STANDARD OF FREEDOM, Skircoat Green, Halifax, West Yorkshire.
The Standard of Freedom draws its name from former landlord John Ashworth, who said in around 1856/57, “The people of Skircoat Green shall join in that march of freedom and I shall raise the Standard of Freedom at this Inn.”
Ashworth was referring to Chartism, the first working-class movement. Chartism sought to end exploitation by ensuring working class representation in Parliament 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 males 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. When other similar gatherings produced no change in government policies the People’s Charter petition was drawn up on 8 May 1838.
Over 1.3 million, including 13,000 from Halifax and 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 in Newport. Disturbances in Sheffield, Dewsbury and Bradford followed.
Meanwhile, newly industrialised workers, including many children, continued to be killed in factories, mills and mines, Parliament remained indifferent.
On 2 May 1842, a giant three million strong petition was presented to Parliament and swiftly rejected by 287 to 49 votes.
Then 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 it was agreed to tramp over the Pennines and into Yorkshire.
On 15 August 1842, thousands were at Skircoat Green on the outskirts of Halifax to greet the Lancashire marchers. The authorities had decided to meet force with force with 200 special constables sworn in 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 the following morning. As the crowd dispersed they became aware that those arrested the previous day would be escorted to nearby Elland railway station. 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 later re-entered 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 finished, hundreds had been injured and, at least, six were dead. Many protestors were arrested and some 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.
For more on 1842 see Catherine Howe’s book that is reviewed on the book section of this website.