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Victorian poets brought Manchester to the brink

10 Mar 2009

A little known period when Manchester and North West England edged to the brink of revolution has been brought to life through the poetry of the rebels.

In a book published this month, Dr Mike Sanders from The University of Manchester describes seven days of industrial unrest in 1842 causing almost total paralysis of the region.

It was the closest the early Socialists - known as Chartists  - ever came to achieving their goal of mass suffrage and workers rights.

The historian based at the University’s School of Arts, Histories and Cultures  examined the history of a poetry column in the Northern Star - a Chartist newspaper read by a million people at its height of popularity in the 1840s.

Thousands of poems written by hundreds of working class and Chartists writers were published in the column between 1838 and 1852.

“In 1842, England was in turmoil and the north west was its storm centre,” explained Dr Sanders.

“It was the high point of Chartist mobilisation: an 1842 petition signed by 2 million people outnumbered the electorate by about three to one.

“The period was characterised by a period of mass strikes which were called against a backdrop of short-time working, wage reductions and escalating food prices.

“But the demands of the rebels changed from economic to political when Chartists and Trade Union leaders for the first time joined forces in Manchester – and that really scared the Government.

”Local manufacturers were worried too: one for example is recorded as applying to a strike committee for permission to save a fabric by taking it out of its dye.”

Adding to the incendiary mix was the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre at St Peter's Field, Manchester on August 16 1819 when up to 15 people were killed.

A cavalry led by a local mill owner had charged into a crowd of 80,000 people gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation.

The 1842 conflict began when on August 9, the spinners at Bayley's Mill in Stalybridge were told their wages were to be cut.

They came out on strike, and marching from town to town were quickly followed by thousands more weavers, miners and labourers.

The rolling strike became known as the "Plug Plot" as  strikers removed plugs from steam engine boilers, rendering the engines useless.

Dr Sanders added: ”The strikers were successful because there were no troops available to the Government in the North West England.

“As one general later put it, the railways saved the Government: it took six days to mobilise troops but just one day to transport them to the north west.

“When the troops arrived, the strikes petered out. Despite their success, there was little violence and strikers resisted the temptation to loot.

“But without the railways who knows what would have happened.

“A show trial of 43 rebel leaders was eventually held  in Lancaster but because public support was so high, they were allowed to go free despite being found guilty.”

According to Dr Sanders the poems provide a forgotten record of what life was like in the decade known as the 'Hungry 'Forties”.

He said: "While much of the poetry reflects the social upheaval of the period, it also deals with everyday issues such as love, nature, deaths and births.

"They frequently made use of popular tunes such as 'The Roast Beef of Old England' and 'God Save The Queen', to produce a poetry that could be sung at meetings as well as read privately."

Notes for editors

The poetry of Chartism is published by Cambridge University Press

Examples of poems and writings are available

The Chartists fought for the "People's Charter" of 1938 which comprised six demands, five of which were adopted. Although the Chartist movement petered out towards the end of the 1840s, its aims were taken on by others. The Charter demanded:

  • Equal electoral districts.
  • Abolition of the property qualifications for MPs
  • Universal manhood suffrage
  • Vote by secret ballot
  • The payment of MPs
  • Annual parliaments, which was not adopted

Dr Sanders is available for comment.

For more details contact:

Mike Addelman

Media Relations Officer

Faculty of Humanities

The University of Manchester

0161 275 0790

07717 881567

michael.addelman@manchester.ac.uk