This weekend the Yorkshire town of Halifax commemorates the great strike of 1842 organised by the Chartists. John Westmorland looks at this movement and its lessons for today
The reasons for reading and writing about any historical period change according to the political context of the present and the political outlook of the historian. The study of Chartism is no different. Historians invested in the politics of Labour, the Communist Party and the authentic Marxist tradition have ploughed and re-ploughed this field of study.
The crisis of capitalism today makes the study of a mass political movement that was thoroughly anti-capitalist and brought millions of workers across the nation into struggle compelling.
The political context today is one of growing working class opposition to neoliberal capitalism that has sought to destroy the welfare state through cuts and privatisation, leaving workers at the mercy of the market.
Neoliberalism is so-called because it idealises early Victorian capitalism as innovative and dynamic, and which gave Britain its Second Empire and made it the ‘workshop of the world’.
The Chartists fought against this original incarnation of capitalism that saw women and children worked (often literally) to death in mine and mill; that sentenced the poor to imprisonment in the workhouse; and used troops to brutalise those who fought back. Workers homes were mostly cramped, filthy and cheerless, thrown up around the factories they worked in.
Then as now the fightback was inevitable.
The Chartists made six political demands in the Charter for working class political representation, and this was the centre piece of their agitation. The Charter gained support from towns and districts, chapel congregations and trade unions. The social ills that workers faced were to be remedied by political action. Manhood suffrage; the secret ballot; the abolition of property qualifications for MPs; payment of MPs; equal electoral districts; and annual elections attacked the political constitution that allowed capital to exercise a tyranny over labour.
This was a political campaign to wrest power from the Whigs (Liberals) who owned the factories, and the aristocratic Tories who often owned mines, harbours and quarries, and who, along with the financiers in the City of London, the Church and the monarchy formed the oligarchy that still governs today.
Inherent in the demands of the Charter was the belief that working class people were in no way inferior to their lords and masters, and indeed were morally superior to them.
Uniting the movements
The roots of Chartism are many and the Charter came to act as a political spearhead that the various movements could unite around.
Through the 1820s and in the build up to the passing of the 1832 ‘Great’ Reform Act the struggle for political reform had often been led by middle class radicals whose aim had been to draw in the working classes in a supporting role. This model had been used in the campaign to abolish the slave trade. This method allowed some of the vilest capitalists, such as Jonathan Akroyd, the Halifax mill owner, to stand on campaigning platforms with working class radicals.
Campaigns for the ten hour working day, the ending of child labour, the repeal of the Corn Laws, the campaign against short-time working in the mill towns, opposition to the 1834 Poor Law and campaigns in solidarity with Irish and Canadian rebels fighting against ‘Whig tyranny’ all ended up with some of their numbers supporting the Charter.
The triumph of Chartism as a unifier was not inevitable, it had to be fought for. Chartists stood for election, and went on platforms with capitalist scoundrels, to expose them and the corruption of their system and insist that workers would never subordinate their interests to the political aspirations of the middle classes.
Sometimes mill owners had to face the indignity of their own employees standing against them.
The drive for a genuine workers’ campaign was in part derived from Chartist leaders like Feargus O’Connor and his Northern Star but also came from the workers themselves. Debates about ‘moral force’ tactics and ‘physical force tactics’ were inevitable in a democratic movement.
The presentation of the Chartist petitions to parliament were a demand for the government to act for the people it governed rather than just the ruling class, and if they couldn’t concede this basic democratic demand they, the Chartists, would exercise their innate democratic right to protest.
Learning from the struggle
That the Chartists could not defeat the military was proved in the 1839 Newport Rising that saw some 22 Chartists killed, and the leaders charged with treason, and subsequently sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. The sentence was later commuted to transportation to Australia and Tasmania.
To northern Chartists their Welsh comrades who fought at Newport were heroes whose memory they cherished and whose behaviour many were prepared to emulate. As industrial unrest gathered pace after 1839 troops were sent north from London. Many northern Chartists, while strongly expressing the desire to avoid violence, prepared for a fight.
It is remarkable that within three years of the debacle at Newport the Chartists were ready to fight again. The release of Chartist leaders from prison coincided with a strike movement, first of colliers and associated trades in the Black Country, then of cotton spinners in Lancashire.
By 1842 the mood for action was reaching boiling point after the mill owners in Lancashire responded to an economic downturn by demanding wage cuts of up to twenty five per cent.
Economic and political struggle
Many historians have characterised the strikes of 1842 as being spontaneous. They argue that an economic downturn and aggressive employers demanding wage cuts sparked a wave of protest that soon mushroomed to include other groups of workers. The Chartists were thought to have responded after the event.
However, Dorothy Thompson in her magnificent book The Chartists shows this not to be the case. Thompson’s analysis has an echo of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Mass Strike in that it unpicks the way that economic demands stimulated political demands.
At mass meetings of workers in Manchester and other Lancashire towns Chartists were often present and given the platform, even if they were from out of town and from a different trade. Records of meetings where the purpose of the strikes were discussed show that very often support for the Charter was seen as being more important than the fight for wages.
