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 17 - Joseph Capper of Tunstall

next: The Pottery Riots of 1842
previous: The Sunday School and My Young Life


I must now refer to a most important event which occurred two or three months before I went to the workhouse, an event, too, whose influence in many ways affected all my later life. In August of 1842 the Pottery towns were seething with tumult. This expressed itself in riots in nearly every town, and in a dismay which was one of my earliest, most vivid, and most dread experiences.

I wish, however, before giving my impressions and recollections of this time, to refer to a man who lived a few doors above my own house, in the street where I was born. He had known me all my life, and was in the habit of patting me on the head, stroking my hair, and always telling me to be a good boy. 

To me he looked a much older man than I knew afterwards he really was. He was a stout man, with a round, placid face, a sort of saintly-looking John Bull, rather than of the Boniface type. On Sundays he wore a white cravat, such as was worn by the early Methodist preachers, and some Quakers.


His name was Joseph Capper, and no man in Tunstall was better known or more highly esteemed. Joseph Capper, by a most innocent circumstance, was brought into prominence, by these riots, only next to that of Thomas Cooper, whose trial and imprisonment in Stafford Gaol, and whose writing of his book, The Purgatory of Suicides, in that gaol have made his name famous in connection with those riots. 

Both Cooper and Capper were strongly and capriciously involved in them. Both were Chartists, but not of the "physical force" order of Chartists, though they attended the same meetings and spoke on the same platforms. Both were thinking only of a national movement, the advocacy of "the Charter," when they became entangled with a local movement which brought disaster upon themselves, and hindered the greater cause they had at heart.

In June 1842 there had been a dispute between a local iron and coal master on account of a proposed reduction of wages. This led to a strike, and the strike led to disorderly methods of begging in support of the strikers, and to attempts to stop other miners from working. For two months the whole Pottery towns were seething with agitation, with fear and apprehension. The potters, who always shunned violent methods, as a body shrank from this menacing unrest. The few who were drawn into it were driven probably by desperation. The cry of hunger was then heard in the streets, and in moanings in the homes of many of the people.

When Cooper came to Hanley, probably knowing the extreme tension of feeling in the neighbourhood, he took for his text the Sixth Commandment, "Thou shalt do no murder."

There is another singular coincidence. Cooper went to Hanley to support the "Teetotal Chartists," a mild body of men bent upon seeking the redress of their grievances, and the passing of better laws by all just and reasonable methods. Yet in a few days the so-called Chartists were burning down houses and ransacking wine cellars, and turning their movement for liberty into an orgie of drunkenness.

I have described these events so far, but not how such a man as Joseph Capper became involved in events so alien in their methods to his principles and aims. His character will bear the fiercest light which can be thrown upon it. It is significant that Mr Ward in his History of Stoke-upon-Trent, while strongly marking his condemnation of Cooper and Ellis, has no word of reproof for Joseph Capper.

Joseph Capper was born near Nantwich, in the year 1788. In early life he came to Tunstall, and was destined to make it famous in a famous crisis in his country's history. He had had but little schooling, but he had learned to read his Bible, the sole lesson book of so many poor people in that day. It has been said that he was almost a man of one book. But this one book happened to be the greatest, even as literature, in our language. Capper seemed to have loved its storied pages, its sacred counsels, and its revelation of Divine love. 


Whatever he was, as man and citizen, as patriot and Christian, he was made so by the teachings of his Bible. His ordinary speech got its quaintness and unction and force from its pages. His imagination was stirred and illuminated by its imagery. Neither the schools nor society had tinctured his strong nature. He was a Bible-made man in every function and activity of his life. He was made, as the humbler Puritans were made, without any knowledge, perhaps, of their literature, excepting probably the Pilgrim's Progress. He was as stern as the Puritans were in their love of righteousness and their hatred of tyranny. With less of gloom in the tenets he held, he had broader conceptions of liberty. 


