|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 18 - The Pottery Riots of 1842
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These began at Hanley on the 15th of August 1842. A strike of colliers had occurred some weeks before. This event had deepened and intensified the general discontent and poverty of the whole district. People in large numbers were living on the verge of starvation. Some praiseworthy efforts were made to relieve this distress, but these were fitful and narrow in their scope. The only sure source of relief offered was one repulsive to the bulk of the sufferers—"The Bastile." To this many were driven by dire necessity. I cannot but think of the contrast afforded between the time I am now referring to and the condition of things to-day.
I am now writing in a district where a strike or a lock-out has existed for twenty weeks. During this time thousands of pounds have been contributed to the relief of the suffering, so much so that very few cases of deep need exist. Fifty years ago I could have found more acute suffering in a population of 7000 inhabitants than I can see to-day in moving among a population of 160,000.
So much for the difference caused by a beneficent and Christian Socialism.
At the time of which I write there was no such Socialism. The time of figs was not yet. There was rather a determination "to put down" the masses. The people, nevertheless, were willing to work. They were even anxious to work, as some years previously trade in the Potteries had been in a fairly flourishing condition, so far as the constancy of it had been concerned. With plenty of trade, however, the long hours of labour had tended to lengthen. Wages remained scanty, and as there was no effective trade-unionism the workers did not share in the improved profits, but simply got more abundant toil.
When slackness came again, as it did about 1839, with this slackness came attempts even to reduce wages, increasing poverty and increasing exasperation of the people went hand in hand. This state of things produced a general condition of mind favourable to any change. Hopeless poverty is a fruitful soil for revolution. Chartism, just then rising into notoriety in the country, professed to be able to show the sure way to beneficent changes.
There was another cause which helped on the general discontent. While the employers were becoming increasingly rampant in their exactions, pressing the utmost hours of labour at the lowest prices, there were increasing signs on every hand of their growing wealth. Men who, a few years before, had been themselves workmen or small manufacturers were now becoming large manufacturers, building big houses, and surrounding themselves with luxuries and elegancies, which were the sure signs of growing wealth. These signs were coincident with the pleading of manufacturers of the need for lower wages. The result was a deepening sullenness, a deepening defiance over the whole district. This was the common mood when "the six points of the Charter'' were brought forth like so many radiant finger-posts, pointing the people to a Land of Promise near at hand.
These were the conditions prevailing
when the colliers' strike occurred in July 1842. The effect of this strike was to stop many of the pot-works for want of coal, and thus to aggravate the general distress and disaffection.
After Thomas Cooper's harangues at the Crown Bank, Hanley, on the 14th of August, and on the following morning, at the same place, his fervid denunciation of the people's oppressors acted like a fell inspiration in the hearts of his hearers.
But in Hanley another attack was being made upon the parsonage of the Rev. R. E. Aitkens. Here, unfortunately, more beer and wines were found, and the desperate men who drank them were ready for any villainy. This house was set on fire and its contents destroyed. From this house they went to Lawyer Parker's, and his house was soon wrapped in flames. The same fate befel the house of Mr Bailey Rose, the stipendiary magistrate.
Cooper was unfortunate in his time rather than in his method of advocacy. He was equally ardent in his later days, but in 1843 the "schoolmaster" had not been abroad. The ignorance of those days—the direct product of such government as the people had had for generations—was responsible for the mischief which followed, and not Cooper's smiting the wrongs under which the people suffered.
This day's work at Hanley and elsewhere on the 15th of August was a grim preparation for the following morning at Burslem. Crowds of men, with large sticks in their hands, and some, it is said, with blackened faces, marched upon Burslem. Perhaps the blackened faces were those of unwashed colliers, whose desperation had made them regardless of their toilet that morning, and for many mornings before. The mob, thousands strong, marched along singing the Chartists' hymn of the day—
"The lion of freedom's let loose from his den,
The rough rhyme suited the rough singers on their desperate march. Arriving at the Swan Square in Burslem, they found another mob breaking into the George Inn. This place was forced, the cellars invaded, and drink again consumed to give a fiercer fury to those who had shared in it. These two mobs having united, were attacked by a number of soldiers, but only using the flat sides of their swords. This looked like a friendly warning on the part of the military—like the gleaming of teeth which could bite in case of need.
John & Thomas Wedgwood's "Big House"
Confusion and noise prevailed everywhere, but the crowd driven away in one direction returned in another.
Burslem market-place had many outlets, and these enabled the people to baffle somewhat the attacks of the soldiers. Some of these got separated in the roads, and were maltreated. This small success of the crowd fired them with greater daring, and sticks and stones were used with reckless courage.
But above the uproar of this conflict in the marketplace there came the piercing sounds from a band marching along Moorland Road. Soon there was a cry, "They are coming from Leek," and a wild shout of "Hooray." This movement led the soldiers to leave the market-place, and gallop towards the "Big House" at the Moorland Road entrance to the town.
This new mob came on, composed of weavers from Leek, Congleton and Macclesfield. The poor wretches, from all accounts, did not present a very formidable aspect. They were mostly half-dressed and half-starved. The only really vigorous men among them were a few agricultural labourers whom they had picked up on the way. Many of them carried thick sticks and thin arms.