Thompson revealed this through detailed examination of court records involving the testimony of employers and special constables at the trial of Chartists in the year ahead.
A pensioner, Benjamin Dunkerley from Rochdale, spoke for the majority when he told the crowd ‘they could not have a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s labour without the Charter’. And this sentiment was repeated over and over. The race to the bottom could only be prevented through connecting workers’ power to political action.
As well as the Chartists being key agitators in the strikes in Lancashire, when the strikers crossed the Pennines the ‘turn-outs’ of the Yorkshire mills was also at the direction of the Chartists.
Dorothy Thompson’s analysis was based on her complete rejection of Chartism as being nothing more than a reaction to hardships, as right wing historians like to claim – ‘a knife and fork’ question.
Thompson reveals the multi-faceted humanity of these working class actors – their Chartist hymns and poetry; their thirst for knowledge and theory; their uncompromising solidarity; and their compassionate engagement with their fellow workers. Little wonder that it was Dorothy Thompson who revealed the role of women Chartists too, as real active class fighters.
When the strikers reached Halifax it was noted that it was the women who directed the strikers to the mills that were still working. Women were the mainstay of the Yorkshire Anti-Poor Law Committees, and in the strikes were the organisers of ‘exclusive trading’ that blacked shop keepers in league with the enemy.
The showdown between the strikers and the government was to be settled in Halifax.
In August 1842 the Lancashire strikers flowed into the Yorkshire valleys pulling the plugs from boilers after the workers turned out, ending production. The Chartists made sure that Yorkshire workers were turned out for the Charter. Chartist placards were posted prominently.
“Englishmen, the blood of your brethren reddens the streets of Preston and Blackburn, and the murderers thirst for more … The cotton-workers have taken the lead in declaring for the Charter. Follow their example …”
The magistrates saw the unfolding events as an insurrection. In Halifax some 1305 special constables were sworn in.
At dawn on August 15th an excited crowd – hearing that the approach of the strikers was imminent – assembled on Skircoat Moor.
At Akroyd’s mill troops had been deployed. The women moved to the front of the throng and an account of the confrontation tells us:
“The thousands of female turn-outs were looked upon with some commiseration by the inhabitants, as many were poorly clad and marching barefoot. When the Riot Act was read … a large crowd of these women, who stood in front of the magistrates and the military, loudly declared that they had no homes, and dared them to kill them if they liked.”
The crowds were overwhelmingly peaceful and joyous and filled with hope. The throng from Lancashire was met by a contingent of over four thousand from Bradford.
“The sight was just one of those which it is impossible to forget. They came pouring down the wide road in thousands, taking up its whole breadth – a gaunt, famished-looking, desperate multitude armed with huge bludgeons, flails, pitch forks and pikes, many without coats and hats, and hundreds upon hundreds with their clothes in rags and tatters. Many of the older men looked footsore and weary, but the great bulk were men in the prime of life, full of wild excitement. As they marched, they thundered out … a stirring melody …”
The troops read the Riot Act which was a necessary legal precaution before the blood-letting. Their attempts to stop the various contingents from converging proved fruitless. The forces of reaction were mainly subjected to ridicule, and although there were skirmishes they managed to arrest a number of Chartist leaders.
Most of the strikers and Chartists spent the night on the moors above the town.
In the morning the Chartists planned to free their arrested comrades but they arrived in town after the prisoners had been put on the train to Wakefield. At Salterhebble Hill the troops were ambushed as they marched back to town. A bombardment with rocks and bricks left at least eight of them injured.
The troops now had the excuse to use unremitting violence. Fleeing men and women were pursued by sabre wielding Hussars across moors and fields. Indiscriminate firing claimed a number of townsfolk. It was reported that the police station looked more like a hospital after the mutilated workers under arrest were admitted.
The Halifax Rising was over but Chartism was not finished and would fight on into the 1850s. The Chartists had a massive effect on the state and the politics of the ruling class. The use of troops was rightly seen as a major provocation that encouraged militarism among militant workers. A modern police force was slowly developed and the first steps to a well organised surveillance state.
Workers organisations that showed signs of respectability were offered the protection of the law and incorporated into the established order. In 1871 trade unions and trade union activity were legalised after the formation of the TUC in 1868.
The ruling class learned the lessons of 1842.
Lessons for today
We have some lessons to learn too. Schools and universities teach Chartism as a curiosity on the evolutionary road of progress – and a curiosity that failed.
Yet the Chartists were spectacularly successful.
The left today can only dream of leading 50,000 workers onto the moors of Lancashire and Yorkshire for a mass meeting. The Chartist arguments against the tyranny of the free market, the corruption inherent in a capitalist constitution, and the desperate need of workers for education and political engagement are something workers today need to become familiar with.
Above all, in the absence of a functioning Labour movement, the Chartists gave disparate working class struggles a unity of purpose, and a political ideal to fight for. At the end of the day the Chartists only declined because they fought in a period of early capitalist growth, where workers’ lives gained incremental benefits from partial struggles against capital.
We face a capitalist system that is decayed and dysfunctional and where a united fightback can deliver much more than the six points of the Charter. The job of the left is to connect the struggles of today and get the workers to punch together.
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John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
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