The Lower Classes Are Radically Corrupted

At the end of January 1818 Habeas Corpus was restored. The political prisoners were slowly released to return to their homes, mainly in the North. Why did the Government restore Habeas Corpus? 1817 had produced a good harvest, exports had risen slightly, and the distress had been minimally alleviated, but the state of the country had not basically improved or changed. Was it because there had been six months free from Blanket Marches, Ardwick Conspiracies and Pentrich Revolutions and therefore there was no further excuse for suspension? Because the Government thought the Radicals had either learned their lesson or disintegrated? Or because the ministers themselves disliked the suspension of this inviolable right for longer than they believed absolutely necessary?

As an action calculated to improve the relationship between Government and populace, the restoration was largely negated by the Indemnity Bill that followed. By the terms of this Bill nobody who had suffered as a result of the suspension could sue either the Government or any individual for wrongful imprisonment or damages. Over the next two years, references in Radical newspapers and speeches to the shameful Indemnity Bill were as frequent as those to the disgraceful Oliver.

If the Government had restored Habeas Corpus in the belief the situation in the country, particularly in south-east Lancashire, had improved, or that the Radical movement was finished, they were sadly mistaken. It was true that the movement was shaken by the suspension. The Hampden Clubs, for instance, never recovered from it, and for the first few months of 1818 the Radicals were disorganized. But they soon pulled themselves together, assisted by events on the union-orientated, front.

1818 was the year of strikes in Lancashire, the largest, most solid, best organized strikes yet to have confronted Authority. The first to go on strike, in July, were the spinners. Their claims were that their average wage had slipped from the earlier level of 40s a week, to the 1815 level of 24s to a new low of 18s; that the application of the Corn Laws had in the meantime sent the price of essential food spiralling, that families could not live on such-wages; finally; to quote one of the pamphlets they issued, ‘[Spinners] relieved their, own sick, as well as subscribe to other casualties, therefore when their hours of labour, which are from 5 in the morning until 7 in the evening (and in some mills longer) of unremitting toil, in rooms heated from 70 :t0 90 degrees, are taken into consideration, we believe the public will say that no body of workmen receive so inadequate compensation for their labour’ But they also claimed that they were striking not so much for an increase as for a restoration of former wages. In 1816, the spinners said, the price of yarn had fallen, and wages had been reduced by mutual consent between masters and men, on the understanding that once the price of yarn rose wages would – follow suit. In 1818 yarn prices had indisputably risen but the masters, so the spinners said, refused to honour the agreement. – The masters repudiated the allegation – and, counter-claimed that the average wage was nearer 30s a week Whatever the truth of the various claims, and the spinners’ – version seems by far the more accurate, the fight had deeper roots. It was -for a larger working-class share of the cake, a desperate demand for treatment as human beings.

Was John Lees, spinner, involved? He worked for his father and as their relationship remained a friendly one he did not strike against him. But Robert Lees’s position as a small-time employer was as difficult as that of his operatives. He was squeezed by the suppliers of yarn as much as his workers were by him. He was an independent-minded character so he may have been sympathetic to the strike. As support for it was solid, John, being a follower by nature, may have participated. In what did he participate? What did it mean to go on strike the days before unions were legal and when all tangible power lay with the other side?

To begin with there was obviously no strike pay as such. In this context, by the end of July the Home Office was urgently asking, By what means so large a body of mechanics has subsisted without any visible means of livelihood for so long a period? The spinners subsisted from the accumulated subscriptions paid into the Benefit Societies, by support from other trades not on strike, and by donations from sympathizers. But it was at a very low level, a few shillings a week, sufficient only for a few pounds of potatoes, a few meat bones stewed for broth and a little bread. While their stomachs rumbled the spinners attended meetings, picketed factories and paraded through the streets of Manchester and Stockport with placards proclaiming their wages, conditions and demands. Some of the activity had been organized beforehand by their leaders, some of it was improvised and, as the weeks went by, some of it was spontaneous. For the first time the strikers also operated against blacklegs. Magistrate Norris wrote in an alarmed manner of operatives threatening ‘to take the names and addresses of the individuals who work, and prevent their leaving their own houses  the mother of a child carrying breakfast to it at Mr Houldsworth’s mill was molested.’ The incidental information about the child’s breakfast underlines the conditions. But in this context it must be stressed that most people accepted that they and their children must toil—only for better wages.

