Another Chapter in the History of Huddersfield Radicalism

Economic Distress and the Revival of Radicalism in the Huddersfield Area 1826-1830

 This chapter continues the story of Huddersfield radicalism told in ‘Liberty or Death’.  It shows how radicalism revived following the bank crash of 1825/6, the collapse of the local fancy weaving trade and the extreme economic distress affecting thousands of local handloom weavers.  Continuing concern about the machinery question, which had agitated domestic workers since the beginning of the century , culminating in Luddism, is also traced.  [The brief history of the West Riding Fancy Union which preceded these events can be found in my ‘Handloom Fancy Weavers’, (1993) and in the chapter on ‘Labour Disputes and Trades Unions in the Industrial Revolution’ in ‘A Most Handsome Town’ edited by E A H Haigh (Huddersfield 1992)].

 Bank Crash and Austerity – 1826-1829

 The run on the London banks in December of 1825 had almost immediate repercussions on the provincial banks.  Dobson’s bank in Huddersfield failed in that same month, whilst that of Shakespere G.Sikes collapsed the following January. ‘The stoppage of the above bank,’ reported the Mercury,  ‘has increased to a great degree the distress already prevailing in the town and neighbourhood of Huddersfield and the calamity is much heightened by the failure of Messers Taylor & Dixon of that place who are extensive dealers in the fancy manufacture’[1] With merchants and manufacturers left with a worthless currency and dishonoured debt,  the commercial system, so dependent on credit, soon  broke down. For a time some remained optimistic, believing since the problem was lack of money and not of demand that the depression could only be temporary , but the bankruptcies multiplied.  Abel Dawson of Huddersfield, Samuel Shaw of Moldgreen, John, Tom and Sam Shaw of Almondbury, Harry Bottomley of Sheepridge, Tom Moorhouse of Skelmanthorpe, Sam, Joe and William Midgeley of Almondbury, George peace of Denby Dale, were just a few of the fancy manufacturers who succumbed during the year showing that every locality was effected [2]

In April it was reported that due to the number of failures of manufacturers the continental merchants were unable to buy sufficient fancy goods which were in ‘great scarcity’ at the Leipsic market. However, when the merchants Stansfield, Briggs & Co. went bankrupt their fancy goods were brought back from the continent to be auctioned at Huddersfield further depressing the market locally. [3]  Throughout the years of depression, trade nevertheless continued with the continent, one Huddersfield merchant, William Willans dealing with Hanover, Leipsic, Frankfurt, Turin, Berlin, Oporto, Brussels and Paris in the years 1825-30. [4]

 As one report observed, the fancy trade being labour intensive, ‘requires to have a large proportion of its capital in money for the payment of wages.’ [5]With the scarcity of valid small currency there was a virtual return to barter in some areas as the truck system was  introduced. In April one Clayton West weaver paid 6 stones of oatmeal in lieu of bastardy pay since, ‘the greater part of the weavers receive the whole of their wages in eatables and wearables.’ [6]A veiled reference to a member of the large fancy manufacturing firm of Norton at Scisset in July shows that this was often the pretext for wage cuts.  Not only had he reduced weaving prices by a third he also paid three quarters of the wage in provisions, ‘not of the best quality nor at so cheap a rate as they may be bought elsewhere.’ [7]

 Due to the numerous bankruptcies and the collapse of the market, unemployment escalated rapidly. In March a committee was set up in Huddersfield to collect subscriptions for the relief of the distressed and by July it reported it had made disbursements totalling £2,787 to 10,709 persons.  The Huddersfield Committee set up local committees to visit families in the affected townships to assess the level of distress.  In Lepton at the beginning of May, 111 looms out of 166 worked by 74 families were totally idle and in August a survey, carried out by the Operatives Committee at the request of the Lord Lieutenant revealed  that in Kirkburton 506 individuals were totally unemployed, 397 partially employed and 22 fully employed. In Kirkheaton the respective figures were 193, 149 and 18; in Almondbury  839, 616 and 59.[8]

 Huddersfield market on the 15 August was described as one of the worst ever known, with prices ‘ruinous to the manufacturer’  which the following week remained ‘extremely low’; plaids selling at 6d a yard – the cost of weaving only a short time before – and swansdowns at 8d. a yard, compared to Is.6d the previous year. [9]  By now 2366 families – an estimated 12,000 people were receiving relief administered by 20 local committees.  On the instruction of the London relief committee as many men as possible were found work on the roads at I/6d a day for married men, 1s for single men and 9d.for youths.  After a’ glimmer of optimism around the beginning of October, the fancy  trade at the market on the 10th was  ‘much depressed.’   The following week it was ‘nearly extinct.’  A slight improvement in December with signs of revival in cassinett  production was greeted with caution and  although distress had increased in Honley by January, in Almondbury and some other townships ‘very sanguine hopes are entertained that a very material improvement will be experienced in a month or two.’  But, by the end of the month even cassinetts were unsalable – except a a loss.[10]

 On 3 January 1827 ‘A FRIEND TO THE POOR’ wrote from Huddersfield to the Mercury that the fancy weavers’ ‘sufferings are beyond description’  The minority of the masters who had orders were paying three quarters of their wages in meal, flour, groceries and meat  ‘and imperfect and almost unsalable goods charged at exorbitant prices which the weaver has to sell to purchase food.’  The long measure was revived and some weavers were losing five or six yards.  Irregularly paid, they often faced unexpected deductions and had to travel several journeys of ten or twelve miles to fetch work, receiving in return only 20-30s (or the equivalent in goods) for three weeks labour.  The writer condemned the manufacturers who practised this for undercutting those who paid fair wages in coin. [11]

 That same month William Norton, Joseph Ferrand of Almondbury, George Robinson of Deighton and John Armitage of Paddock were fined for paying their workers in goods.  A meeting at Huddersfield of ‘fair manufacturers’ and workmen, resolved to halt the system by which the labourer was , ‘ground down to complete beggary’.  Senior of Dalton described the practice as ‘contrary to law, to common sense, to humanity and to religion’.  George Beaumont, an Almondbury fancy weaver, soon to emerge as one of the most notorious workers’ leaders in the area, made his first recorded political debut with ‘a very sensible speech’, in which he moved the vote of thanks of the meeting to the vicar and magistrates.[12]