1907 - the Centenary of the first  Mow Cop Primitive Methodist Camp Meeting
1907 - the Centenary of the first  Mow Cop Primitive Methodist Camp Meeting


Perhaps this was because of the Methodist leaven which entered early into his life, for we are told he was one of the first converts in the great Primitive Methodist camp meeting held on Mow Cop in 1807. He afterwards became a local preacher in the same denomination. Primitive Methodism at first was a demand for wider liberty in evangelical methods in preaching out of doors. While it cherished all the fervour of the early Methodists, it resented the restrictions of what were believed to be the hardening and narrowing respectability of the parent body of Methodists. Joseph Capper found in the Primitive Methodist society an atmosphere in which he could breathe more freely and a sphere of labour he loved. He travelled many miles on Sundays, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He was one of the noble band of men in all the Methodist bodies who made heroic self-sacrifices in carrying the Gospel to outlying districts, where, but for their labours, it would hardly ever have been heard, and certainly not heard with the fervour and simplicity with which they preached it. This habit of life was the reason why, in later days, finding the clergy among his bitterest political opponents, he so strongly girded at them and told them to preach for nothing, as he did.


Joseph Capper was a blacksmith by trade, and his shop was one of the most prominent places in the town in those days. It stood just past the lower corner of the market-place, and in the upper part of High Street. He was strenuously industrious, a capital workman, and just in his transactions. He was employed even by Mr Kynnersley of Kidsgrove, one of the largest Tory employers in the district.

In 1832, when the new church at Tunstall was built, he was engaged to furnish the ironwork for the steeple, though for this particular work he was not fully paid until 1843. Near his shop, higher up in High Street, and on the opposite side of the street, stood the "Lamb Inn." This was one of the favourite resorts of the local aristocracy, for attendance at the "Lamb" was a patent of the highest respectability. Many sneers and much badinage did the patient blacksmith get from these gentlemen. 

Their jeering, however, fell harmlessly upon this sturdy soul. Besides his Sunday preachings he preached on week, evenings, and attended other meetings, all of them devoted to uplifting his fellow-men in the way he deemed best. By his diligence in business he was comfortable in his worldly affairs. 

Mr Ward relates that in 1816 Tunstall began to develop most rapidly, even amazingly so, and that the principal inhabitants held some meetings to concert measures how best to promote general good order and tranquillity, and stop the increase of drunkenness. It may be safely assumed that in this work Joseph Capper would be an ardent supporter. 


Houses in Piccadilly Street, Tunstall in about 1955
Houses in Piccadilly Street, Tunstall in about 1955

Joseph Capper owned one of these houses which
meant that he was qualified to vote 


When a building society in the town in the same year was started by some working potters, Capper joined them. In this he showed his social insight and thrift. A row of houses was built by this society, and Capper became the owner of two of them. The street thus formed was called Piccadilly. I don't know why such an aristocratic name was given to a place made for working men, except that in those days the working classes had "a sneaking liking" for the names and ways of their betters. In one of those houses, sixteen years later, I was born, and Joseph Capper was the most familiar figure to me in our street. His stalwart figure, his broad, beaming face and his ever kindly smile and word for children made him attractive and beloved.



Joseph Capper was a considerable figure in this agitation. It was an epoch movement in the history of the country. Capper was not only now qualified to vote on any reasonable franchise, but he thought he saw a new time of liberty and justice arising for his poorer countrymen. 

He was no mere middle-class seeker for his own order. His larger soul sought a wider freedom for all. In the election of 1832, under the New Reform Act, there was a Radical candidate, Mr George Myles Mason, and Joseph Capper made three speeches in one day on his behalf in Hanley, Burslem and Tunstall. How he spoke on those occasions the following brief record will show. 

"Mr Capper of Tunstall then came forward, and said he hoped the gentlemen electors of Burslem had made up their minds to give their vote and support to Mr Mason, a man whom he highly recommended as deserving their warmest support." 

He then went into a long history of the origin and conduct of the aristocracy and clergy of the country, whom, he said, "were all sprung from the same class as themselves—a class which, since they had got into different stations, they had endeavoured to oppress. He was bitter against the persons who ground them with tithes and rates. He said the parsons should do as he did, preach for nothing, he being a Primitive Methodist." 