Others mustered all the stones they could carry in torn aprons and handkerchiefs. They were a motley crew, pale-faced, and cadaverous looking. Near where they entered the town the special constables stood, and it is questionable which had the paler faces, the new crowd or these defenders of law and order. Major Powys demanded when he went out to these men what they wanted.
Major Powys, soldier-like, gave voice to the gibbering respectabilities when he said, "assembling in a disorderly mob is not the way to get your rights and liberties. I entreat you to disperse and go quietly to your homes."
This advice was received with mocking and defiant yells. Major Powys did not tell these men how to get their rights and liberties. They had tried to get them by more orderly agitation for twelve years and failed. He told them to go quietly to their homes. But let it be remembered what many of those homes were. They were places robbed of nearly all the elements which make home. They were places where they saw the pinched faces of wives and children, and heard cries for food which they could not supply. To reason thus with these men was quite "proper" for a military magistrate, but it can be seen now that to take such advice would have been a miracle of self-restraint, and such miracles are not wrought by the grace of starvation.
That yell of defiance which rose from the crowd in response to Major Powys's words was not wholly of the devil's inspiration. Violence had been done to the rights and liberties of these men as wicked as the violence which was now provoked. "To destroy life and property" is as stupid as it is iniquitous, but let us recognise that it is equally stupid and iniquitous to provoke a destroying desperation. This had been done, cruelly and persistently done.
Major Powys did not know that those he represented were primarily responsible for all the terrible possibilities which were before him in that awful hour. But the crowd knew this, and hence the loud mockery which followed his little preachment.
They were vain words, and they were followed by equally vain actions. Showers of stones were hurled at the soldiers, and the mob pressed forward, and those in front touched the horses' heads. It was now clearly seen that this seething mass of desperation must be resisted.
The confusion was complete. Maddened and still desperate, the crowd broke and fled in different directions. Standing against the gate-post of the "Big House" was a young fellow from Leek, and it was said he had a stick in one hand and a stone in the other. It was also said on the very day of this riot that he was not taking part in it, but was one of those men whose curiosity will take a man to the very verge of peril. However this may be, the blood of the soldiers was up, and this youth's brains were blown out against the gate-post. He fell dead on the footpath, and military valour had secured one fatal trophy, such as it was.
As Lowell says in his " Ode to France,"—
This charge, and the firing of the muskets which I heard a short distance away, was what led me to run off to the Burslem market-place. I was playing in a field on the side of the New Road, leading from Burslem to Tunstall. When I neared the town I met numbers of stragglers fleeing in terror from what they had seen and felt. Some of these had portions of their clothes torn off in the scramble to get out of the crowd, and were only half dressed.
It was a grim sight, and yet it furnished plenty of food for laughter. This was not wanting on the part of cool and curious folks who had not been in the fray. In the streams of people I met some were limping through small wounds they had received, or through injury from the terrible crush in which they had been carried along.
Nearly all were rushing down the New Road as if they were pursued by wild beasts. Just outside the town I came upon a man and woman who were excitedly relating the perils and sufferings through which they had passed. The man was a little cobbler whom I knew well as a Tunstall man. I don't know how it was, but in those days cobblers were nearly always in front, upholding the law as constables or breaking it as reformers or rioters.
Near to the cobbler stood a woman who had been wounded in the leg. This wound had evidently been the result of a spent bullet as she was moving away with the crowd. Her dress was badly torn, and she looked as if she had been rolled down the shord-ruck on the New Road from Burslem. She, too, had her story to tell, but it was interrupted with so many hysterical outbursts and digressions that it would have puzzled a shorthand writer to have given a clear and connected account of it.
Not deterred by these visible terrors I pushed on to the Burslem market-place.
The sight which presented itself was confusing and bewil¬dering in the extreme. It was evident that masses of people had remained stolidly defiant or curious even after the fatal charge by the soldiers had been made. There were hundreds of people packed in the narrow street at the back of the shambles right down to the "Big House," where the man from Leek had been shot.
As I was above the crowd I could see hats, caps, bonnets and shawls wherever there was a bit of space visible. Men and women were bareheaded in consequence, the hair of the women streaming about their faces, and as agony and fear were depicted on these faces, it was a sight of terror never to be forgotten. It seemed a cruel thing, too, to drive those who were not there to fight, and to hurry and frighten them in this manner. But that was no day for courtesy or chivalry.
It was equally a curious thing that so many whose only motive was curiosity could place themselves in such circumstances of peril. As I was going back towards the New Road I saw the special constables forming a cordon on the left-hand side of the market-place. They did not strike me as a very valorous body, as they kept well away from the crowd being driven upwards by the soldiers.
Such things seem now like a grim nightmare. Such things, we now thankfully recognise, are impossible. Lancashire has just closed a stubbornly-contested dispute of twenty weeks, and yet no riot, not even a single disturbance, has occurred. The fighters have mingled daily, and only verbal conflicts have ensued, and these lightened by pleasantry and badinage as to which side would win. This has come of juster laws, of wider popular rights, and of that softening of antagonistic interests by more Christian goodwill and the respect which comes from the knowledge that the people have power to maintain a good defence.
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previous: Joseph Capper of Tunstall
Jeremiah Yates - Potteries Chartist.
Chartism in Stoke-on-Trent - Chartism was popular movement in Great Britain from 1838 to 1848 for electoral and social reform.