 In March 500 looms were reported idle in Honley but by May there were symptoms of revival – the fancy trade was ‘brisk’ and fetching better prices while woollen cloth was in great demand.  The weavers soon attempted to regain lost ground and there was a strike in Dalton, followed by one against the Nortons for an advance  of from 8d to 1s a yard on low valencias (figured goods).  The outcome of the dispute is not recorded but Joseph Norton admitted he had advanced 2d a yard on low goods and was paying more than other manufacturers on superior ones. John Heaton, formerly a representative of the WRFU, now acting for the  Weavers’ Committees running the dispute, explained that the low goods had a ‘great deal more labour in them than those fine goods he gives twice that sum for.’ and that some weavers were well paid ‘at the expense and injury of the rest’.  Some were receiving 20s for less labour than others who received 10s.  He concluded ‘We conceive that if the public were properly informed of the situation of the great bulk of the fancy weavers, they would not be astonished at the weavers and their masters being so much at variance.’ [13]

 Trade slackened in Autumn but it was still an improvement over the previous year.  By February the fancy trade was again brisk and more buyers attended the market on the 19th than for some time, auguring well for 1828.  Unfortunately as the epidemic of unemployment receded it was replaced by one of smallpox.  A number of children died in the Honley area in October, the virulence of the disease,  like a measles outbreak the previous year, perhaps assisted by the general debilitation of the population.[14]

 The improvement of 1828 was short-lived.  At the end of January 1829 the Mercury reported a ‘declension’ in trade over the previous two months, but as this was attributed to the season and to impending currency changes there was hope of revival in the spring.  By April this had proved illusionary and many were unemployed – blame now being apportioned not only to the currency but to the Irish agitation for Catholic emancipation, the previous bad harvest and the corn laws.  June saw the fancy and cassinette weavers in great distress with some goods which had paid 6d. a yard in 1824 now paying only 2d. [15]

 Members of the Operatives Committee, which had grown out workers protest meetings on  Almondbury Bank (see below), carried out, with the financial backing of some of the manufacturers, a detailed survey of conditions in fourteen, predominantly fancy weaving, townships from Rastrick to Clayton West.  They found 13,226 people subsisting on 2d per head a day and 2,439 on 5d. farthing.  The grim reality behind these statistics was later described by the operatives who witnessed the scale of distress and squalor, sickness, houses stripped of furniture and meagre diets of potatos and gruel.  ‘We were speechless till we were relieved by tears ‘ George Beaumont confessed.  In Honley the fancy weavers were noticeably worse off than the woollen weavers and some factory workers were as comfortable as they had been in 1825 since they had not suffered wage reductions.  Truck payments were also on the increase again. [16]

 Other reports in the Mercury in October and November confirm the spread of truck.  Printed cloth retailing at 9d was being valued at 14d in the payment of wages.  Goods priced at 10 per cent more than they cost in Huddersfield were being given as wages in Meltham.  Slaithwaite, Honley, Almondbury, Dalton and elsewhere were catching the ‘contagion’. [17]

 More fancy goods were being produced by October, but this had not improved employment – those with patterns were working a sixteen hour day.  Another practice in homes with more than one loom was for all the family members to take turns weaving just one piece.  The following month, in response to yet another over-optimistic report in the Mercury, an anonymous correspondent ‘K’, wrote a detailed description of the state of the fancy trade.  Waistcoatings ‘of by far the greatest importance’ had not, contrary to the impression given by the newspaper, benefited much from the introduction of the witch engine used to improve the weaving of figured goods.  Less than 500 were yet in operation.  Manufacturers in this branch of trade could not accumulate stocks except at a loss ‘owing to the great variety of patterns produced in it and the taste of the public being so changeable.’  If weavers were kept employed and stocks built up then the value of the goods fell.  Consequently the wages of the waistcoating weavers had been ‘regularly on the decline’ since 1825.  Those on low goods were earning 7-8s and those on fine goods 12-14s.  Of the cassinett manufacturers only about half were giving out any more work.  Weaving which used to pay 4½d a yard now fetched only 1½d, bringing a ‘diligent’ weaver 4s.6d. to 5s. – one man had travelled 80 miles for yarn etc. during the working of one warp which fetched him only 15s !  The value of woollen cords had declined due to the large stocks and weavers had suffered reductions of over 60 per cent , a ‘stout, athletic man’ earning only 7s.6d. a week for up to fourteen hours a day.  In its end of year support the Mercury commented ‘…we believe there is no portion of the West Riding of Yorkshire labouring poor under so great an extremity of distress as that with which Upper Agbrigg, in which Huddersfield is situated, as long been visited.’[18]

 An eyewitness account of this distress was sent by the Rev. C.B.Dunn  to a patroness of the poor, Mrs Beaumont of Bretton Hall, describing his findings from a ‘minute and accurate survey’ of conditions in Cumberworth, Skelmanthorpe and Denby Dale.  Of the families of fancy weavers , 661 individuals were living on 1½d each per day; 745 on 2½d and 340 on 3½d – as well as 1,000 in other occupations whose conditions were ‘equally deplorable’.  His explanation of the problem vividly summarises the lot of the fancy weaver in these years.

 ‘The master manufacturer has a limited quantity of labour to distribute amongst an unlimited number of labourers.  He therefore gives a small portion to this person and another to that and many who have come for a pattern from a great distance are obliged to go home without one.  They go again and are disappointed. At length perhaps work is obtained for a week which for the space of a week they have been applying for every day.  The weaver now has to labour night and day (17 hours) to complete his work which when finished he takes to his employer and receiving – not money – but a ticket for a certain amount of goods at his master’s shop.  He has now to dance attendance on his employer again, it may be a fortnight – it is often much longer – until he receives his small moiety of labour.  In the meantime his hungry wife and children are devouring his last purchase of potatos (happy are they who can obtain meal) and seeing the tattered apparel rotting off their backs without any prospect or probability of renewing it…’ [19]

 The Operatives Committee, replying to an inquiry from William Stocks Jnr for the manufacturers, stated in February 1830 that there was less work and lower wages than in December and the masters were claiming that prospects were worse.  Despite a slight improvement in trade there was no alleviation of the weavers’ conditions.  The Mercury observed in March that:

 ‘It is the most extraordinary and  paradoxical fact, that since the demand for goods began to increase in Huddersfield, the wages of the workmen have been reduced by all the principle manufacturers simultaneously.  Where will this system end?’ [20]

