Thomas Hirst – Huddersfield’s pioneer co-operator

The Origins of Cooperation in the Huddersfield Area

The grave of Thomas Hirst, Trinity Church, Huddersfield

The grave of Thomas Hirst, Trinity Church, Huddersfield

Meltham Mills is attributed with having the first Cooperative Society in the area in 1827.  Huddersfield had one in 1829 followed by  Thurstonland and Armitage Bridge. Over the next four years they spread to Holmfirth, Shelley, Stocksmoor, Cumberworth, Almondbury, Lindley, Farnley Tyas, Milnsbridge and Lowerhouses. Some members may have joined for cheaper provisions but at this time most regarded the societies as a means to a more fundamental reshaping of society .   The methods and  intentions of the co-operators were outlined in 1831 at the Second Co-operative Congress in  Birmingham by John Heaton the Huddersfield Delegate who described how local members had,

‘subscribed a small sum each weekly, which they employed in trade first by buying the necessaries of life at wholesale prices and retailing them out again to the public and themselves at retail prices – the difference being put into a common fund.  In this manner it accumulated until they were able to employ their own shoemakers, tailors &c and at length, as in his own society at Huddersfield their profits and subscriptions united enabled them to set their members to work at their own trades. They had now 14 of their own members at work for the society on its own capital. They were manufacturing woollen cloth, waistcoatings &c…And thus they would go on increasing in wealth until they were enabled to rent and ultimately purchase land whereon they could raise their own food and erect dwellings and manufactories and become perfectly independent that is they would be always  certain of the necessaries and comforts of life, aye and its allowable luxuries too by the exertion of their own moderate labour without the intervention of capitalists.’

The scale of the enterprises was very modest.   Apart from Huddersfield only Thurstonland and (for a period at least) Holmfirth carried out  cooperative production. Coat cloths, valencias, waistcoatings and shawls were supplied to cooperative societies in Manchester and Liverpool.   Huddersfield No.1 Society, run by Chris Wood from a store at Westgate claimed 150 members and a capital of £299.17s.9d in 1832. Thurstonland had 40 members and £117.13s. The societies also had an educational role and  both Huddersfield and Armitage Bridge were accumulating small libraries.  The latter, which had 25 members and £65 in funds,  also discussed setting up a school.2

The existence of a wider socialist objective referred to by Heaton is confirmed by Owen Balmforth, who, writing his history of the local cooperative movement  in 1910, had access to the Huddersfield Society’s minute book.  ‘In May 1831 the subject of promoting a Community was considered, and it was decided to be impracticable at that time, particularly in regard to the cultivation of Chat Moss.’  The Chat Moss experiment according to Holyoake’s history of co-operation unsurprisingly failed because “England had not a drearier spot in which to begin a new world”. 3

Although local cooperators shared Robert Owen’s economic ideas and desire to transform society, not all shared his wider philosophical views and particularly his agnosticism. A leading local exponent of cooperation was the Reverend C.B.Dunn, whose vision of socialism equated with the  achievement of the Christian millenium. Only recently settled in his living as  the curate of Cumberworth chapel,  Dunn’s  devotion to cooperation was fired  by his moving  experiences as secretary of Denby Dale relief  committee which acquainted him directly  with the terrible distress of the fancy weavers.  He had no illusions in ‘this pernicious system of charity’ which forced weavers to undertake roadwork for a pittance. In January 1830 he wrote to his patrons, the Beaumonts of Bretton Hall, reflecting  ‘It has pleased providence to place me here no doubt for the wisest of purposes, but I had rather it had pleased Him to have made me an overlooker of the well fed slaves of the West Indies.’  A firm believer in workers’ education he also ran classes in the National School on  Sunday evenings.

Speaking at a Sheffield meeting in 1832 he announced;

Now co-operation purposes remedying all the moral, political and commercial abuses and disorders which are at present preying upon the vitals of the country…In fact I know no institution which, in its nature, is so essentially religious, being a practical development of the whole system of pure and primitive Christianity.  It anticipates the establishment of a condition of social equality in which there will exist a community of interests, a community of happiness and a community of wealth.‘  4

The Rev. Dunn also expressed his beliefs in popular verse which entered the repertoire of socialist songs including a ditty set to the tune of The Girl I left behind Me:

Let none who Christ’s example court
Contend for sect or station,
But all who human weal support,
Support Co-operation.

