At around 3 pm, on Tuesday 16 August 1842, a sunny day, an unnamed man sat at a table at the Northgate Hotel in Halifax, Yorkshire. About him were soldiers, and many of the town’s mill and coal mine owners. The atmosphere was highly charged, because two hours earlier the soldiers had been attacked by a large crowd of angry local people throwing stones. Three soldiers had been injured. This unnamed man wrote that the soldiers swore they would have their revenge. An hour later, possibly after some drinking of alcohol, the soldiers went out from the Northgate Hotel and, within a few minutes, attacked the crowd with devastating effect.
I grew up in Halifax in the 1950s and 60s and never learned about this event. How could it have been almost entirely forgotten? Halifax, back in 1842, was a prominent Chartist town. Chartists, put simply, were people campaigning for democracy. So why would British soldiers fire upon people calling for democracy?
Chartists were overwhelmingly industrial working families campaigning, at a time of great need, for political reform. They were regarded by the majority in parliament as a threat, and during the great industrial strike in the summer of 1842, the army was sent against them. And so, at 4 o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday 16 August 1842, a troop of the 11th Hussars, mounted and with sabres, and foot-soldiers of the 61st regiment, with rifles and bayonets, more than 100 soldiers, attacked Halifax demonstrators within a few moments of coming from their barracks.
The demonstrators, some fifteen hundred local people, were coming into Halifax town centre and heading across the old stone North Bridge to Jonathan Akroyd’s mill and shed on Haley Hill. It’s revealing to see newspaper reports saying that the crowd was not-causing a disturbance. Yet, within a few minutes of the soldiers coming from the Northgate Hotel the first shots were fired.
The military attack on the people, aided by special constables, was prolonged and wide spread, extending a square quarter mile from Haley Hill across to Broad Street in Halifax.
Reported deaths from gunshot are Jonathan Booth, shot in the abdomen. He died the next day. And three unnamed men found dead in Jonathan Akroyd’s private grounds.
Sutton Briggs: 20 years old and looking on at the attack from some distance, was shot through the groin.
William Sutcliffe: lost his left leg from gunshot.
Reported injuries from sabre cuts are: Henry Walton of Skircoat Green, whose injuries are too awful to describe and who was not expected to live; Charles Taylor: much the same. Samuel Bates and John Brook received unspecified injury from sabre cuts.
Reported injuries from bayonet stabs are: John Holroyd bayoneted five times, Matham Crook bayoneted and hit about his head, both these on Broad Street.
Men were seen carried down from Haley Hill by a newspaper reporter, ‘one’ he said, ‘wounded between the shoulders, one in his back. Another was being wheeled in a cart. They appeared he said to be fatally wounded.’
A reporter for the Bradford Observer saw how a man called Crowther ‘had his head > slashed open by a constable’s bludgeon.
The Bradford Observer also describes people fleeing ‘as soon as they possibly could at [the soldiers] approach . . .’ and that many were shot in the fields as they ran away. And both Halifax and Bradford papers say that the townspeople universally viewed the conduct of the military as ferocious and unnecessary.
There were dozens more walking-injured. The police station where the arrested were taken was said to look like a hospital.
This was a day of real trauma. When the attack was over and the soldiers heading for their barracks, one of the foot soldiers stopped on a quiet street, raised his rifle, aimed it at an > elderly man called Samuel Crowther, and fired. Samuel Crowther was shot through the abdomen but against all expectations he survived. This shooting became known, because two newspaper men were standing six feet from Samuel Crowther at the time, and they ensured it was reported.
Official reports seem to amount to a sheet of paper listing the names of seven injured men which found its way to the Home Office from Halifax, and a letter from one of the Halifax magistrates concerning itself with injuries to five soldiers. This seems to be all that was done by way of official reporting of the event.
So we’ll never know the true number of deaths and injuries from the attack of Tuesday 16 August 1842 in Halifax. We do know it was a quite prolonged attack by more than 100 soldiers with rifles and sabres. Dozens of injured demonstrators left the town, to avoid arrest. Those too badly wounded to walk were carried back to their homes, by friends or family and it seems they kept quiet.
So, in 1842 Britain was a society where parliament sent troops against civilians. But parliament understood the implications of this terrible state of affairs. So six years later we have the new police forces, civilian authorities, who can take the place of the military on the front line against demonstrators, while the soldiers are kept in reserve and out of sight.
Within 70 years, parliament has legislated for the very reforms that the people they had sent soldiers against had called for. These-are-the democratic principles we now take for granted. But the Chartists continued to have a very bad press for more than one hundred years which is perhaps why this significant event in Halifax was almost entirely forgotten. Historians have looked again at this, and they now know that the heritage left behind by these people who expended so much hope and energy in getting an undemocratic parliament to reform itself, to the point of imprisonment, life transportation, injury and in so many cases death, that they deserve to be remembered with pride by everyone, of every political persuasion.