 Distress and Protest 1826-1828

 In May 1826 the Rev. J.C.Franks of Huddersfield chaired a meeting of magistrates and others to consider the best method of administering the relief fund for the unemployed.  It was decided to apply to the recently formed London committee for the relief of the manufacturing districts, ‘urging in addition to the severe distress existing in that .neighbourhood, the quiet and uniformly peaceable disposition manifested at a time when-the adjacent county was a scene of tumult and outrage.’  An allusion to the attacks on power loom factories in Lancashire.  The Huddersfield committee received £ 1,000 from London which, with local subscriptions – including £25 from the workers at Starkey’s factory , £30 from John Fishers at Longroyd Bridge, £57 from John Brooke’s at Armitage Bridge, (indicative of the better position of factory workers ), made a total of £2,500.  Committees were appointed to ascertain the extent of need in the worst hit, predominantly fancy weaving, parishes of Kirkheaton,  Kirkburton and Almondbury.  In reply to a question from Earl Fitzwilliam, Lord Liverpool made clear the government’s attitude to the alleviation of the distress, ‘ a very special case must be made out’ before any government money would be granted and the proper source of relief was the poor-rates , ‘and what further aid might be necessary would be better supplied by private benevolence than public money’. [21]

 On the evening of 3 July a small number of workers from the surrounding villages met on Almondbury Bank, ( the site of Radical  meetings in 1819 ), and resolved to requisition the constable to call a larger public meeting,  ‘for the purpose of considering the best means to be adopted to prevent the starvation of the unemployed poor.’  From this first resolution of the workers to tackle the problem of basic survival falteringly emerged the political consciousness which, within four years, was to involve the workers of Huddersfield and vicinity in the nationwide revival of the radical movement.   It is therefore necessary to examine such meetings in some detail in order to chart the growing dissatisfaction with relief measures, disillusionment with the ability or will of local employers to improve conditions and growing resentment at the government’s unresponsiveness.   They  also reveal the evolution of the local leaders who expressed this discontent and radicalisation. [22]

 Between 1,500 and 2,000 people attended the requisitioned meeting and, amongst other resolutions , drew up a memorial from the ‘Weavers, Spinners and Labourers of the town and neighbourhood of Almondbury’  to the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Harewood, deferentially stating their case:  ‘…some may deem it presumptuous in us to approach into your presence yet the necessity of our families demands at our hands every lawful exertion to obtain bread for our wives and children since the sources of our labour and industry have failed.’  It made clear that the solution was government intervention as parochial and charitable aid were, ‘quite inadequate to our wants’,  and no antagonism was expressed towards the middle classes who were regarded as fellow victims:     ‘The greatest proportion of our employers after having used the best endeavours to continue our work, we fear ,are fast falling under the difficulties which are now overwhelming the commercial and manufacturing classes in one common ruin.’   [23]

 A ‘deputation of six operative manufacturers, very decent and intelligent men’ followed up  the memorial with an audience with the Earl, but instead of giving any reassurance Harewood delivered a homily on political economy and a warning.  He attributed the distress to  ‘overtrading arising out of a speculative spirit, by the facility of raising and creating paper money.’ and all he could recommend was ‘time and patience’ until markets cleared, meanwhile they must rely on the parish and distress  funds:  ‘Above all things he recommended subordination and said that any attempt to destroy property and particularly machinery would not only fail to alleviate the distress but would end in the ruin of those whom such acts were meant to serve’. [24]

 With its’ earlier reputation and the suspicions aroused by the Almondbury meeting there must have been particular apprehension that the Huddersfield area would follow Bradford and Middleton where serious attacks on factories had recently taken place. Perhaps influenced by The Mercury’s claim that these were part of a plot aiming at  ‘a general insurrection of the poor against people of property. ,  The magistrate B H Allen at a meeting of the relief committee praised the conduct of those receiving relief but warned,

‘There was no doubt insidious agitators about – but these men were no friends to the poor and felt no pity for their distresses – the poor ought to guard against them as the bane and destroyers of the peace of their cottages.’ [25]

 That such suspicions had some foundation is confirmed by a later recollection of the pro – reform cotton yarn dealer William Stocks, which is worth quoting extensively since he claimed a leading role in putting the Almondbury workers on the road of peaceful protest.

‘One evening in July 1826 as I was walking home with my wife we were accosted by a great number of men and women very rudely and they swore that they would not starve and pine as they did,they would ‘take off the end’ that is they would take everybody’s property that they could lay hold of. The consequence was that I made enquiry of my own workmen the day following, what it meant, they informed me that there had been a meeting and some men had been amongst them encouraging them to burn the factories and to rob rather than to pine or starve …I found that those men proposed that they have another meeting. In the course of a few days I sent men to that meeting with a view to ascertain what were the intentions of those men. They told me what had passed.  I recommended those workmen to go amongst them and tell their neighbours not to meddle with any such thing as that, for whatever their condition was if they burned the factories and caused disorder in society and the neighbourhood we should be ten times worse off at any rate. They did do this and I advised them to call a public meeting and make their state known to the world in an open and proper manner .[26]

 This was the meeting which drew up the memorial to Harewood.  However influential Stocks’ intercession was ,it still relied on workers themselves being able to advocate the line he proposed .The argument was not only popular enough to gain initial acceptance but it also survived the discouraging interview with Harewood. A more decisive factor was probably that the bulk of the distressed were fancy weavers who did not regard themselves in direct competition with factories or power looms.

 Even the palliative of relief offered as a solution by Harewood and the local authorities soon proved limited. Want increased as the harvest, which traditionally offered some seasonal employment for domestic workers finished at the end of August.  Schemes were examined to provide work road repairing and the periodical  £500 from the London Committee was accompanied by a directive to  ‘communicate with Mr Mcadam with a view of finding employment on the roads for as large a proportion of the distressed manufacturers as possible.[27]

 By early September the Mercury reported that distress, ‘has attained an unparalleled degree of severity and is still increasing.’ ” On 14 September gratuitous relief was ended by the Huddersfield committee following orders from the metropolitan committee. The unemployed were required to apply for tickets to do road mending from 8 to 12 in the morning and 1 to 5 in the afternoon – a task and regime which The Mercury noted, suited neither, ‘…the habits nor indeed the constitution of the weavers.’  According to William Stocks the outdoor work ‘made a great many of them ill’ and spoilt their hands for the delicate tasks required in weaving.

