The Chartists were a radical political movement of the first half of the 19th century, demanding reform of Parliament, Though they never preached revolutionary violence, they were associated with a number of incidents between 1839 and 1846. They never achieved much; their main importance being that they were the first genuinely working-class political movement in British history; and as such were hailed by Engels.
1842 was a year of economic depression, which led to renewed Chartist agitation, and also to outbreaks of industrial trouble in many areas, which were awarded the good journalistic name of the “Plug Plot” - referring to attempts to force works to close by knocking out the plugs on the steam-boilers. I want to focus here in what happened in North Staffordshire.
On May 21st the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor visited Stoke. He addressed crowd of 1500, then led a procession through town and held an evening meeting. He attributed distress to financial problems caused by Napoleonic Wars, 30 years earlier, and the only economic nostrum he offered was cultivation of unused land (in which we find the origins of the Allotments movement). One sees how O’Connor gained the reputation of being an ineffective windbag. He said nothing which could be deemed a call to violent revolution, but violence did follow.
There were to be serious disturbances in and around Stoke-on-Trent that summer, involving the colliers and various other trades suffering unemployment or hardship. According to the local paper, the “Stafford Advertiser”, troubles began on July 11th. A miners’ usual pay was 3 shillings and 6 pence for a working day of 10 ½ hours, with an allowance of free coal; but now Sparrow’s works in Longton announced a reduction of wages to 3 shillings [15p] a day, pleading that their prices were being undercut and they could not afford more. The workers refused to accept this and went on strike.
The dispute quickly spread through the coalmines and ironworks of the Potteries, to Silverdale, Kidsgrove and as far as Cheadle. Some firms prudently shut up shop, and others were forced to close by threats of violence to managers and unco-operative workers, and some damage to machinery. There were several mass meetings, addressed by Chartist orators. Staffordshire had as yet no county police force: instead the magistrates had to call out the Yeomanry (a volunteer militia on horseback) and requested the assistance of regular troops. In the meantime, “the most respectable inhabitants” of the Potteries were sworn in as special constables.
During the second half of July things were generally quiet, though Apedale Hall at Chesterton, the home of Richard Heathcote, a coal owner, was besieged for a while. Companies of infantry and dragoons arrived in Stoke, and a few men were convicted of rioting, receiving short prison sentences of two or three months. Most collieries remained closed, with the miners demanding pay of 4 shillings a day, but a few had returned to work. Then, suddenly, the situation boiled over in the second and third weeks of August.
Trouble first broke out in Burslem. Four men had been arrested, but were promptly freed by a mob armed with pickaxes, who then proceeded to smash the windows of the town hall. The George Inn was then trashed and plundered, followed by the home of Mr Riles, the superintendent of police, and other houses. By the time the soldiers arrived the rioters had dispersed.
The peak of the violence came in Hanley on Monday, August 15th. A mob said to number several thousand first freed their comrades from the town lockup, then ransacked the police station, scattering its papers. They then moved on to the Court of Requests at Shelton Bridge, where books and documents were seized and thrown into the canal. Attacks then followed all over the Potteries. The windows of Stoke police station were smashed, and the homes of Mr Allin at Fenton and Mr Rose, a magistrate, at Penkhull were looted. At Longton the town hall and police station were attacked, and the Reverend Dr Vale, Rector of Longton, had his house ransacked and his furniture and books carried out and burnt on a bonfire. Many women came on the scene and were reported to have drunk themselves insensible on Dr Vale’s looted wine. Albion House in Old Hall Street, Shelton (which is now part of Hanley), the home of the magistrate Mr William Parker, was plundered and then set on fire, as was that of the Reverend Mr Aitkins, vicar of Hanley, who saw his extensive library destroyed.
No apparent effort was made by the authorities to put out these fires, and it seems that the troops were always a couple of steps behind the rioters. The dragoons were, however, ready the next day, the 16th, when a Chartist meeting was held in Hanley, and a mob from Leek was reported to be marching in through Smallthorne. The Riot Act was read, stones were thrown at the troops and shots were fired; one man was killed and a number wounded. An inquest was heard the next day, in the course of which the coroner, Mr Harding, learnt that his house had been set on fire!
Then, for no clear reason, the violence subsided as quickly as it had begun. There remained merely the tidying-up. Damage was estimated at over £10,000, including £4,000 at Mr Parker’s house, £2,000 at the Reverend Mr Aitkins’s vicarage and £1500 at Dr Vale’s. A special commission was set up to try rioters. These included Joseph Capper, a blacksmith from Tunstall, who was charged with sedition resulting from a meeting back in June, and William Ellis, a potter from Burslem and a Chartist lecturer, who was charged with treason. Altogether 54 men were sentenced to transportation (11 of them for life), 153 imprisoned, and 66 acquitted or discharged. The solitary dead man, who had been shot through the head by the troops at Burslem on the 16th, proved to be Josiah Henry, a shoemaker from Leek, aged just 19 but already a widower and a father of three.
These disturbances were in fact typical of riots which had been taking place in England since the mid- 18th century; and by this time seem curiously anachronistic. The causes were always economic, resulting from trade slumps which led to pressure on wages and on living standards, but only irrelevant political solutions were offered. The rioters never killed anyone in these occasions, and here in Stoke the only fatal casualty was the man shot by the troops - unless we include Thomas Adkins, a sawyer from Lane End, who died of alcoholic poisoning after drinking too much stolen liquor. On the other hand the rioters, as always, caused a great deal of damage to property, targeting their attacks on symbols of authority and the homes of unpopular people. No one, least of all the Chartist leaders, had any kind of revolutionary strategy. The demands of the rioters, as in the previous century, were essentially conservative, centring on restoring old rates of pay and prices. No-one as yet had any concept of “workers’ control”.
Nor had methods of riot control changed much over the decades. True, soldiers could now reach a town by train in a few hours, but once they were there, communications and troop movements could proceed no faster than a man on horseback - or, more likely in a conurbation like Stoke, no faster than a man on foot. Furthermore, soldiers with only slow-loading single-shot weapons had little advantage over a rampaging mob. Over the next half century, everything would change: government would become much more powerful and society would become much more peaceful, but also theories of revolution would be developed, and the huge pointless destructive 18th century style riots would become a thing of the past. (In any case, British riots were sedate affairs compared with contemporary disturbances in New York, where Negroes were tortured and murdered, and unpopular men had their eyes gouged out. Full gruesome details can be found in Herbert Asbury's "Gangs of New York", from which the film of the same title was, rather loosely, derived)
It is astonishing to learn that, even after this experience, there was still opposition amongst the ruling classes to Staffordshire having its own county police force. The creation of one was being discussed in Parliament at this very time, but in October Lord Sandon voted in the House of Lords that such a force should function only in the urban areas, not in the rural districts. As late as this, the great landowners still resented any loss of their local power.
The 1842 riots are the scene for Benjamin Disraeli’s novel “Sybil; or the Two Nations”, published in 1845 (the “two nations” being, as Disraeli explains, “THE RICH AND THE POOR”, putting these words in block capitals to make sure that the reader gets the message. The novel focuses on the Black Country around Birmingham rather than the Potteries, and climaxes with the sacking and burning of the stately home of the unpopular nobleman, Lord de Mowbray, by a mob of coalminers and metalworkers from Willenhall (which Disraeli calls “Wodgate”). Perhaps unexpectedly for a future Conservative Prime Minister, Disraeli sympathises with his working-class characters, and his Chartist leaders are portrayed as heroic figures. (See my separate entry on Disraeli’s novel)
(My thanks to the staff of the William Salt Library, Stafford, for their help in researching this piece)