13th August 1842. Plug Drawing Riots.
Many workers in the early 19thc were quick to blame new technology for wage cuts and unemployment and none more so than the Lancashire cotton employees.
Resistance involved half a million workers and constituted the biggest single working class show of strength in that century.
Matters came to a head Today in 1842 which saw the start of the Plug Drawing Riots in Lune Street, Preston, when a group of young men were involved in drawing the plugs from the new steam boilers.
On Saturday the 13th a strike at Bayley’s Cotton Mill, Staleybridge spread to Ashton and then Manchester.
It later spread to Preston where there was mass disturbances which resulted in the Riot Act being read by the Mayor, Samuel Horrocks, owner of several mills. On the crowd refusing to disperse four men were shot dead, by troops of the 72 Highlanders, with many injured.
At the later Inquest the Coroner brought in a verdict of Justifiable Homicide.
Early industrial Britain, with people crammed into burgeoning towns, saw the country passing through a period of mass protest with its greatest acuteness in the 1830s and early 1840s.
The government fearful of revolutionary fervour in Europe spreading here, were understandably nervous.
It spawned many groups including machine-breaking Luddites, Radical Trade Unionism, visions of Utopianism, and Chartists, demanding universal suffrage and a greater facility for the lower classes to enter parliament.
Before the abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846, at a time of poor harvests, many were on the verge of starvation, resulting in a march on parliament. There were widespread bread riots throughout the country.
It was in the 1840s that craft-workers such as Stonemasons, Cotton Spinners and The National Typographical Association, representing printing trades, began to collectivize.(1)
The forerunner of the Trade Union in its modern form, was The Amalgamated Society of Engineers of 1851. By 1868, the first Trades’ Union Congress was held.
Who were the people rioting? Many were like Ben Wilson of Halifax, who later wrote about those times. He was self-educated; his mother attended radical meeting and earned a living by pounding sand, and whose family subsisted on unboiled potato peelings.
Ben was a cultivator of hybrid perpetual roses, in fact became a model of self-help at a time when Britain was changing from rural to an urban industrialised economy.
After the rejection by parliament of the Third Industrial Charter in 1848, there was widespread fear of another French Revolution. This was when Ben decided to arm himself.
In the 1880s Wilson reminisced that conditions for the skilled artisan had changed dramatically so by the 1860s, the difference between income of the small local employer and his skilled employee was low, and between him and the mass of workers as equally wide.
This was a time when the skilled worker, commanded a relatively high standard of living, improved access to education and a wide culture, with many being elected to the new town councils and eventually to become MPs.
(1) Tailors and Shoemakers formed National Societies. The United Flint, Glass Makers and the Miners’ Association of Great Britain and Ireland were also born.
Ref: Hobsbawm E.J. Industry and Empire, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.
Ref: Labour in Britain 1850-1920. Neville Kirk.
Ref: F.C. Mather 1974, General Strike 1842, G Allen and Unwin, London.
Ref: historytrinkets.bbc.co.uk/Lancashire-history/Plug Drawing Riots.
Ref: Calderdale.gov.uk. Two Illustrations of Plug Riots of 1842.
Ref: bbc.co.uk/lancashire/simon entwistle/image.