 At Almondbury the available funds were inadequate for all the applicants and over 50 had to apply to the parish.  Having refused to provide work or relief the overseer was summonsed to appear before the magistrate John Horsfall. One of the complainants, Jonathon Pearson, a married man with four children, was asked only if he was a ‘Union man’ that is, as the Mercury clarified, ‘one of those persons combined in the course of last year to obtain an advance of wages but which has now no existence’.  On answering that he was, his complaint against the overseer was immediately dismissed.  William Kaye, supporting a wife and six children on 5s a week, was told by Horsfall that ‘there was a great deal of nourishment in a pound of oatmeal…’ and that the overseer was competent enough to assess his condition. However the vestry meeting  which was to look into the cases was cancelled without notice.  The Mercury warned of the dangers of such insensitive and vindictive treatment of the complainants. ‘…we cannot help thinking that the poor of Almondbury are treated with extreme rigour and that it is the duty of the magistrates of the district as well as the principal inhabitants of the place to put an end to a system which must in its turn beget disaffection and misery and is not unlikely to end in robbery and outrage.’  John Spivey, a former Almondbury representative  of the WRFU, described parish officials as petty tyrants and accused them of forcing women into prostitution and men into crime. He had personal experience of their callousness when, sick and out of work,  he applied for an allowance to support his 18 year old daughter who had lost her leg. He was told to turn her out of the house. [28]

 Athough acts of individual charity still occurred such as Sir John Lister Kaye’s supply of coals to his Dalton tenants and the distribution of clothing and donations to the Huddersfield clothing fund by his wife, subscriptions generally were drying up.  By early November the parish officers had not raised locally the proportion of money required by the London Committee and outdoor relief work had to be cut back. A Huddersfield vestry meeting discussed the need for closer liaison with the relief committee, the problem of people without settlement and the drawing up of a list of those too impoverished to pay rates. The parish surveyor was also requested to assist in finding road work.  The relief committee’s end of year report stated that 1,777 men were working on the roads at a cost of of £ 1,122/10/3 ½ d a fortnight and of the 31 townships in the f’our parishes (Huddersfield, Almondbury, KirkHeaton and Kirkburton), embracing a population of 70,726 in the 1821 census, only 7 of  the least populous had not sought aid. Since they had begun  administering relief to 30 applicants in April the number of cases  had risen to 2,500 families at a cost of £ 15,000.  [29]

 Despite the disapproval of many leading manufacturers who believed that the best solution to the distress was to cut back production rather than reduce wages ,competition prevailed and by the beginning of 1827 wage cutting and payment in truck had increased. Faced with falling prices and the liquidity problem caused by the worthlessness of small denomination notes, more masters were forced to follow suit. [30]

 A meeting to discuss the problem of truck attempted to unite the broadest possible interest by taking,  ‘into consideration the injurious consequences resulting to the labouring classes, to the shopkeeper and to the fair manufacturer.”  Senior of Dalton, one of the “fair manufacturers” who had been amenable to the WRFU  described the practice as , ‘contrary to law, to common sense, humanity and to religion.’ George Beaumont ,an Almondbury fancy weaver, soon to emerge as one of the main workers’ leaders in the area made his first recorded debut with, ‘a ,very sensible speech’ moving the thanks of the meeting to the vicar and the magistrates  for the kindness and humanity they had manifested towards the labouring classes.’  Ironically ,in view of Beaumont’s later notoriety ,the Mercury endorsed such sentiments, commenting how it was ‘highly gratifying to every well regulated mind to observe the harmony and cordiality which at present exists between the  upper and lower classes in the town and neighbourhood.’[31]

 Whilst cooperating with the middle classes over common problems the workers did not refrain from independent initiatives. At Almondbury on 26 February 1827 it was resolved to petition parliament for ‘a board of appeal for the purpose of deciding all disputes betwixt masters and workmen and for the establishment of a rate of wages suitable to the circumstance s of the time.’[32]  At the end of May a large meeting of fancy weavers discussed more direct means of obtaining ‘a reasonable price for their labour’  and it was resolved that Norton’s 500 weavers should strike for an advance as they  brought in their completed pieces. The strike was conducted by a ‘Weavers Committee”, which, considering the evident demise of the WRFU, may have been an ad hoc body. Other than this, no dispute of fancy weavers is recorded, unlike in neighbouring Saddleworth the following year,where hostility to truck led to the formation of a trade union and a virtual general strike of woollen ‘weavers and spinners.[33]

 Conditions improved slightly throughout 1827 but in May the Mercury commented on a growing phenomenon, ‘Emigration is :; daily taking place from the West Riding.’  At least one emigrant had decided on this course not only because of the present distress but also because of the underlying social and economic changes. John Hollingworth wrote from South Leicester, Massachusetts, to his uncle William Rawcliffe at Oldfield near Honley on 1 April asking him to reassure his wife. ‘I hope we shall not be long before we see one another again in a place where we shall be free from the oppression of the manufacturing system.’

That this is synonymous with the factory system he makes patently clear in a message to his father’s family, ‘I should like to have them independent of the factory system which cannot be done all at once, but I would rather that they were in factorys of America than they should be starving in England.’  A bitter condemnation of American factories follows including a verse of his own composition;

 ‘I hate to see a factory stand,

 In any part of the known land

To me it talks of wickedness

Of families that’s in destress

Of tyrany and much extortion

And of slavery a portion

1 wish that I no more might see

Another woollen Factory. [34]

 Throughout 1828 trade continued generally ‘brisk’  and there was a corresponding lull in public protest. The following year however opened with increased pessimism ,partly attributed to the impending Small Notes Abolition Bill~ National controversy about catholic emancipation was overshadowed by economic worries.  One ‘incendiary from Leeds’ agitating against Catholic claims was told by Holmfirth manufacturers ,

‘…they were deplorably in want of trade and would readily petition for any measure that was calculated to improve their prospect, but as for petitioning against Catholic claims nine out of ten of them were in favour of these claims’  Radicals drew inspiration from the success of the Catholic Association and the embarrassment caused to the government.  O’Connell’s threat to cause a run on the banks was seen by Cobbett as an effective weapon and seemed to confirm the analysis that the basic problem was government fiscal and monetary policy which required a political solution. [35]

