lancastrian politics.

[2] Edward Baines History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain, London, 1835 is a near contemporary account of the industry. S. J. Chapman The Lancashire Cotton Industry: A Study in Economic Development, London, 1904 remains an important study but should be supplemented with S.D. Chapman The Cotton Industry in the Industrial Revolution, Macmillan, 1972.

[3] For nineteenth century Manchester, see Gary S. Messinger Manchester in the Victorian Age: The Half-Known City, Manchester University Press, 1985 and A.J. Kidd and K.W. Roberts (eds.) City, class and culture: Studies of cultural production and social policy in Victorian Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1985. A detailed bibliography covering various aspects of Manchester’s history in the nineteenth century can be found in Kidd and Roberts (eds.), pages 218-271.

[4] Donald Bythell The Handloom Weavers, Cambridge University Press, 1969 is a detailed study of the cotton industry and has a great deal to say about the impact of technological change on Manchester.

[5] Donald Read ‘Chartism in Manchester’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, pages 24-64 and E. and R. Frow Chartism in Manchester, 1838-58, Manchester, 1980 provided the basis for examining Chartism in the town. Paul Pickering Chartism and the Chartists in Manchester and Salford, Macmillan, 1995, has superseded them both. Pickering includes a valuable biographical section in his book on pages 189-213.

[6] V.A.C. Gatrell ‘Incorporation and the pursuit of Liberal hegemony in Manchester 1790-1839’, in Derek Fraser (ed.) Municipal reform and the industrial city, Leicester University Press, 1982, pages 15-60 provides an important context for emerging middle class consciousness.

[7] A reference to the use made by the police in France under the Bourbon monarchy until it fell during the July Revolution of 1830. In France, the police force was used as an instrument of political oppression.

[8] Donald Read ‘Chartism in Manchester’, in Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, page 41.

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