These evangelical efforts were shared by Thomas Hirst, a shopkeeper and cloth dresser of Granby Street, who often spoke on platforms with the Rev Dunn advocating what the  Lancashire and Yorkshire C-ooperator periodical called ‘our beautiful system’.  Hirst also undertook an epic series of missionary tours, often on foot, not only around the district but across the Pennines and as far afield as Kendal, Holywell in North Wales and Loughborough.  The Lancashire & Yorkshire Cooperator  published his itinerary for 1831:

‘Tour First – Manchester, Worsley, Warrington, Lamberheadgreen, Liverpool, Runcorn, Chester, Flintshire and Holywell in Wales, and back home again.

Second Tour. Manchester, Worsley, Radcliffe, Newchurch and to the Grand Social festival at Manchester , from thence home.

Third Tour. Through Manchester, to Stockport, then to Manchester (and lectured) Warrington, Lamberheadgreen, Birkacre, Eccles, Bolton and again to Stockport; then home’.
There is probably much truth in the claim that it was such exertions to promote the cause of co-operation which contributed to his early death.

A report of his reception at Bolton recorded ‘the sensation created was beyond all description.  The lecture was delivered in the Sessions Room, in which there is standing places for about 1000 persons; but the stairs leading to the room, and the anti-rooms [sic], were all crowded and number went away not being able to obtain a place within hearing of the lecturer. Many influential persons were present…’.  There was a similar scene at Stockport.

In his lectures he posed the question  ‘Did not poverty like an armed man stalk through the land and force an entrance into every industrious man’s habitation…’  and  annunciated  his vision of an alternative  socialist utopia:

Community of property, equality of rights and privileges – these are the fundamental principles of our system.  And what is the millennium of the Christians – what the social condition desired by the philanthropists – what the bright dream of a golden age which the poets delight to image forth?  Do they anticipate any other scene of life than that which we desire to accomplish – that state in which “every man shall sit under his own vine and his own fig tree and none daring to make him afraid.” ?’

Hirst was also delegate for the Huddersfield area societies to the Cooperative Congresses held in Birmingham in 1831 and London and Liverpool in 1832.  At London  he exhibited a collection of cooperatively made goods from the North of England and condemned, not the use of machinery itself but the ‘ill directed production of that machinery.’  Denouncing the economic system of ‘competition and monopoly’,  his conclusions won him the cheers of the delegates ‘Strange that riches should lead to poverty – abundance to want – and plenty to starvation.  He trusted this would not be put in printed history, for generations unborn would think those who lived in the
present day not right in their heads.’ 5

Although local cooperators supported parliamentary reform they were  sceptical of its benefits.  A report from Huddersfield cooperators to the Poor Man’s Guardian in March 1833 stated that ‘they feel confident that no plan of reform can permanently benefit them, unless such as shall place them beyond the grinding influence of commercial competition, surplus capital and increasing productive powers… They, therefore aim at being their own masters and uniting capital and machinery in their favour.’   Hirst participated in meetings of the Political Union and was on the committee of the radical candidate, Captain Wood, in the first Huddersfield election following the Reform Act. Wood referred to him as ‘my intelligent friend’.  The Cooperative Society also made a donation to Wood’s fund and in the 1833 election three cooperative store keepers cast their vote for him –  prompting a correspondent to the Voice of the West Riding to point out that cooperation gave ‘labouring men’ the capital to qualify for the franchise.

Relations between the Ultra Radicals and Hirst were strained on a number of occasions.  When he was nominated by the Operatives Committee to ask the Whig candidate Ramsden questions at the hustings, on behalf of the non-voters, he was criticised for letting him off too lightly. Hirst replied to a visiting speaker who, at a radical meeting alluded to insurrection that  ‘the workmen would not break the peace or destroy the lives or property of the masters and employers – the weapons of their warfare were morality, truth and knowledge, which was power.’ Along with the radical constable, William Stocks Jnr, Hirst also undertook to peaceably clear the streets after the election riot of December 1832.  While disapproving of the rioters he wrote, ‘The time has come when the voice of the people must be heard’. 6