 The Birth of the Political Unions 1829-1830

 Although there had been no mass meetings since 1826 local radicals had not been idle • A meeting on 1 June 1829 at Almondbury Bank confronted political issues, rather than direct economic problems of truck, unemployment and distress far more clearly than former occasions   .   The requisition for the meeting stated it was to discuss relief measures   , ‘but particularly to consider the present state of the corn laws.’  This provided the opportunity to discuss a wide range of Radical grievances and proposals.  About 1500 – 2000 were present, many exhibiting evident signs  of poverty . A band played the popular radical anthems of ‘The Dead March’  and  ‘Scots Wh’ae’  and the condition of the weavers was graphically symbolised by an effigy displayed in front of the platform, dressed in rags and labelled with a placard, ‘Wellington’s Prosperity’.  Edward Dixon [36]introduced the first re solution against currency changes, which he considered , ‘one of the principle causes of distress.’  Outlining the history of paper money he claimed it was devised to raise loans, first in an attempt to subject the Americans to taxation without representation and to wage war against the French, thus increasing the burden of the national debt . It also had a more immediate effect;

‘The corrupted currency had done more than anything else to encourage machinery and machinery had been a curse to them having thrown them out of employment and enabled one man to produce as much as eighty could do formerly.’

 A political proposal from Samuel Dickinson received loud acclamation – since ,  ‘ the golden chain of charity had been broken…the principles  and morals of the people had been destroyed by tyranny and oppression.’   the only means to save all from ruin was to organise with merchants manufacturers and shopkeepers , ‘in a legal manner’.  The central question of the meeting, the Corn Laws ,were described by John Eckersley as the ‘Landlords’ Tax….made for the sole purpose of upholding an already overgrown aristocracy.’ which would never be repealed by the government as presently constituted.  In seconding the motion George Beaumont related the injustice of  the taxation system to machinery, stating, ‘As machinery took away  part of their bread it ought to take away part of their taxes.’

That the organisers of the meeting were by now in contact with the wider radical movement is confirmed by the presence of James Mann of Leeds on the platform.  Mann, the former cropper involved in the 1817 insurrection attempt, now a bookseller, announced that the need for parliamentary reform was demonstrated by the lack of support for the repeal of the corn laws or interest in national distress. He recommended that they should act as the Catholic

Association had done to show they knew their rights. ‘They must form bonds of union and demand reform. Referring to the last meeting that he had attended in that place, about the time of the Manchester massacre, he said he believed that,  ‘…the yeomanry would not be so ready to cut them down now.’  A wit in the crowd shouted in agreement,  ‘No, they are all bank’d!’  (Bankrupt)

 Historical conflicts between the working and middle class reformers resurfaced when the thanks of the meeting was voted to the reporters present, Foster of the Leeds Patriot and Thomas Baines  of the Mercury. The latter eulogised his father Edward, editor of the Mercury as a veteran , ‘defender of popular rights’,  and proud  to be a Whig. Mann was stung to remind the meeting of his old adversary’s description of working class. radicals in 1817 as, ‘low, degraded and illiterate,’  and claimed that far from being a saviour of the insurrectionists he could have prevented Brandreth and the others going to the gallows if he had printed a supplement to the Mercury reporting the revelations about Oliver as he had been asked.[37]

 This incident epitomises the many clashes that local working class radicals were to have with the middle class reformers and their  mouthpiece over the following years.  For the present however, the meeting closed with a discussion on how to persuade the manufacturers to join them. The following week a deputation met some of the masters to solicit ‘cooperation and advice’  rousing  ‘some expectation’  of support. The next meeting on Almondbury Bank, however revealed that the breach between the classes was widening. [38]

 The highpoint of this meeting was William Ashton a leader of the Barnsley linen weavers, who said he was present to ‘ascertain what were the opinions of the operative classes in the district,’  as the reports of the previous meeting had ‘caused some excitement’ in his own area. He was disappointed to find after he arrived that ‘there certainly appeared to be some laxity and tameness in some of the persons who had management of the meeting.’ and he couldn’t get a satisfactory answer about what they intended to do. He dismissed proposals to petition parliament as being useless without reform and waiting to see what manufacturers would do ‘was a waste of time’, as they had no power to help even they had the inclination. Calling on them to ‘hurl down the tyrants who oppressed them.’  and claiming the rest of the West Riding was looking  to them for a lead, ‘He retired amidst the continued and  deafening cheers of the assemblage.’   Despite the popularity of his speech, the meeting organisers claimed the tone of  it was totally unexpected. Nor was it acted on, as it was decided to wait three weeks for a reply from the masters who had been approached.  In the meantime though, they set up a committee with Beaumont as secretary to communicate with other towns and villages.

 Again at this meeting, machinery was condemned. Edward Dixon, as well as introducing the new topic of maintenance of the church when it was outnumbered by dissenters, explained that paper currency had helped ,’augment the power of the steam engine.’ and led to overtrading and competition. A resolution was moved describing machinery as, ‘injurious to the labouring community of this country’,  – according to Beaumont ,in trades like cloth-dressing it had deprived seven out of eight of employment.  It  ‘used no tea or sugar or wore waistcoats,’  and he suggested the tax burdens of those impoverished by it should be relieved by a duty on power manufactured goods. He also described the effect it had on the degeneration of domestic life in terms which were to become familiar over the next few years. The basic argument of the advocates of machinery was dismissed by Dixon.

‘It has been said that machinery has increased the national wealth, but if it does not give happiness and comfort, if it renders the great mass of the people poor and wretched what is its use or value?’ [39]

The main proposal of the meeting was ‘a system of organisation’, a vague term which evidently meant different things to different proposers. Samuel Dickinson saw it as a panacea which would prevent  ‘anarchy and confusion’  and , ‘would r store the labourer the roast beef of England and cause his cellar to smell of beer.’ To Dixon it was the precondition of political activity enabling them to , ‘petition, remonstrate, or if need. be,’ he added cryptically, ‘demand parliament the repeal of these taxes which press so unequally and exclusive1y upon the lower classes.’

 Almondbury Bank on map of early 1850s showing location of 'Radical Forest'.

Almondbury Bank on map of early 1850s showing location of ‘Radical Forest’.

