October 2016

Catherine Howe: HALIFAX 1842 - A Year of Crisis
published by Breviary Stuff Publications.

Halifax 1842 compCatherine Howe has done an incredible job by discovering a significant piece of 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 public help by undertaking monotonous backbreaking labour inside the workhouse. On 16 May 1837 a massive 100,000-strong gathering was held on Hartshead Moor near Bradford. Other similar gatherings were organised but when they 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, signed yet on 14 June 1839 it was swiftly rejected in Parliament by 235 votes to 46.

In the autumn of 1839, South Wales miners and ironworkers took part in an uprising in support of the six demands and twenty died when they were shot down by soldiers armed and 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 and refused to introduce laws aimed at improving workplace safety.

On 2 May 1842, another giant three million strong petition was handed in to Parliament and again contemptuously rejected by 287 to 49 votes. In early June 1842 miners in the Potteries were hit with a hefty pay reduction, leading to thousands walking out on strike. Within days, workers in Lancashire were being laid-off after their workplaces ran out of fuel and came to a standstill. Spotting an opportunity to direct the situation to their advantage the Chartists incited more walk-outs. There were fatal consequences when striking workers and the military clashed at Preston and Blackburn

A meeting of the leaders of Britain's trades was held in Manchester. Those present ignored the presence of troops and agreed to try and expand the strike by tramping over the Pennines to call on workers in Yorkshire to get involved. Halifax was being drawn into the conflict.

On 15 August 1842, thousands were at Skircoat Green just outside Halifax town centre 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 regular soldiers. Yet with thousands of workers also arriving from across Yorkshire the 350 strong force was only able to make a small number of arrests and it was insufficient to prevent the mills of Halifax from being incapacitated 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. When the crowd started departing they became aware that those arrested the previous day were being escorted by the military to nearby Elland railway station.

The crowd made to release their friends. Missiles were thrown and, at least, three soldiers were badly injured in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to release those arrested.

Following the stoning a number of the crowd then moved back to Skircoat Moor before later re-entering Halifax town centre where the riot act was read by the authorities and troops, still smarting from earlier humiliation, 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 of people had been injured and, at least, six were dead. Many protestors were also arrested and a number subsequently 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 in 1848, another giant Charter petition to Parliament was rejected. As such it was not till 1867, when an alliance between the middle and working class brought about an Act that doubled the male electorate, that the path was paved towards universal suffrage for all men and women.

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