|the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England||
'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.
"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.
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.
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.
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 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."
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—
next: some special conditions
previous: The Pottery Riots of 1842
Chartism in Stoke-on-Trent - Chartism was popular movement in Great Britain from 1838 to 1848 for electoral and social reform.