The operatives’  leaders continued to make their overtures to the manufacturers. At a meeting called by the ‘respectable inhabitants’ at Huddersfield courthouse on 11 December 1829, under the chairmanship of the constable to discuss distress, George Beaumont was introduced by William Stocks Jun who explained how some of the masters had been asked to help with a survey into conditions. Beaumont gave a moving account of the operatives’ findings – adding an ominous note.  Some were so desperate they were wishing for death ,but others were crying, ‘ O, that all the labourers had come to the determination we have, then we would either better our circumstances or die in the contest.’  The distress was even worse now than then and increasing daily. Relief measures were not enough in this situation,

‘…let us form ourselves into bodies and societies and join with societies of reformers in other towns and let us tell the government we will be oppressed no longer. Let us begin and never cease to agitate till we gain redress for all our grievances.’

He ended with a condemnation of a circular calling for the establishment of a soup kitchen, “Fellow labourers, let those who want to thrust soup down our throats thrust it down their own.” [40]

 Stocks advocated the fixing of minimum and maximum wages but Wood of Dalton objected that this would drive manufactures abroad – currency and tax changes and the reduction of government salaries and debt were necessary.  A resolution unanimously acceptable was passed attributing low wages and profits to high taxes and rents increased by the currency change. The only practical measure decided was the formation of committees to act with the parish officers in continuing relief.

 George Beaumont, perhaps called upon to justify himself, reiterated the view he had expressed at the meeting in a letter to the Mercury – what good was 20,000 quarts of soup for the relief of 20,000 starving individuals.  He warned that , until the poor were contented and able to support themselves, ‘neither the property of the rich can be safe nor the government  of the country secure.’  [41]The following month the Operatives Committee sent a letter, signed by Beaumont and John Spivey , refuting the paper’s claim that Beaumont and others were totally opposed to charitable relief. They were critical of its inadequacy since in 1826,despite large funds, men had still been reduced to debilitating roadwork and many now were , ‘up to the lips in debts and difficulties out of which charity can never rescue them.’  A reduction in rents and tithes in relation to the reduced wages was necessary and above all prosperity could only return if there was a reform of Parliament, without which (again invoking the spectre revolution )  , ‘the peace and safety of the country will be endangered.’[42]

 The trough of the depression was reached in the winter of 1829/30. The recovery which followed was slow, uneven and, for many weavers, barely perceptible.  In March 1830 manufacturers complained that it was low prices which prevented them advancing wages although some improvement in the fancy districts was reported..  Shopkeepers and publicans were still, ‘rapidly verging into the vortex of ruin.’ And at a meeting in May the Radical fancy weaver Sam Dickinson claimed that,’ hopes of amelioration…are altogether fallacious and delusive.’ The capriciousness of the factors governing the fancy trade was underlined by a comment in the Mercury of the same week., ‘the precarious state of his majesty’s health has had a very injurious effect on the fancy trade.’ while in October it was claimed that about 3,000 weavers were unemployed because of the entry of a superior product from Bradford onto the market..[43]

 A meeting of the middle classes to discuss the distress on 11 March 1830 was used by the operatives to advocate political action.  Machinery was again linked with the corn laws and the national debt by William Leadbeater, ‘(an operative)’ in apocalyptical terms which caused some amusement’     ‘[machinery] is a thief and would rob thousands – we shall find that it will be the destruction of this country. America won’t get a deal by it – it will be the destruction of that country and in the end I will venture to say, it will be the destruction of the universe.’ Spivey and Beaumont expressed regret that another petition was all that was being proposed, ‘The people of England have been petitioning for forty years and what have they gained by it?’ .  ‘The error is in the system’ . declared Beaumont and ‘the productive classes’  must protect their own interests,   ‘In my humble opinion there is but one path in which we can tread in order to accomplish this desirable end – and that is to imitate the people of Birmingham – the noble example is set – the standard is hoisted.’ The meeting was roused to cheers and some gentlemen reformers pledged that they would join the operatives in this objective. [44]

 Accordingly a meeting was called for 12 April 1830 at Almondbury to form a Political Union, ‘to correspond with that lately formed in Birmingham for the object of legally obtaining a real reform in the Commons.” After criticising the county M.P.s for lack of concern and manufacturers for intensifying distress by the use of machinery,  Beaumont read a declaration describing the privations affecting workers and the ‘vortex’ threatening shopkeepers and landlords due to non-payment of accounts and rents. Comparing the workers’ condition unfavourably with that of West Indian slaves the declaration made the assurance, ‘we envy no man’s property – that we are desirous of preserving the good institutions of the country,’  but also condemned the,  ‘principles which have destroyed our social and domestic comforts – principles which have a tendency to alienate our love and affections from the civil institutions of our country and destroy that patriotic feeling so desirable and necessary to the safety of the state.’

 Dickinson recalled the various meetings in the area which had drawn up petitions only for them to be ignored by parliament. It was necessary that all classes in society ,both high and low, rich and poor should come forward and join in one strong bond of union.’  Amidst some cries of dissent from the crowd Spivey read the rules of the Birmingham Political Union (BPU) calling for suffrage on a household or rate paying basis as a step in the right direction and likely to attract middle class support.   John Wood the Dalton manufacturer advised them to establish a Political Union , ‘for effectual reform in parliament, without giving it any particular name.[45]

'Radical Forest', Almondbury Bank, site of Radical meetings in the 1820s and 30s - (although the topography has since changed).

‘Radical Forest’, Almondbury Bank, site of Radical meetings in the 1820s and 30s – (although the topography has since changed).

This was the line advocated by the Mercury who had criticised the Leeds radicals adherence to the Metropolitan Political Union (MPU) with its demands for universal suffrage, annual parliaments and vote by ballot, appealing to working class radicals to avoid  ‘prescribing particular plans.’    James Mann meanwhile had forwarded twelve copies of the MPU rules to the Almondbury radicals who had also received a letter and a copy of a MPU resolution from Matthew Riley. To the relief of the Mercury, when the MPU rules were read out to the meeting by Dickinson, no decision was made to adopt either that or the BPU model and a broad resolution was passed to seek an unspecified extension of the francise, vote by ballot, elections on the same day and triennial parliaments.