Co-operators also supported the demands of trade unions, but regarded them as a product of the competitive system of capitalism, engendering, in Hirst’s words, an ‘unnatural contest’  between masters and men, which only cooperative production would resolve.  With an improvement in trade around 1830 the renascent trade union movement had gone on the offensive to restore wage levels. Locally the Leeds Trades Union or  Clothiers Union, often known by the by-name of ‘John Powlett’ led several succesful strikes of different trades.  The bitterest struggle was in the Holmfirth area in 1832 where most manufacturers were affected by a virtual general stoppage. On 25 October after nearly three months of growing hardship a meeting in Holmfirth agreed a resolution and address signed by Thomas Hirst, Abraham Whitehead, a Scholes clothier, and William Renshaw urging that funds be used to set up strikers in cooperative manufacturing,

‘Hitherto we have acted on the defensive; we have confined ourselves to simple resistance.  Let us avail ourselves of all our resources – let us disarm our opponents by employing one another, rally round the standard of cooperation… We venture to prophecy that cooperation will prove to the operatives what the steam engine has proved to the capitalist.’ 

About £60 was raised and wool was bought and worked by some of the strikers. Despite predictions by masters that ‘this is John Powlett’s last shift,’ the cloth was sold at the Cloth Hall and  profits used to buy further raw material. According to Whitehead, at the Cooperative Congress the following year, this success was instrumental in forcing the employers to concede the wage increases. Whether any co-oporative production continued is  not recorded but links  with Trade Unions remained.  In 1833 it was resolved to form a Missionary District Association to operate 30 miles around Huddersfield to make use of the opportunities ‘opening for missionary exertions amongst the Trades Unions.’ 7

Sadly Tom Hirst was no longer around to participate in this endeavour for which he was especially experienced.  In April, as preparations were being made to hold the Fifth Cooperative Congress in his native town, he lay on his death bed, according to the Crisis as a result of illness ‘probably caused chiefly if not entirely by his over strenuous exertions in the cause…’   Thousands gathered at the  funeral at the Holy Trinity Church on Sunday 13 May, including members of the Co-operative Societies,  trades unions and other working class organisations headed by William Stocks and Captain Wood. ‘the sight of so many men attending to his last home this popular orator proves the esteem entertained by his own class for him.’ acknowledged the Halifax Guardian. That he was regarded as almost a saintly figure was also shown by the appeal launched by the Co-operative Society,  with William Stocks as treasurer, requesting subscriptions to support Hirst’s wife and four children ‘ We have lost the best and ablest advocate of our cause in this part of the country; he had travelled thousands of miles and delivered scores of lectures – has spent his all and died a martyr for the good of his fellow men…’  One of the main contributors was Lady Noel Byron, an aristocratic convert to cooperation with whom Hirst had been in close correspondence. ‘[H]is life has been the means of doing good’, she wrote to Mrs Hirst, ‘his memory shall be so likewise…’  8

On his tombstone at Trinity Church was inscribed the verse:

Beneath this Stone a Patriot is Laid
Who loved his country and his friends to aid,
His soul was fixed on things divine above,
His heart was fill’d with joys of heavenly Love.

This is adapted from ‘The Hall of Science – Cooperation and Socialism  in  Huddersfield c.1830-1848’.
1 Lancashire & Yorkshire Cooperator 1 Oct 1831.
2.Report of 1832 Third Cooperative Congress, London.
3Owen Balmforth The Huddersfield Industrial Society ltd – History of Fifty Years’ Progress 1860-    1910 (Manchester 1910)p.23;  G.J. Hoyoake  History of Co-operation in England Vol.I.     1971.Edition
4 8.Bretton Hall Archives BEA/C2/B3/51a and 51b. Dunn to Mrs Beaumont 14 Jan 1830 and to Mr     Brakenridge 21 Jan 1830 (Thanks to Cyril Pearce for drawing my attention to these references);     CrisisApril, 2 Jun 1832.
5Lancashire & Yorkshire Cooperator 1831,  Jun 1832. 9.Crisis14 Apr; 27 Oct 1832. Poor Man’s Guardian 5 May 1832.
6 10.LM 1 Oct 1831; HHE 14 Apr 1832;LM 30 Jun 1832;Crisis 27 Oct 1832; Balmforth op.cit.p.25.
7 11. LM 4 Aug,25 Aug,1 Sep,27 Sep,13 Oct, 27 Oct 1832:Crisis 4 May,12 Oct 1833..
8 12.  HG 18 May 1833;Crisis 22 Jun 1833.;Crisis 20 Apr 1833; Balmforth op.cit. For further details on     Hirst see Robin Thornes, ”The  Origins of the Co-operative movement in Huddersfield’ in Huddersfield: A Most Handsome Town     H.A.Haigh ed. (Huddersfield 1992)


