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Manchester Chartism

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

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

Economic Conditions in the 1830s

  1. by June 1837, some 50,000 workers in Manchester alone were either unemployed or on short time because of the collapse in trade.
  2. as factories increased in numbers, so the spread of machinery caused distress for hand spinners and weavers.
  3. In 1830 60,000 power looms 240,000 hand looms
    by 1860

    power loom supremacy was almost complete

    Wages of handloom weavers fell


    est. 16/- per week


    est. 9/- per week


    est. 6/- per week

  4. there was a strong Irish element from immigration on a large scale. By 1841 some 34,000 Irish people had moved to the Manchester area and accepted poor pay and conditions because the worst in England was better than the best in Ireland. They tended to depress wages and conditions.
  5. masters believed in internal laissez-faire and were more interested in profits than philanthropy. However, there were some 'good' employers such as Thomas Ashton at Hyde and the Greggs at Styal who had built model villages for their workers.

Joseph Rayner Stephens emphasised the economic basis of Chartism

'This question of universal suffrage is a knife-and-fork question, a bread-and-cheese question'.

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

Chartism in Manchester was not really a political battle: it was more concerned with wages, factory conditions, working standards, living conditions, TUs, and opposition to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. There were strong Owenite socialist undertones.

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

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

Other divisions between masters and men came from

  1. the national debt which the working classes said was being paid off by the labour of the poor into middle-class pockets
  2. the 1832 Reform Act - the 'Great Betrayal' - and the subsequent 1834 PLAA
  3. the unacceptable demands of the Chartists. The middle-class thought that the poor should educate themselves, not demand political 'rights'.
  4. the apparent threat to property by Chartists, from their violent actions
  5. the Chartists' fear of the new Manchester police force, set up in 1839 after Manchester's incorporation in 1838. The police were called 'Blue-bottles' and 'Bourbon police'
  6. the incorporation of Manchester in 1839 which had been opposed by members of both the middle- and working-classes

Donald Read comments that 'the feeling of class conflict, if not its rationalisation ... underlay the whole story of Chartism in Lancashire'.


At every stage in the rise and decline of Chartism, the class issue is paramount, aggravated usually by economic distress: this is obvious even from the 1790s. At that time, Thomas Walker and other middle class reformers set up the Manchester Constitutional Society which failed partly because of the 'loyal opposition' of the working classes. During the Napoleonic Wars there was a good deal of economic depression in Manchester and the working classes began to demand political reforms as a means to socio-economic betterment. In 1817 the March of the Blanketeers took place, followed in 1819 by the Peterloo Massacre. In 1830 the Manchester Political Unions were very active and in the 1830s Manchester had a number of active opposition groups: Trade Unions, the 10-Hour Movement and anti-Poor-Law agitation. These merged into Chartism. R.J. Richardson was secretary to both the Manchester Operatives Trade Union and the South Lancashire Anti-Poor-Law Association in the mid-1830s. He became secretary of the new Manchester Political Union and an active Chartist in 1838. Donald Read says that, 'Lancashire Chartism represented a desperate and despairing attempt by the operatives to improve the grim conditions of industrial life.'

On 22 March 1837 a meeting in favour of all six points of the Charter was held in Stockport although the Charter was not mentioned by name. This was the first meeting in the Manchester area. It was followed in April 1837 by a meeting was held in Manchester to petition for annual general elections, a secret ballot and universal suffrage. In July 1837 after the end of official proceedings for the nomination of candidates for the general election, O'Connor and O'Brien addressed the working class remnant in favour of 'democratic principles' - probably the Charter. On 5 December 1837 the Salford Reform Association passed resolves in favour of short parliaments, a secret ballot and universal suffrage. Apparently, this Association was not ultra-radical.

In 1838, two Chartist bodies were founded in Manchester - the Manchester Political Union and the Manchester Universal Suffrage Association. On 24 September 1838 a monster meeting was held on Kersal Moor near Manchester. It was the greatest of a series of large-scale Chartist meetings held during the summer of that year and it had a dual purpose. It was intended firstly to demonstrate the strength of Chartism and secondly to elect delegates for the Chartist National Convention. As a demonstration, it was a huge success. It attracted an impressive display of speakers and delegates from all Chartist areas including the London Working Men's Association, Birmingham, Newcastle and Leeds. John Fielden took the chair and Joseph Rayner Stephens and Feargus O'Connor were the main speakers. Various estimates of the numbers present have been made. The Manchester Guardian estimated an attendance of 30,000 but the Morning Advertiser said that 300,000 were there. Archibald Prentice, after careful calculation reckoned that the true number was 50,000.

For the rest of 1838, regular meetings were held throughout the area, many by torchlight (cf. Nazi Germany under Hitler). These processions and meetings alarmed the middle-classes by their violent speeches and threats. The physical force element predominated, although evidence suggests that they alienated many of the working classes. By spring 1839 Chartism had lost much of its unorganised support. Chartist leaders had also begun to quarrel among themselves.

On 6 May 1839 a special meeting of the North of England delegates had to be called to revive the spirit of union within Chartist ranks. It became a rally of the physical force element which went on to look at Ulterior Measures. Those in attendance virtually repudiated the National Petition, even before parliament rejected it. The threat of physical violence surfaced. The Manchester Guardian of 24 April had already reported William Benbow to have said,

'Every man and every boy of twelve years of age should have a stiletto a cubit long, to run into the guts of any who should attempt to oppose them.

25 May 1839 was Whit Saturday. There is evidence from this second Kersal Moor meeting to suggest the decline of Chartism. Extremists in charge of the Manchester Political Union had high hope for the meeting and about 30,000 attended - many for the horse-races afterwards. The Chartists turned their attention to planning a 'National Holiday' [a general strike].

