This is the story of the strikes that swept across much of the country in 1842 and which grew into perhaps the first “general strike” ever to take place.
At its peak, the strike wave of 1842 involved half a million workers. Factories, mills and coal mines were hit in an arc that ran from Dundee, through the Lancashire and Staffordshire heartlands of the dispute to South Wales and Cornwall. Although later histories refer disparagingly to the events of that summer as the “plug plot riots”, in reality, something far more sophisticated was happening.
At the root of the strike were the swingeing wage cuts that accompanied a downturn in trade, at a time when the economy had been in desperate straits for a full five years. But the strike grew into something far more than that as workers took up the political demands espoused by Chartism, leading to confrontation not just with employers but with the state.
Towards the end of 1841, the cotton industry had entered a slump of unprecedented proportions. With unemployment rife, the mill owners began to demand wage cuts – first at Droylsden, then into the new year at Chorley, Blackburn, Bolton and Ashton-under Lyne. Once obtained, they came back for more. There were also confrontations in the coal mines of Lancashire and the Midlands, and the chill winds of economic crisis hit the engineering factories of Manchester and elsewhere.
During the summer of 1842, colliers in Staffordshire walked out over proposals to reduce their wages, and for the first time demands for shorter hours and better pay began to be linked with a demand for the People’s Charter. The unrest spread, and in July began to centre on South East Lancashire, where in response to demands for a wage cut of 25% the mill workers of Ashton, Stalybridge, Dukinfield and Hyde called meetings to formulate their demands for a return to the wage levels of earlier years and to plan their next steps.
In The General Strike of 1842 (Lawrence & Wishart 1980), Mick Jenkins makes a compelling case that, far from being the desperate rabble so often described in other histories, the mill and factory workers of the North West were politically aware and quite able to make the link between demands demands for better wages and the need for the Charter.
The focus of activity in late July and early August was in South East Lancashire, where local Chartists played a leading role in organising mass meetings to oppose wage cuts and make the case for the Charter. This was an important stage in building support for collective action later. These leaders succeeded in uniting workers who were more hesitant in their opposition to the employers behind the more militant factories and mills, and created a base for a widespread strike.
August 7 was a crucial day: two mass meetings of workers from Ashton and Staleybridge were held on Mottram Moor, and support was given for a “Grand National Turn-Out” to begin the next day. Support for the Charter was incorporated into the resolutions passed. The next day, workers left their factories and began to move from workplace to workplace, “turning out” other workers to join them. The derogatory name often given to these events – the “plug plot” – derives from this time; as the workers closed down a factory they would frequently remove the boiler plug to prevent it restarting. The movement spread rapidly, not only in Manchester but in the towns around it. At Preston, Burnley, Blackburn, Chorley, Todmorden, Bacup, Stockport, Macclesfield, Leek, Congleton, Oldham, Glossop, Dukinfield, Wigan, Bolton, St Helens and in the mining villages, work ceased.
As the strike went on, the workers took control. Factories were permitted to operate only with the permission of “committees of public safety” that now began to co-ordinate action. These committees gave permission, for example, for work to be completed so that goods would not spoil or for humanitarian reasons. In one case, permission was granted to keep water pumps operating without which coal mines would have flooded.
The authorities were powerless: troops were drafted in from London and the South East – but even in the capital they had to run the gauntlet of strike supporters and were compelled to fix bayonets and march with police escorts to the trains that would carry them north.
As all this played out, work was also under way to prepare for both a Trades Conference and a delegate conference of the National Charter Association. The former was unequivocally a forum for the leadership of the strike. Planned for 15 and 16 August, it was preceeded by meetings across the region as groups of workers elected and instructed their delegates. Thousands attended such events in Manchester, Oldham and elsewhere. In Bacup, the Riot Act was read, but the workers continued their meeting for an hour and a half more. Elsewhere, the strike was spreading, with turn-out activities reported from as far afield as Glasgow and Merthyr Tydfil.
The Trades Conference opened on the morning of Monday 15 August at the Sherwood Inn. Alexander Hutchinson, representing the Manchester wiredrawers and card makers, was elected to the chair. Charles Stuart, representing the mechanics of Patricroft, was elected secretary. By lunchtime, the conference had adjourned to meet again at Carpenters Hall – the first venue proving too small. That day, 143 accredited delegates were present.
Attempts to separate wage demands from the Charter were soundly defeated – with 120 votes in favour of a resolution that explicitly linked the two. Of the 85 delegates who spoke or indicated their constituencies’ views, 58 were for the Charter, seven for making this a struggle for wages alone, 19 had been instructed to abide by the decision of the conference, and one had no mandate.
The conference achieved a great deal in organising the strike. It agreed a series of positions, made provision to support those on strike and elected a 12-strong executive to carry forward its plans. But within days, as the authorities grew stronger and realised that they must srike back or stand to lose everything, the principal leaders of the conference and of the strike were behind bars.
In the mean time, the Chartist conference had also taken place on 16 and 17 August. At first the Chartist leadership was suspicious of the strike, and Feargus O’Connor never quite abandoned the idea that it had all been got up by the Anti-Corn Law League – which largely represented the free-trade mill and factory owners – to discredit the Chartist movement and apply pressure to the trade protectionist government.
In the midst of the events unfolding around Manchester, however, the conference had no option but to throw its weight behind the strike. From the moment it issued its first address in support, the strike became a national one. From Dorset to Norwich, Scotland to Somerset, turn-outs now spread. And in response, the government mobilised the troops – Grenadier Guards backed by artillery, the 34th regiment of foot, and the 73rd regiment were ordered north while a detachment of Royal Marines were moved to Woolwich to replace them.
Mass meetings took place in London between 17 and 20 August, and the police and military were sent to disperse them. In Preston, troops fired on an unarmed crowd, killing four; soldiers charged and fired on crowds at Newcastle-under-Lyme, Halifax and Skipton. But some elements of the state’s response proved less than solid – in Manchester, a troop of Chelsea Pensioners refused to confront a crowd of strikers; shopkeepers and others called up as special constables declined to act against the workers, and there were reports of soldiers being taken away in chains for refusing to fight.
Despite this, with regular troops now on the streets with fixed bayonets and many of the strike’s leaders now under arrest, the tide had turned against the strikers. The turn-outs ran on through August, and in many cases into September, with the Manchester weavers holding out to the last at the end of September. In many cases, mill workers went back with some element of their demand for a return to earlier wage levels met – or, at the very least, employers’ demands for wage cuts abandoned. But all hope of achieving the Charter was now lost.
In the aftermath of the strike, there were at first plans for a large-scale show trial, to take place in London, with O’Connor and others facing charges of treason that could have resulted in the death penalty. In due course, these plans were shelved, and a new approach was adopted. By the time of the trial, it had become clear that the government and judiciary had thought better of presenting the strike and the Chartist involvement in it as a well-thought out plan. Instead, it was to be presented as little more than an episode of mob violence by desperate workers in which the Chartists had become almost accidentally involved.
When the trial of O’Connor and 58 others eventually took place at Lancaster in 1843, the charges were less serious. And in the event, though some of those charged were found guilty, none was ever sentenced. Those arrested elsewhere were less fortunate. In all, around 1,500 men and women were put on trial; of the 274 tried in Staffordshire alone, 54 were transported to Australia and 146 imprisoned.