This account is all too brief, but it shows the fundamental and vital lines along which the mind of the blacksmith travelled. 

Probably he had never heard of the "mad priest," John Ball, who, as Green says, first made England listen "to the declaration of the rights of man." "Good people," said Ball, "if we all came of the same father and mother—Adam and Eve—how can they say or prove that they are better than we, if it be not that they make us gain for them by our toil what they spend in their pride ?" 

Green says, "The popular rhyme which condensed the levelling doctrine of John Ball, 'when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?' was fatal to the whole spirit of the Middle Ages." 

Joseph Capper, by native insight, grasped this doctrine, and preached it in vindication of wider liberty for the poorest of his countrymen. This was the style of speaking adopted by Capper through the Reform Bill agitation. That agitation was no time for prim arguments, or well-cut conventionalities, or delicate phrases. It was a struggle with ancient oppressions, supported by every form of corruption and menace which wealth and position could employ. There were times when gentle ladies as well as haughty gentlemen touched pitch, "and this pitch, as ancient writers do report, doth defile." The highest stooped to defilement in that mighty struggle, and therefore we must not expect this sturdy blacksmith to mince his words. His tongue was like the sledge-hammer he used in his shop.

There was now before him the glowing opinion of his countrymen, heated seven times hotter than its wont, and the blacksmith struck with all his might to shape it to the form of freedom and justice. Because he so struck, he was a power at every meeting. His influence was felt far and wide, and he was the acknowledged leader of the hopes and aspirations of the masses. But powerful as he was, he could not do what was impossible. While he could carry the multitude, he could not break down the innate conservatism of the middle classes. So Mr Mason, the Radical candidate, was defeated, the two Tory candidates heading the poll.

Deep and loud was the disappointment of the working classes. In their wild frenzy they committed regrettable acts of outrage. They felt that the energy they had spent in getting the Reform Bill passed had led to their betrayal. They felt that they had put power into the hands of those who despised them, and they came to regard the Reform Act as a boon simply for the middle classes. Capper did not entertain this view, but vented his wrath against those he believed to be the real enemies of his country. 

The aristocracy and the clergy came in regularly for his satire, his wit, and his hostility. While making his audiences laugh at his opponents, he would send them away with deepened aversion for those they believed to be the real foes of progress. No man had a sunnier face, a readier wit, a pleasanter humour; but all these were employed to convince his hearers, and through their amusement there ran a deep fiery current of conviction.

In the reactionary disappointment following the Reform Act Chartism arose. "The six heads of the Charter" made very clear the demands of the unenfranchised people. The "heads" were all political, not social, as the Labour Party now demands. 

The principles of the Charter Capper warmly espoused. Unfortunately, the supporters of the Charter were divided into physical force men, and those who believed in the force of their principles. It was easy, therefore, in a tumult and riot, such as soon followed, to confound a man like Capper with those who openly and wickedly broke the law. 

This confusion was greedily sought by his enemies, and relentlessly used against him. He was the leading spirit of many Chartist meetings. His vigour was perennial, and, in spite of advancing years, he gave himself to the cause which carried the promise of political redemption. 

At a meeting held in Tunstall market-place, on the 24th June 1842, Capper, with other local leaders, and especially Ellis, who figured so disastrously at the Assizes following the riots, was, as usual, the most prominent speaker. 

He had brought with him a stool from his shop, and on this stool he announced as his text, "To your tents, O Israel." This old Biblical rallying cry was followed by earnest and impressive words. 

He said they must have the Charter, although, he supposed, they would bring the red-coated gentry to stop them, but there was sufficient strength among the people to defeat their base tyrants and the soldiers too. 

He recommended the working men to arm themselves, as a great struggle would certainly take place shortly, when the people would have to fight for their political rights. 

The day, he went on to say, was close at hand when the people must make laws themselves, for their tyrants were deaf to all their petitions.



Crown Bank was the site of Chartist Meetings and speeches
Crown Bank, Hanley - 1893

Crown Bank was the site of Chartist Meetings and speeches


It is easy to see how these words could be misconstrued; but Capper never provided arms in the sense of his accusers, and, on the night when he was arrested in his own house, there was no weapon available but the stout fist of his stalwart son. 

