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Chartism in Leeds

Leeds Chartism was different and distinct from Chartism in Lancashire, as was the economy. Leeds was a woollen town with a longer history of radicalism than Manchester and was a mixed zone of traditional domestic and new mill manufacture of woollen cloth. In this sense, Leeds was very similar to Birmingham. Rivalry existed between the Yorkshire woollen and Lancashire cotton industries. There was also a strong tradition of Tory radicalism in Yorkshire: Tories believed in economic reform.

The industrial revolution in Yorkshire was distinct from that in Lancashire. The priorities of the woollen industry were different from those of cotton because wool relied on home-produced raw materials. Consequently the woollen industry was not so crucially affected by the Corn Laws and trade recessions. The Yorkshire woollen industry dated back to the times of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and there was still much domestic production of woollen cloth. A quarter of all the handloom weavers in England lived in Yorkshire and there was still a close link between masters and men in many areas. Putting-out and small workshops dominated the industry. There is more evidence in Yorkshire of self-help movements and moderate, traditional radicalism than there is in Lancashire. There was a very strong connection between the workers, the Tory party and Tory Radicalism. Wilberforce, Sadler, Oastler and Shaftesbury were all from the county.


In the 1820s and 1830s, Leeds was second only to Manchester in the north as a centre for working-class radicalism and working-class movements. In 1819 the Association of the Friends of Radical Reform was set up in Leeds. Radical literature and ideas flourished in the town and working men attended meetings where there would be readings from Wooler's Black Dwarf, Carlile's Republican and Cobbett's Weekly Political Register. All of these demanded political reform. This agitation did die down after 1823.

In 1829 the Leeds Radical Reform Association was formed and was part of the Political Union network. The Association organised meetings on Hunslett Moor which were addressed by Cobbett and Hunt. It had a programme of annual elections, a secret ballot and universal suffrage. In 1831 the Leeds Radical Political Union was founded, with William Rider as secretary. He later became an active Chartist leader. In the 1830s the support of Leeds working men was also attracted to

All were expressions of a general discontent and for a desire for an equitable society. Eventually they merged together.

In 1835 the Leeds Radical Association was formed and displayed a deep distrust of Whiggery and had a strong alliance to Toryism as the potential socio-economic reformers, after Peel's Tamworth Manifesto of 1834. The Association had a programme of equal representation, annual parliaments, universal suffrage, secret ballot and no property qualification for MPs. When the Six Points were adopted in 1838, they were familiar ideas to the Leeds radicals.

In September 1837 a meeting was held on Woodhouse Moor to form a Leeds Working Men's Association. Cleave and Vincent of the LWMA spoke at this meeting. The Leeds WMA drew in diverse elements of earlier movements and its leaders all had been involved in other agitations for social betterment.

The shape of Leeds Chartism was determined by its origins in earlier radical and working-class movements, underlying which were economic and social factors. In the 1830s Leeds was a rapidly expanding centre of woollen, flax and engineering industries and a growing commercial and manufacturing population. By 1839, ten thousand operatives were employed in power-driven mills. Also Leeds had a strongly Nonconformist middle-class. At least ten thousand handloom weavers could be found in the out-townships and around the Leeds area but only 1,289 handloom weavers lived in Leeds itself. Leeds had a total population of 61,675. There were no large numbers of depressed hand-workers which was much different from Bradford and Halifax. In Leeds there was no basis for a continuing mass Chartist organisation drawing its strength from a large class of desperate hand-worker. Chartism had to win support from the factory operative, shopkeepers and small tradesmen.

Chartist Leaders

Joshua Hobson was born in Huddersfield in 1810 and had little formal education. He was apprenticed to a joiner, then became a handloom weaver near Oldham. He wrote for local papers there and then returned to Huddersfield and was caught up in the work of local Short-Time Committee that was formed to support Hobhouse's Factory Bill of 1831. Hobson became associated with the Tory radical Richard Oastler and the 'Yorkshire Slavery' campaign. In June 1833 the first issue of Hobson's Voice of the West Riding appeared. It was intended as the voice of the Short-Time Committees but led Hobson into other forms of working class agitation. In August 1833 Hobson was imprisoned in Wakefield gaol for publishing an unstamped paper. He was gaoled for the same offence in 1835 and 1836. In the autumn of 1834 he moved to Leeds and set up as a printer and publisher. For twelve years he was the main publisher of radical material in the West Riding, including the Northern Star (1837-1844) which he also edited for a time. Also he printed and published Owen's New Moral World (1839-41). He was responsible for printing and publishing almost all the Owenite and Chartist pamphlets and books in this period and wrote pamphlets defending Owenite Socialism.

John Francis Bray was the first treasurer of the Leeds WMA. He was born in 1809 in Washington, America but came from a family of Huddersfield farmers and clothiers. He returned to England in 1822 and was apprenticed to a printer in Pontefract and then in Selby. He later 'went on the tramp', looking for work; during this time he experienced great hardships. In 1832 he got a job as a compositor in Leeds and in 1833 he volunteered to go to Huddersfield to print the Voice of the West Riding while Hobson was in gaol. He then went to York to discover why the working class was so poor. As a result of his discoveries he decided to become involved in the labour movements of the time.

Between December 1835 and February 1836, Bray published a series of letters in the Leeds Times called "Letters for the People" which dealt with natural rights and human equality. In 1837 he found employment as a compositor with The Yorkshireman and went on to play a leading role in the founding of the Leeds WMA He stressed the need to change society as well as to obtain political changes.

In November 1837 Bray gave three lectures on 'The Working Class - Their True Wrong and Their True Remedy' He said that every man should own the whole product of his labour. The lectures were printed by Hobson in 1842 in his Labourer's Library series. Bray's work later was used by Marx but at the time it was too philosophic and intellectual for general consumption. His work is a good example of the best contemporary working-class thought and suggest the importance of Owenism as an element from which Chartism was to emerge.