What were the magistrates doing while meetings were held, mills lay idle, and thousands of spinners paraded daily through the streets of Manchester and Stockport? Why in the first place was the strike allowed to happen? Because to strike the operatives had perforce to combine. Many parts of the Combination Acts were, as the Government itself admitted; ‘almost a dead letter’. Short of sending the military in strength there was no way of stopping the strike immediately. But the Government could, and did, urge the magistrates to repress it by means of the law. If they were not able to prove combination, and in the case of Johnston, Bagguley and Drummond the Government thought they could, surely they could prove seditious activity and unlawful intent.

The course the magistrates adopted was their usual confused one, though in the year of 1818 they acted with more restraint and sense than showed in 1819. On the one hand they interfered so little in what was ‘a matter, of individual concern between masters and men’ that by the end of August the Home Office was writing a tactful reprimand. ‘You cannot be more fully impressed than Lord Sidmouth is, with the propriety of the magistrates -forbearing to interfere in questions between masters and servant so long as the peace is unbroken, but it is impossible for the Secretary of State to contemplate with indifference the danger likely to result to the public weal from the existence in such a population as that of south-east Lancashire, of large bodies of men, exposed to the harangues of the disaffected demagogues.’ On the other hand, the magistrates, too, were aware of the -dangers. The hysterical Etheiston was soon convinced ‘that the lower classes are radically corrupted… their aim is revolution’. Every so often they attempted a repressive leap, yelping for Sir John Byng’s military assistance (most requests ‘being coolly turned down), or suggesting that the strikers be arrested under a Rogues and Vagabonds Act of George III (the Home Office were not helpful on this one). But mainly they did not know what to do, and also felt very sorry for themselves. Hay-expressed this sorrowful state. ‘The difficulties of the situation of those who fill responsible situations here is great beyond anything I have experienced.’ Faced with this solid strike the magistrates’ position was a tough one. But nobody in those responsible positions took any of the actions that would have alleviated the difficulties, both for them and the workers, i.e.,-an improvement in wages and conditions. -Part of the magistrates’ difficulties was the attitude of the masters. As Hay wrote, ‘The masters… wholly decline to put the law into action. They are collectively and individually frightened and are ready to call upon the civil powers for responsibility while they neither take nor try any effectual means to cure or meet the evil.’

That the masters were frightened is indisputable. The slumbering giant of the working classes was awakening and the prospect terrified most of them out of their wits. They remained obdurate, refusing to placate the giant in the smallest way. It would not at this juncture have taken much to do so, but that the brute would respond to kind treatment they could not see. In the event the masters won hands down which convinced most of them ‘that obduracy was the best, indeed the only, course of action. By the beginning of September the strike was on its last legs. Several factors contributed to the spinners’ defeat, the major ones obviously being the masters’ obduracy and their own starvation. The reduction to starvation level was, sadly, helped by one of their own members, the secretary of the organizing committee who absconded with- £150, nearly all that was left, of the fighting fund. But a few days prior to the secretary’s flight, the magistrates had finally taken a decisive step by arresting the five main committee members. This action was prompted by the spinners trying to organize a General Union of Trades, an idea which appalled the magistrates. At the beginning of September they also arrested Johnston, Bagguley and Drummond, after they had led 500 men from Stockport to Manchester and urged them to take violent action as passive means were not succeeding. Without leaders, without finds, without food, the spinners sullenly capitulated. By mid-September they were back at work, in exactly the same conditions and for the same wages as two and a half long, hungry months earlier.

As the spinners’ strike was breathing its last gasp, that of the weavers started. The two strikes were unconnected. If large numbers of spinners were already politically or union-ally minded, the weavers were not, that is in the main. There were weavers engaged in reforming activity; Bamford for one. If the spinners were genuinely distressed, working long hours for decreasing wages, in stinking conditions, their distress was a minor heaven in comparison with that of the hand-loom weavers. If the statement that ‘no body of workmen [i.e., the spinners] receive such inadequate compensation for their labour’ had been considered by an observer he would have countered with—but what about the weavers? Their average wage had sunk from 1 is a week maximum to the appalling sum of 6s a week minimum. Further attempts to petition Parliament for a minimum’-wage had achieved nothing. So finally in desperation, without any political undertones, without Radical or union organization, the weavers went on strike, for a wage increase of 7s a week.

