the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England

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'When I Was a Child' - autobiography of Charles Shaw
a first hand account of life as a child worker in the North Staffordshire
Potteries in the 1840's


Chapter 19 - Joseph Capper Again

next: some special conditions
previous: The Pottery Riots of 1842


Following the riots came the trials, but with these I shall have nothing to do, except as they affected the man I knew and reverenced, "Old Capper." His arrest and imprisonment were among the cruellest things ever done in the name of law. 

This man was never seen near a riot, nor ever commended one. He left the Crown Bank at Hanley on the Monday morning, and was soon busy in his blacksmith's shop. He was busy there too on the Tuesday and Wednesday while such tumult was going on in Hanley and Burslem. 

By no word, fairly interpreted, had he ever encouraged a resort to force. With such evidence as was brought against him he could not be convicted of sedition to-day. Yet the law of sedition, I suppose, is the same now as it was then. The fact is, it was not the judge who tried him who interpreted the law. It was the overpowering sentiment of the middle and upper classes that something must be done, that some signal retribution must be inflicted upon every man who had been at the front in this time of agitation, however sacred his motives, and however noble his endeavours to guide this movement to true patriotic issues. 

A purer and a more loyal patriot did not live in the Queen's realms than "Old Capper." A more God-fearing and man-loving man could not be found in the whole area of the British dominions. Yet this venerable man was taken from his peaceful home and quiet industry as if he were a murderous villain. 

It was such conduct as this, next to the prevailing want of the people, which made them so fiercely disaffected. It was a foolish and wicked thing to sack and burn property, as in those riots, but this infamy was only surpassed by that wild injustice which, in the name of the law, swept into its cruel meshes such men as "Old Capper," and hundreds who were as innocent as he was. He was not the man to shrink from the clear issues of what he advocated. 

But in all the stormy time from 1830 until now his arm had never been raised against any man, nor had he even injured any man's property. If he had believed in physical force and given effect to it, he would never have commanded the respect of his law-abiding neighbours and his political op¬ponents. He was wildly accused with having said in his address of June 26th, "The noble-minded Chartists of Yorkshire and Lancashire have armed themselves, do you likewise, follow their example. Those who cannot afford to get guns must get pikes, and those who cannot afford to get either must get torches." Such words the old man solemnly denied having ever used, and he was able to prove that they were false, and sheer misconstructions of what he had really said. But these perversions were born of heated hostility and of heated imagination, given over to work ruin for the man whose crime was a patriotic sympathy with the great mass of his suffering countrymen. But such malicious mis-statement shows the kind of temper then prevailing on the part of prosecutors.

"Old Capper" was put on his trial in October, and was tried and sentenced to two years' imprisonment for sedition. Again, in 1843, he was Put on his trial for conspiracy, along with Cooper and Richards. The old man defended himself on each occasion, knowing the integrity of his cause, and shrinking from employing anyone who would resort to mere legal artifices to effect his release. 

When he appeared on his second trial, it was seen what ravages had been wrought by the imprisonment he had already undergone, and yet he had only served six months of his two years. He told the Court he had been seriously ill, and that the prison diet "scoured" his inside. Skilly in these days did scour. He complained in this second trial of the great injustice which had been done him on the first trial. He had brought fourteen witnesses to Stafford, and had kept them here for a fortnight to prove that the witnesses against him were forsworn. These witnesses, however, owing to the great expense of his maintaining them so long, and as his case came on the last, were obliged to return home. This misfortune deprived the old man of the evidence of those who knew him well, and who knew what he had said and done. 

He feelingly complained of this injustice done to him on his first trial. As to his preaching from the text "To your tents, O Israel," he did not deny it, but he had dealt with the matter scripturally and not as stated by the witnesses against him. 

For thirty years he had tried in his humble way to do that sort of work, and had never received a sixpence for his service. Referring touchingly to his old friend and neighbour, Dr Davenport, he said, when he saw him in the witness-box, he could not question him as to his (Capper's) character, as he had been so kind to his wife while he had been in prison. He admitted Dr Davenport was an honourable man and a Tory, while he was a Radical. As to the witness Smallwood, he said he had talked of arms, but the only arms he had referred to were arms of flesh and blood, and then the old man, in grave and simple eloquence, referred to what the arms of English workmen had accomplished in every province of industrial activity.

As to his opinions of a reform in Parliament, although he had a vote and two tenants who had votes, yet he thought it wrong that men had not votes instead of houses. He was getting old himself; but he wanted to leave the world better than he found it. He had a poor, aged wife who had gone with him through all his troubles, and whom he esteemed more than all the world. 

Many other things he said forcibly and pathetically, and then drawing himself together for a full and final asseveration, he said he would leave his case now in the hands of the jury. This he would say, he knew nothing of the proceedings of Cooper and Richards and Ellis, nor had he joined them in any conspiracy. All his meetings had been in public, and he had gone to them openly. 

This simple and sincere eloquence powerfully affected many in the court, and moved some to tears. Of course a verdict was given against him as well as against Cooper and Richards, though Capper was recommended to mercy. A sentence of acquittal would have been a miracle of simple justice in such a time and with such a jury; but though virtually acquitted on his second trial, the injustice done him on his first trial was carried out. He served his two years in Stafford Gaol, and at the end of the time came out broken down in health, but strong as ever in the consciousness of his integrity. He was met as he came out of Stafford Gaol by a few friends, and he went on his way home through the Potteries triumphantly applauded by thousands who believed in his perfect innocence of the charge for which he had so cruelly suffered. In all the years of his life after this no man in Tunstall commanded more regard and honour and reverence. His kindliness, his rugged manliness, though now softened by suffering and long experience, won for him an unique position in the esteem of all who knew him. While poor Frith, the tailor, who had done him so much injury, was regarded with general contempt, this brave old man gathered more of regard and affection every year.