On 25 June 1839 a delegate meeting was held in Rochdale which decided to create a better organisation. This demonstrated the weakness of Chartism. Many delegates were arrested in July and August and few were left to organise the "National Holiday" intended for August. The plan was abandoned by the National Convention but was attempted by some men in Bolton. Some local Chartist leaders tried to achieve a strike and forced some factories to close. This shows what limited support they had. If the operatives had supported Chartism, they would not have gone to work in the first place. Handloom weavers supported Chartism long after the factory workers gave up. These were the poorest and most distressed of the working population of Lancashire and were more prepared to adopt desperate measures. By September 1839 the Chartists themselves were admitting failure. Apathy was widespread among the factory workers. In November the Newport Rising took place. It may be that the Lancashire leaders also planned similar risings that failed from lack of support. Donald Read says,

The comparative failure of the second Kersal Moor meeting, the collapse of the National Holiday, the apathetic local response to the Newport rising all showed how rapidly the Chartism position had declined in 1839. The first phase of the Chartist movement in Lancashire was almost over. The final blow came in the spring of 1840 when most of the Chartist leaders were imprisoned. The Chartist organisation was concentrated in the person of the leaders; without them it collapsed.

The second phase of Chartism had to begin with a reorganisation that laid more emphasis on structure and less emphasis on personalities. This took place between July 1840 and June 1841. On 20 July 1840 a National Delegate Conference was held in Manchester with James Leach in the chair. Leach was as violent as O'Connor. Eventually, out of a host of rival schemes, there emerged the National Charter Association. The NCA, with the same title but with varying purpose, dominated Chartism for the rest of its existence as a political force.

In August 1841 O'Connor was released from York prison and agitation immediately grew. During the autumn O'Connor made a triumphal tour of northern England. On 27 September a great demonstration in O'Connor's honour was held in Manchester. Between 2,500 and 3,000 members of Chartist Associations and Trade Unions marched in procession. It was a striking example of renewed Chartist strength, but divisions existed between the supporters of O'Connor and O'Connell - mainly Irish - because O'Connor opposed the Anti-Corn-Law League (ACLL) and O'Connell supported it. O'Connor's supporters arranged for the police to attend their meeting to prevent violence from O'Connell's supporters. The curious spectacle ensued of a Chartist meeting assembling under police protection.

During the winter of 1841-42, Chartism made rapid progress despite the defection of the Irish. Cotton operatives turned to political reform in the hope of relieving their economic distress. The NCA had

80 branches in February 1841

300 branches by December 1841

350 branches by April 1842

The north of England dominated the new Chartist movement and found important allies in the craft TUs. Sixty-four TU delegates attended a Chartist meeting in March 1842, which shows a revival of the combination of working-class political and industrial organisations that had been prominent in 1838-9. Donald Read noted that, 'Despite this widespread support the National Petition achieved nothing. It was thrown out by parliament, and once more Chartism was left to face its own ineffectiveness. Once more cotton operatives began to despair and to realise that Chartism could not bring relief to their distress; and once more the movement went into a rapid decline'.

Despair did not lead to an apathetic acceptance of distress, but to direct industrial action. At the 1842 National Convention, the second Petition was the work of the NCA and certainly displayed class hostility in the preamble. There were riots in Manchester after its rejection, followed by the Plug Plots in the summer of that year It was a time of economic distress and almost 15% of the houses in Stockport were empty. Some wit had erected a placard which said "Stockport to let". There were soup kitchens in Manchester. On 7 August a protest meeting, attended by between 8,000 and 10,000 operatives, was held on Mottram Moor against the threatened reduction in wages. They passed a resolution for the Charter and for a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. By 9 August the cotton industry virtually was at a standstill and the plugs were smashed from the boilers to injure production. On 11 August two hundred trade delegates met in Manchester and demanded a ten-hour working day and fair wage rates for weavers and factory workers.

The strike was spontaneous, not the beginning of a planned revolution. Neither was there any causal connection between Chartism and the strikes because the strikers were more interested in work and wages than in politics. The Chartists merely exploited the situation - except that they were divided.

The Plug Plots indicate that the workers were not hostile to factories or industrialisation but were opposed to low wages and poor conditions. By smashing the plugs, they hindered production and thus damages their employers' profits, to make the bosses 'feel the pinch' too. This was different from the handloom weavers in London who objected to machines per se. Manchester was more violent than elsewhere in Lancashire because the plight of the workers was worse. The strikes had fizzled out by the end of August, although men had been arrested and trials again were held. One such trial was that of Richard Pilling at the Spring Assizes in Lancaster; others were those of Lloyd and Warden.

Chartism in Manchester never really revived after 1842 because of a revival of trade prosperity after 1843 that removed the economic stimulus for Chartism. Many operatives turned to economic action, especially the Ten-Hours movement, Trade Unions and anti-Poor-Law agitation. Some working men also began to see the value of the ACLL following Peel's economic reforms.

The Plug Plots were overcome by

The Final Chartist Fling 1847-1848

The trade depression returned in 1845 and 1847 was a terrible year. The Manchester Examiner of 15 May 1847 reported

84,000 operatives on short time

24,000 operatives unemployed

77,000 operatives working full time


In March 1848, rioting occurred in Manchester and attacks were made on a workhouse and several mills but this was the work of boys and youths. The Chartist leaders helped the authorities to put down the riots. In April 1848 a series of meetings was held to support the National Petition which was presented to parliament on 10 April and on that day, nearly every Lancashire town held a meeting. After the rejection of the third petition, the bottom fell out of Chartism in Lancashire.

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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