The restored gravestone of Thomas Hirst:

was dedicated in a ceremony on 26 September 2018, which brought together surviving descendants, the Cooperative Party and Huddersfield Local History Society.  This was made possible by a long campaign by society member and long time Coop activist, John Halstead, who traced relatives, lobbied the Church authorities and coordinated other interested parties.

Here is the text of the speech delivered by Chair of HLHS, Cyril Pearce, at the event.

Thomas Hirst (1792 – 1833)

Sarcophagus Restoration Celebration

Holy Trinity Church, Trinity Street, Huddersfield , Wednesday 26th September

16.00 to 19.00

We talk, sometimes quite glibly, about Huddersfield’s ‘radical past’ without really saying what we mean by it – and I am as guilty as anyone of that particular fault. Just to be clear, and perhaps for the first time, what I mean by a ‘radical’ is someone who asks critical questions about how things are – in politics, society, religion and economic beliefs and systems – and proposes alternatives. When that ‘radical’ idea attracts followers it tends to become an ‘ism’ or a movement of some kind.

Nineteenth century Huddersfield, it appears, was home to a great many of these critical thinking radicals and its social and political history has seen the appearance and working out of a number of the century’s more important radical ‘isms’ – Luddism, Republicanism, Chartism, Liberalism, Socialism, Methodism, the Women’s Movement and the Co-operative movement.

The Co-operative movement does not automatically appear on such a list and yet, along with Friendly Societies and trade unions, throughout the 19th Century and well into the 20th, it was a dominant presence in working class and lower middle class communities. While we tend to think about it in terms of shopping and its members’ ‘divi’, we should not forgive that at its beginning it was much more ambitious. The celebration at Holy Trinity Church on the 26th September is a potent reminder of that.

Hirst Thos event Hudds

Photo – Thanks to John Rumsby.

Thomas Hirst, the restoration of whose sarcophagus, is the reason for this occasion, was born in Huddersfield in 1792. As a young man he was cloth dresser and a shopkeeper in the turbulent times after the failure of Luddism. In the years after the revolutionary stirrings at Folly Hall and Grange Moor, he was drawn into the co-operative movement. At that time, more than twenty years before the appearance of the Rochdale Pioneers’ version of Co-operation, the movement was heavily influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen. Consequently it had ambitions and practices which went far beyond groceries and the ‘divi’.  Surpluses from trading in the necessities of life were to be used to set up co-operative manufacturing and, in the fullness of time, to buy land and establish co-operative and egalitarian communities. In other words, the co-operative movement Thomas Hirst joined and helped shape was built around a radically different notion of how society might be organised.

Thomas came to the movement from a background in Methodism and, unlike Robert Owen, held fast to his religious beliefs. Indeed, he brought a religious zeal to his work for Huddersfield Co-operative Society and to the co-operative movement as a whole. He attended and spoke at Co-operative congresses and tramped across much of Northern England preaching the gospel of co-operation. It was probably his energetic tramping and preaching which led to his early death at the age of forty-one.

Some years ago HLHS members Alan Brooke and John Halstead re-discovered Thomas Hirst’s sarcophagus in Holy Trinity churchyard, broken and neglected. They then set about the lengthy process which has led to this point. Thomas’ contribution to the history of Huddersfield radicalism and the beginnings of the Co-operative movement are well known and the modern Co-operative Party, the Co-operative Funeral Service and Huddersfield Local History Society have now been able to come together to celebrate his life, work and influence by have his sarcophagus restored.

Cyril Pearce

Chair, Huddersfield Local History Society

Hirst Thos event Hudds HT (11)

The stone restored by Coop funerary services. (Thanks to John Rumsby for photo).