In the year 1850, when the Pope issued his famous Bull giving territorial titles to Roman Catholic bishops in this country, there sprang up an excitement all over the land difficult now to understand. Lord John Russell's "Durham letter" sent this excitement into the wildness of ecclesiastical delirium. 

Meetings were held all over the country, and valiant martyrs offered themselves on every hand to die on the altar of "No Popery." The fact is, if the Pope just then had had power to rule matters in England, he would have had to start many Smithfields to burn up these would-be martyrs that were ready for the stake. Fortunately, however, the only burning which ensued was that of the Pope's Bull. 

I remember a great meeting was held in the church school at Tunstall one night in the autumn of 1850. The incumbent of the town and other clergymen were there. Even the Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist ministers were invited to the rare privilege of sitting on the same platform. They must have felt quite in the Apostolic succession just then. The meeting was crammed with enthusiastic opponents of the Church of Rome. The people did not know then that it was the recent developments in the Church of England itself which had led the Pope to that act of aggressiveness now so widely resented. 

A strong resolution against Popery was brought before the meeting, and supported in varying keys of hysterical denunciation. I remember wondering how even the Pope could withstand this torrent of wrath, though the Pope was no more real to me, nor hundreds then present, than the Grand Llama of Thibet. 

A Wesleyan ministerial Boanerges, then stationed in the Tunstall circuit, was "the speaker of the evening." He had a great reputation in the district for his oratory, which was more powerful than finished. He fairly revelled in his subject that evening. He provoked rapturous applause by his rough sarcasm and his thunderous denunciation.

Nothing that I remember in my life equalled it in terror and uselessness, except the incident recorded in The Jackdaw of Rheims. But the most dramatic and crowning event of that meeting was when "Old Capper" rose, amid loud and long-continued applause, "to burn the Pope's Bull." 

The old man stood with beaming face and shining silvery hair. Those ringing cheers were intended to convey more than approval of his present function. They were the triumphant endorsement, on the part of most there, of the noble and patriotic life he had lived. 

Here was a man who, eight years before, had been sentenced to imprisonment for sedition, against whom it had been solemnly sworn that he wished to destroy the Church of England, and yet this same man, six years after he had come out of Stafford Gaol, was received by clergymen and magistrates and the representatives of all the "respectable " people in the town, standing and applauding the old man. When this striking and significant ovation was over, the venerable man said a few simple and earnest words, conveying more than any oratory heard that evening in defence of the faith once delivered to the Saints.

Then, holding up in one hand a copy of the Pope's Bull, and taking in the other hand a candle from the table, he applied the flame to the lower part of the paper. This flame suddenly rose, and so did the cheers of the people. The old blacksmith's hand never shrank from the thin flame of the paper. This was held till the last shred of it fell in a feeble flicker from between his finger and thumb. So also fell, in a short time, that sudden flame of ecclesiastical passion. 

This was "Old Capper's" last famous appearance in the town. On January 1860 he died, and was buried in the graveyard of the church he had helped to build, and whose adherents at one time had been his most relentless enemies. But he had no enemies now. He came to his end full of years, and honoured by the homage of all who knew him best. His life was simple; his aims were noble; and he gently passed in the light of eventide " to where, beyond these voices, there is peace."

The old blacksmith little thought, as he stroked the head of the little waif who was his neighbour, that the boy he told to "be good" would remember, nearly seventy years after, his struggles for liberty and the betterment of his down-trodden countrymen. 

I am sorry the record is so poor and scant. I have never met a man who did more to enrich England with simple ideals of progress, freedom and goodness. In a stormy and terrible time, he never said a word or performed an act which could be challenged today. He told men, who were driven to madness by their wrongs, neither to injure any other man nor destroy his property. He urged them to be sober and industrious. He urged them, by the great memories of England's worthies in the past, to carry forward their noble work, to make their country great and free and good. He was a workman who believed labour to be worship. 

He was a neighbour who believed in charity. He was a patriot who believed the good of his fellow-countrymen was the surest source of their welfare and strength. He was a citizen who saw the greatness and glory of his country must spring from its freedom, its industry and its character. Such were his ideals. To realise them he gave a full-hearted, simple and heroic life, and for all this his country, in a mad hour of frenzy and distortion, banned him, denounced him and imprisoned him. 

Its injustice shattered a strong constitution. It broke his heart through his sorrow for his aged wife in her loneliness, and though he came, in his last days, to the goodwill of his townsmen, his years were burdened and shortened. He knew he had been misunderstood, slandered and unjustly punished, but he was now calmly content to stand among those whom his fellow-prisoner, Thomas Cooper, had described—

"The free of soul with quenchless zeal must ever glow 
To spread the freedom which their own minds know."


next: some special conditions
previous: The Pottery Riots of 1842




Related Pages..

Chartism in Stoke-on-Trent - Chartism was popular movement in Great Britain from 1838 to 1848 for electoral and social reform.


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