 The body formed was to organise a petition on the lines of the meeting’s resolution and to collect subscriptions ,according to what individuals could afford, for the financing of further

meetings, the publication of ‘works favourable to reform’ and, showing that the Almondbury Radicals appreciated the possible dangers awaiting them, ‘to relieve persons unjustly made to suffer for advocating reform.’

The Mercury commended the Almondbury operatives for their, ‘spirit of union and moderation,’ and their awareness of the need to unite all the pro-reform forces since they ‘abstained from insinuating their own particular views.’ It noted some ‘violent expressions’ were used, ‘which however, find much excuse in the severe suffering the speakers have witnessed and experienced.’ Beaumont’s remarks on machinery were tactfully described as ‘mistaken’.

 The continued attempts to appease the middle classes on the one hand and the growing need to pursue their own political course must have produced debates and stresses amongst the operatives which were not necessarily aired on the public platform. -Some hint of this is revealed by a letter from Beaumont, as secretary of the Operatives Committee, to the Mercury stating that the 12 April meeting had not specified the exact nature of reform desired because of the understanding of the need to unite with the middle classes. The gentlemen had been given the chance to organise a meeting as some had promised in March, and they should either call one now or attend the coming Almondbury meeting on 10 May. He concluded unequivocally, ‘With all due respect we now declare this our last call.’

 A reply appeared the following week signed by five members of the Operatives Committee, claiming that Beaumont had not been authorised to write the letter and that they disagreed with some of its sentiments. Beaumont’s conduct had been such of late, ‘that they could not with propriety act with him.’  While making clear that they were not opposed to a union of the different classes it is not apparent whether it was the invitation offered to the ‘gentlemen’ to attend the meeting or the ultimatum which they found objectionable.  The explanation offered at the 10 May meeting ,which passed a vote of confidence in Beaumont for his faithful and honourable conduct as a committee man, does not reveal any political conflicts that may have split the Operatives Committee and adds a further note of intrigue by simply claiming that the signatories  to the letter were unaware that a new committee had been formed ![46]

 At that meeting Mann of Leeds and Samuel Midgeley proposed the adoption of the MPU rules and aims which were overwhelmingly endorsed by the meeting.  A ten man council was nominated, including Dickinson, Beaumont,  who at this meeting had again called for , ‘a general political union between the middling and labouring classes of Almondbury and its vicinity’, and Midgeley. That none of the signatories of the Operatives Committee letter against Beaumont were included in the Political council may be significant , but neither was J Spivey. It is not clear if the O.C. continued in existence .[47]

Some Radicals were also looking for support from another quarter. At Almondbury in July

Thomas Cliffe , a Halifax Radical, condemned the aristocracy, took a swipe at the Malthusians, (‘those blaspheming petitioners’  ,who attributed distress to, ‘God’s fault overproduction and a redundant population.’) and then advised the meeting to seek support from William IV, as he was known to hold liberal principles. The meeting closed with thanks to O’Connell, John Wood ;MP for Preston, Henry Hunt , the. council and members of the MPU, followed by three cheers for the king.[48]

 But while some radicals drew hope from the arrival of a new monarch  others were inspired by one’s departure.  Delegates from Almondbury had played a leading part in encouraging the establishment of a Political Union at EIland on 2 June. In  August they again addressed a large meeting in a field under a tricolour and the slogan,  ‘The More the Cruel Tyrants Bind Us, The More United They Will Find Us.’

 The leading local radical, the shoemaker Abraham Hanson, (who had spoken on Almondbury Bank in April), called on the meeting to ‘rally round the throne as the only place from whence they might expect redress for their grievances.’ If they did the King would ‘instantly set about reform.’  Beaumont took up a different theme ,referring to the overthrow of Charles X by the July insurrection in Paris,  ‘…it would be a consolation to every friend of freedom to know that the heroic people of France had bravely struggled and had been successful in emancipating themselves from the iron hand of tyranny and oppression. (Cheers)’.

Some objections were raised however when Edward Dixon brought comparisons with France too uncomfortably close to home. On exclaiming that , ‘The Political Unions will do for England what the citizens of Paris have done for France – They are marshalling the steps of Englishmen to Freedom!’  he provoked cries of, ‘No.No! There is no parallel between this country and France.’  A material demonstration of internationalism was proposed by James Mann with the opening of subscriptions for the victims of the Paris fighting. [49]

 The local impact of the French events was evident on 4 September at a dinner at the Kings Head of around 200 men, ‘mainly of the labouring classes’ held, ‘to celebrate the triumph of the French people over despotism’. An address to the people of France from the people of Huddersfield and vicinity was read expressing the elation of the Radicals;

‘We hail this revolution effected as by electricity as of paramount importance to any event in the annals of history and best calculated to confer the greatest degree of happiness on the whole human race.  Besides the leading Almondbury Radicals, Mann of Leeds and Cliffe of Halifax, the guests included the shawl dealer and supporter of the veteran Republican Richard Carlile,  Lawrence Pitkethly, (soon to emerge as a leading West Riding Radical) , and the veteran Jacobin shopkeeper Tom Vevers, who had been implicated in the 1817 uprising.  The Leeds Intelligencer accused Beaumont of proposing a ‘sanguinary and horrible toast’ which he failed to deny in a letter to the Mercury, describing the editor of the Intelligencer as ‘a son of Beelzebub’. [50]

 The ambiguous response of Radicals to the republican revolution in France was epitomised later that month when they marched under tricolours to Almondbury Bank and voted to petition William·IV to support radical reform.  Attention was also directed to unrest nearer home by Beaumont, who issued an appeal to the agricultural  labourers to stop destroying machinery and produce and join the labouring classes of the manufacturing districts in securing reform.  As well as their role in promoting the Elland Political Union the Almondbury Radicals also proselytised nearer home. On the 18 October a large meeting was held at Honley infants school at which Beaumont and Dickinson introduced a debate on the relative merits of the BPU and the MPU • As a result a Political Union was established on the line of. the latter with a woolsorter, Thomas Ledger, as secretary.  On the 27 October Beaumont was speaking at a meeting at Keighley on France and reform and on 1 November came the culmination of local Radicals’ efforts – the foundation of Huddersfield Political Union.[51]