In their case even the magistrates were sympathetic Seven shillings a week would only have brought their wages up to 13s a week minimum and 21s maximum, hardly princely sums even by 1818 standards. The magistrates said the masters could well afford the increase and that to give it would relieve tension, not increase it. In this assessment, for once, how very right they were. Had the masters granted such an increase there would probably have been no Peterloo. A few of the more sympathetic or sensible masters did concede the 7s, and they were neither bankrupted nor assailed with further demands. But the majority refused to budge. It was the general failure of this strike that turned the mass of previously non-political weavers towards the Radicals as their only home for future-amelioration. Once roused and committed, the weavers proved stalwart adherents. They provided the same backbone for Peterloo as the spinners had for the Blanket March.

One factor which both strikes shared was the comparative lack of violence displayed by the workers. Its significance was not lost on Sir John Byng who commented: ‘The peaceable demeanour of so many thousand unemployed men is not natural; their regular meeting and again dispersing shows a system of organization of their actions which has some appearance of previous tuition.’ Indeed it had, and the Radicals took note and extended the discipline and tuition greatly; it was to frighten the magistrates as much, if not more, than ‘natural’ violence would have done. However, to keep them comparatively happy in 1818 some violence occurred during both strikes. The spinners attacked a factory in Manchester, urged on by the Holy Trinity. A volley of stones was hurled at Hugh Hornby Birley’s factory in Oxford Road, Manchester. The fact that he was already a prominent member of the MYC may have contributed to this action. Sir John Byng dispersed a body of weavers marching from Manchester to Ashton-under-Lyne, but he did it by ‘gentle means’ and everybody went home, if not happy, at least unscathed.

The failure of the direct strike action helped the Radicals. Having pulled themselves from the doldrums, they firmly set themselves to the task of convincing the masses that the repeal of the Combination Acts and the Corn Laws was inevitable once Parliamentary reform had been achieved. In fact, every known ill would disappear and Utopia would be established in England’s green and pleasant land Once Parliament was reformed and power lay in the hands of the People. Much of the Radical argument was as simple as that. To this all-embracing nostrum the desperate people of Lancashire began to respond in ever larger numbers. Retrospectively, it is both sad and touching how great a faith the working-class Radicals placed in Parliamentary reform. Or perhaps they were right. Had their demands been met maybe England would have been a little nearer Utopia. It is sad and touching how great a faith they placed in human nature, believing as they did, that the impetus their movement was gaining could be sustained; the cohesion, fervour and enthusiasm maintained. It was their simple nostrum (at the lowest level of the movement, that is, at  higher level it was not such a naïve programme) and their failure to assess human nature that made the middle-class Radicals so chary of them.

The impetus, the enthusiasm and the fervour did not happen by magic. It was achieved by a great deal of hard work. Open-air meetings in the cotton towns and on the moors increased. Month by month Radical orators banged the drum of Parliamentary reform. Knight and Fitton were tireless addressers of meetings, travelling miles from Blackburn to Manchester, from Oldham to Stockport, from Ashton-under-Lyne to Bolton, from Royton to Bury. Bamford was not such a tireless traveller but he was a constant supporter and organizer of meetings in the Middleton vicinity. At one held on the moors near Saddlleworth he insisted on the right of the females present to vote. ‘When the resolution was put, the women held up their hands, amid much laughter; and ever from that time females voted with the men at Radical meetings Female attendance and, after Bamford’s resolution, participation was on the increase,: though the formation of their own clubs lay ahead.

It was also at this period that Bamford wrote his Lancashire Hymn. He said he borrowed the idea from the Methodists whose religious assemblies were much enhanced by the introduction of vocal music. Why should the Radicals not add heart-stirring songs to their meetings? So he sat down and composed the hymn ‘to one of the finest trumpet strains I ever heard. He does not state which tune, and the idea of singing it at meetings in any case fell through. John Knight cold-shouldered it, as he had Mima in her distress in 1817, which was another action for which Bamford never entirely forgave him. But sung or unsung, the Lancashire Hymn became the anthem of the Northern Radicals, and Bamford’s fame spread. The first and last verses—there were six in all—give the measure of Sam Bamford, poet. Handy to have around, to be able to sit down and knock out the verses, but hardly of immortal stature.

Great God, who did of old inspire

The patriot’s ardent heart;

And fill’d him with a warm desire,

To die, or do his part;

Oh! let our shouts be heard by Thee,

Genius great of liberty.


Souls of our mighty sires! Behold

This band of brothers join.

Oh! never, never be it told,

That we disgrace your line;

If England wills the glorious deed,

We’ll have another Runnimede.