This arrest took place on the Sunday evening following the riots of August the 15th and 16th. Capper had attended Cooper's great meeting on the 15th at the Crown Bank, Hanley. 

He had urged the people resolutely but peaceably to seek their rights, and then he had gone back to his shop.

But while he was working, those whom Cooper and he had addressed were rioting and destroying property. During that terrible week the old man was let alone, and he never suspected what was coming against him. 

From the platform at Hanley he had returned to his anvil at Tunstall. No word of his had been meant to awaken a guilty passion. Through the week he had toiled hard, deeply and quietly grieving, no doubt, for the terrible things which had been done, that had come of the passion and madness produced by galling wrongs and sufferings, which had become unendurable, or by the villainy which revels in mischief for its own sake. 

But Joseph Capper was neither a madman nor a villain. Even the men who were the most opposed to his political principles, men like Dr Davenport or Mr Kynnersley, would have discarded such epithets as applied to Joseph Capper. 

The Sabbath following the riot week, no doubt, came to this man with a deeper pensiveness on account of the sad events which had occurred, but, for himself, no reproach darkened his conscience, no sense of guilty responsibility shadowed for a moment the clear light of that holy day.

On Sunday evening, August 21st, he had been to chapel, and probably no one there had prayed with deeper fervour for the healing of the sorrows and troubles of the time. Then, after service, he wended his way home, and, in the soft evening light, engaged in reading his Bible to his wife and son and daughter, who were joining him as usual in "family worship." That Sunday evening's devotion rivalled, in its peaceable and holy elements, "The Cottar's Saturday night." 

But this touching scene was soon transformed into one of confusion and terror. Four men burst into his house most unceremoniously. "Well, gentlemen," said the old man, "what is your will?" 

Two of them rudely seized him, and said, "You are the man we want, Joseph Capper." His son, a man I well remember, lithe of limb and with more than ordinary muscular force, with one swinging blow laid poor Frith, a local tailor and draper, on the floor. 

It was a rash act; but for such a father such a son may be excused under such sudden exasperation. Frith lay beneath the terrible fist of the son, and but for the father's quiet word he would probably have soon had companions in his humiliation.

This man was one of the principal witnesses afterwards against the old man. Poor Frith; I have often wondered how he would look with his buckram manners as he lay there on the floor. The suppleness of his tailor's body was hidden beneath a perky and affected mannerism. He strutted in a way that was an outward and visible sign of his inward attempt to be like "his betters." Like many others, he only understood what it was to be respectable, and anyone who attacked respectability, as it existed before his eyes, was his enemy. 

He had heard old Capper speak at the meeting in June of arming for a great struggle, and as this could mean nothing to his mind but physical violence, he swore with all the strength of which his nature was capable.

The old man quietly surrendered to his captors. That August evening, in its quiet beauty, presented a perfect contrast to the tumult and excitement which prevailed as old Capper was led through the market-place, past his own workshop, his old wife and son and daughter following, accompanied by a sympathetic crowd. Poor Frith strutted along with more than the pomp of a judge. 

Capper was taken to Newcastle-under-Lyme for safety, and next morning he was committed for trial on charges of sedition, conspiracy, and rioting, Frith being the principal witness, and Frith knowing, whatever else he knew, that Capper was as innocent of rioting as he himself was. Capper's son was charged too, the same morning, with assaulting Frith, but the magistrates only gave this pompous patriot the meagre consolation of binding his assailant over to keep the peace.

I must leave old Capper now until the sequence of events brings him again to the front in the issues following the riots.


next: The Pottery Riots of 1842
previous: The Sunday School and My Young Life




Related Pages..

Tunstall Building Society - A Building Society, begun in 1816, and of which many of the working Potters were members, gave rise to forty small houses, and the formation of two new streets, called Paradise Street, and Piccadilly.

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

Jeremiah Yates - Potteries Chartist.

Mow Cop and Primitive Methodism 

also see... 

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