HALIFAX 1842: A Year of Crisis by Catherine Howe (Breviary Stuff Publications)
Catherine Howe has done an incredible job by discovering a significant piece of West Yorkshire history that very few people know anything about.
The period from 1838 to 1848 was made famous by Chartism. This was the first working-class movement in Britain. It sought to end exploitation by ensuring working class representation in Parliament, dominated at the time by the landed aristocracy, and had six demands: universal (male) suffrage, equal electoral districts, secret ballots, annual Parliaments, payment for MPs and no property qualifications for MPs. With just 8 per cent of the adult male population possessing the vote these were radical demands.
1837 had heralded in the New Poor Law, which ended direct financial help to the poor, who from thereon would only receive help by undertaking monotonous backbreaking labour inside the workhouse. On 16 May 1837 a massive 100,000-strong gathering was held on Hartshead Moor. Other similar gatherings but when they produced no change in government policies the People’s Charter petition was drawn on 8 May 1838.
Over 1.3 million, including 13,000 from Halifax, signed yet on 14 June 1839 it was rejected in Parliament by 235 votes to 46.
In autumn 1839, South Wales miners and ironworkers revolted and twenty died when they were shot down by armed soldiers armed waiting in Newport. Further disturbances in Sheffield, Dewsbury and Bradford followed whilst some Chartist leaders were convicted of seditious libel and imprisoned. Meanwhile, whilst newly industrialised workers, including many children, continued to be killed in factories, mills and mines, Parliament remained indifferent to their fate.
On 2 May 1842, another giant three million strong petition was handed to Parliament and again swiftly rejected by 287 to 49 votes. In early August 1842 miners walked-out in the Black Country, which led to lay-offs in the neighbouring Potteries. Within days, workers in Lancashire were being laid-off and spotting an opportunity to direct the situation to their advantage the Chartists incited more walk-outs. There were fatal consequences when workers and the military clashed at Preston and Blackburn
A meeting of the leaders of Britain’s trades was held in Manchester where ignoring the presence of troops it was agreed to tramp over the Pennines and into Yorkshire. Halifax was being drawn into the conflict.
On 15 August 1842, thousands were at Skircoat Green just outside Halifax to greet the Lancashire marchers. The authorities had decided to meet force with force and had sworn in 200 special constables to serve alongside 150 soldiers. Yet with thousands arriving from across Yorkshire this was never going to be sufficient to prevent the mills of Halifax from being stopped from working by the protestors, who entered and removed a few bolts or ‘plugs’ in the boilers so as to prevent steam from being raised.
Halifax was at a standstill and a large meeting was held on Skircoat Moor around a mile from the town centre the following morning.
When Skircoat Green was passed by the departing crowd they became aware that those arrested the previous day would be escorted by the military to nearby Elland railway station and they made to release their friends. Missiles were thrown at troops and, at least, three were badly injured in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to release those arrested. Following the stoning a number of the crowd moved back to the Moor and then later into Halifax town centre where the riot act was read and troops, still smarting from the humiliation that morning, fired into the crowd before attacking it with their sabres. Henry Walton, from Skircoat Green, received a fatal sabre head cut. By the time the military had done their worst hundreds had been injured and, at least, six were dead. Many protestors were also arrested and a number served terms of imprisonment that ultimately killed them.
Such was the determination of those then in power to prevent working class people obtaining the vote and with it political representation. Six years later another giant Charter petition to Parliament was again rejected and it was not till 1867 when an alliance between the middle and working class brought about an Act that doubled the male electorate and thereafter the path was paved towards universal suffrage for men and women.