 Contingents from the townships around Almondbury and Kirkheaton marched into Huddersfield under tricolours bearing the slogans,  ‘Liberty and Love’ ; ‘Liberty and the Rights of Man’ ;  ‘Our Fathers Bled for Our Freedom’;. and  ‘We are weary of Slavery’  and bearing a tricolour bag inscribed, ‘No secrets’ , to form an assembly which ‘consisted entirely of the working classes.’   Samuel Dickinson, in the chair emphasised that their object was not to destroy property but to promote ‘real, honest, upright radical reform.’  Debate centered on the need to establish a Political Union in the town.  A link with earlier Radicalism was provided by the presence of Joseph Mitchell, who had had strong links with local revolutionaries in 1817 and Benjamin Whiteley, also arrested the same year. The future direction of Huddersfield PU was also foreshadowed by a resolution acknowledging the efforts of Richard Oastler in exposing  ‘pretending philanthropists and canting hypocrites’, by his letters to the  Mercury attacking,  ‘Slavery in Yorkshire’  At this founding meeting was also someone who was to play a leading role, not only in local radicalism, but who was to gain a national reputation, the youthful apprentice cabinet-maker, Joshua Hobson.  [52]


 [1] LM 17, 24 Dec.1825, LM 4 Feb.1826

[2] BHC.23.Feb.I826 , BHC 16, 23 Mar, 14 Dec.1826;LM. 11,18 Mar,24 Jun, 9 Sep. 1826.

[3] LM Apr. 1826 , LM Mar.I826.

[4] P Hudson. The West Riding Wool Textile Industry (Wiltshire 1975) p467 

[5] HG 11 Feb.I826  

[6] BHC 20 Apr.I826 

[7] LM .8 Jul I826 

[8] LM.6 May; 15 Jul 1826 , LM 13 May; LM I2 Aug.I826

[9] LM.I9; 26.Aug.I826.

[10]Parliamentary Papers  VI.1833  ‘Report from the Select Committee on Manufactures, Commerce and Shipping with Minutes of Evidence’. William Stocks’ evidence  pp 597-600:  637-647.

[11]  LM 7, 14,21 Oct, 9 Dec 1826.

[12] LM 9 Dec 1826;6,13, 27 Jan 1827

[13] LM 20 Jan;3 Feb 1827

[14]  LM 31 Mar;26 May 1827;BHC 4 May 1827;LM 23 Jun;21 Jul 1827.

[15] LM 3 Nov 1827;27 Oct,1 Nov 1828;LM 10 Mar,4 Apr 1827.

[16] LM  31 Jan,11 Apr,27 Jun 1829.

[17] .LM 3 Aug,19 Sep,12 Dec 1829;PP 1833 VI Wm Stocks evidence.

[18] .LM 3 Oct,14 Nov 1829.

[19] LM 16 Oct 1829;Wm Stocks op.cit. LM 12 Dec.1829.

[20] Bretton Hall College Archives BEA/c2.133/51a. Dunn to Mrs Beaumont 14 Jan 1830 and 51b. Dunn to Brakenridge, agent to Bretton estate, 21 Jan 1830 (I am indebted to Cyril Pearce, former curator of the Bretton Estate archives, for these valuable references).

[21] LM 13 May 1826,  LM.20 May 1926; LM 27 May 1826.

[22]; LM 8 Jul  1826.

[23] LM 15 Jul 1826.

[24] LM 22 Ju11826. Wm Stocks op.cit

[25] LM.5 Aug 1826; Allen also relayed these apprehensions to the Home Office and appealed  for funds.  ‘I cannot view the approach of winter without considerable anxiety.’

HO 4.0/21(258)26 Sep 1826.

[26]William Stocks evidence, op. cit.

[27]’  LM 9 Sep 1826;  HO 40/42(64) 2 Aug 1826, Relief Committee to Peel, acknowledging letter and inclosure from Harewood.  £1,000 had been sent to Huddersfield. LM 26 Aug 1826

[28]   LM 16 Sep 1826; LM 12 Dec 1829. LM 23 Sep.1826

[29] LM 28 Oct.I826; LM. 18 Nov.I826; LM.I6 Dec.I826; LM 6 Jan.I827;

[30] LM  Jan.1827

[31] LM 3 Feb.I827

[32] LM.3 Mar.I827

[33] LM 16  Jun 1827.;.LM 23  Jun 1827. It’s secretary, John Heaton had represented the WRFU at a meeting with masters in 1825 (LM 12 Feb)

[34] LM 12 May 1827

T.Leavitt (Ed) The Hollingworth Letters (MIT Press 1969) p 4-6.7 Mar 1828 (original spelling)

[35] LM 31 Jan 1829; LM.28 Feb.1829;LM.7 Mar 1826. Political Register.5 Apr 1828

[36] This may be the same man who appears on Republican subscription lists.

[37] LM 6 Jun 1829

[38] LM Jun.I829; LM.20 Jun 1829.

[39] Leeds Patriot  20 Jun 1829. The Mercury did not report Ashton’s speech in detail, describing it as ·an “intemperate and inflammatory harangue”. At the next meeting (LM 11 Jul) Frank Mirfield,Ashton’s comrade was not allowed to speak until the chair was vacated. By the end of October they were both on the run as a result of disturbances arising from the Barnsley linen weavers strike. (LM 10 Oct.I829) ;  Dixon, LM 11 Jun 1829.

[40] LM 12 Dec 1829. Although at this meeting the Rev.Drawbridge refers to Beaumont as a ‘young man’ , he was  35.

[41] LM.26 Dec 1829

[42] LM 16 Jan 1830. Spivey was an activist of the WRFU and may be the man of that name who spoke at the Almondbury Bank meeting in 1819 – and possible supporter of Carlile.

[43] LM 13, 20 Mar 1830; LM 27 Mar 1830;   LM 15 May 1830; LM 2 Oct 1830.

[44]  LM 13 Mar 1830

[45]  LM 17 Apr 1830

[46] LM.I7 Apr.I830; LM I May 1830

[47]LM I5 May 1830

[48] LM May I830.  LM 15 May.I830.  LM 5 Jun I830.

[49] LM 5 Jun 1830; LM.21 Aug.I830.

[50] LM 11 Sep 1830; LM 18 Sep 1830. Letter from George Beaumont.

[51] LM.30 Oct 1830. Almondbury meeting, Keighley meeting;  LM.23 Oct 1830, Honley meeting.

[52] LM 6 Nov 1830


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