William Rider and George White were both members of the Leeds WMA in 1837 and were the chief exponents of physical force Chartism in Leeds. Neither was influenced by Owenite Socialism. White was an Irish woolcomber. He was determined, inflexible and brave; ready to do anything for the cause, from collecting subscriptions to beating in the heads of policemen. Later he was employed by O'Connor as a reporter/agent for the Northern Star. In 1844 he moved to the more militant Bradford. Rider probably was a printer and also was employed by O'Connor.

Robert Nicoll was a traditional radical. He edited the Leeds Times and urged the formation of the Leeds WMA along the lines of the earlier Radical Political Union. He was impressed by the LWMA and wanted to establish an independent working-class organisation to agitate for the five political points of his 'Radical Creed'.

From the start, the Leeds WMA was divided into at least three separate groups.


On 23 September 1837 the first meeting of the Leeds WMA took place, following the meeting on Woodhouse Moor in late August. Bray, the treasurer, gave the address. The Leeds WMA contented itself throughout with lectures, addresses and the occasional protest meeting in an attempt to gloss over the divisions in the leadership. This failed in January 1838 at a meeting of the Leeds WMA The speakers were Beaumont (later the editor of the Northern Liberator), O'Connor, Dr. Taylor and Sharman Crawford, MP. Their differences became apparent very quickly. Beaumont declared himself a physical force man and was received with groans. He then denounced 'the dulcet tones of the very moderate Radicalism of Leeds'

During the winter of 1837-1838, the militants were strengthened because of the

The Northern Star is Leeds's claim to Chartist fame. It began as a Barnsley paper for working men, advocating the abolition of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and a renewal of the Trade Union and Ten-Hour movements but was taken over by O'Connor and moved to Leeds in 1837. Within four months of its establishment, it was selling 10,000 copies a week. The idea of a popular newspaper for the West Riding came from Joshua Hobson and William Hill. Hill, the son of a Barnsley handloom weaver, became a teacher, phrenologist and then pastor of Hull's New Jerusalem Church. O'Connor had the money to start the Northern Star in Leeds.

The paper was important because

  1. it made the most powerful Chartist voice available to local Chartism. The paper gave detailed reports of any radical meetings anywhere in Yorkshire and became an institution of working-class gatherings. It was widely read and public readings extended its audience considerably. It was socially educative and directed attention to burning social issues.
  2. it gave Feargus O'Connor a personal dominance over Chartism in the north. His followers had press backing and physical force dominated the Leeds WMA.

By May 1838 the Leeds WMA was no longer appropriate for the agitation wanted by O'Connor. Bray and the Owenites dropped out of the Association in 1838 and Nicoll died of tuberculosis in December 1838. Also, the Leeds Times, under its new editor, became critical of O'Connor. In June 1838 the Great Northern Union replaced the Leeds WMA. Its inaugural meeting was held on Hunslett Moor; the speakers were O'Connor, White, Rider, and Collins from Birmingham. They spoke for outright measures: physical force. O'Connor hoped that the GNU would unite all the reform associations in the area. The national Chartist movement directed its efforts towards electing delegates to the national Convention after August 1838 and the GNU organised meetings in support of the Charter throughout the West Riding.

On 15 October 1838 a monster meeting was held on Hartshead Moor, Leeds. The site was chosen because it was equidistant from all the main towns in the West Riding and was a natural amphitheatre able to hold large numbers. It was set up like a fair; food and drink were available and families attended. People came from Bradford, Huddersfield and Halifax in thousands, each group with its band playing and banners flying. Two hundred attended from Leeds. The people elected O'Connor, Rider and Pitkeithly as the West Riding delegates to the National Convention. Physical force was popular with West Riding Chartists.

In the winter of 1838-1839, vast torchlight meetings were held; speeches and schemes became more violent and inflammatory. Even 'moderate' Leeds managed a 3,000 strong meeting on St. Peter's Hill in February 1839 to hear George White speak.

In 1839 the O'Connorites tried to set the pace of Leeds Chartism. O'Connor seems to have been an egotist and Leeds had no movement to rival his pre-eminence. Also, Leeds was central to the area and there was a good deal of material to work on in the West Riding. Manchester was of little use to O'Connor because the Anti-Corn-Law League was a rival to Chartism. The O'Connorites did not get the support they hoped for, and criticised the luke-warmness of Leeds men.

1 April 1839 was Easter Monday. An open-air meeting was held in Leeds which was addressed by O'Connor, Hill, White, Rider and Dr Taylor. There was much emphasis on physical force. White said he

'was not so much a radical as a revolutionist [and] they would never get anything until they were able to take it by force' .

Rider said

'the citadel of corruption cannot be taken by paper bullets. There is a crew ... called physical force men who are trying for something more than argument. It is this that makes the Whigs and Tories tremble'.

He urged men to arm and do more than petition. Rider believed that the petition would do little good, so he resigned from the National Convention. He then tried to retake his seat and was thrown out.

On 21 May 1839 another meeting was held on Hartshead Moor (then known as Peep Green), and it was a model of peaceful organisation. No liquor was sold and the meeting was opened with prayers. Bronterre O'Brien said that the people were determined to have the Charter, 'peaceably if they could, and forcibly if they must'. Also in May, Leeds' magistrates enrolled special constables and assembled the yeomanry cavalry 'in case' there was trouble, although the town proverbially was peaceful. Chartist leaders feared arrest because this was happening to other leaders elsewhere. By this time the Leeds Northern Union was dominated by physical force men: Rider, White, Jones and Charles Connor. Jones was a shoemaker and chairman of the Leeds Northern Union; Connor was an Irishman who said he was a 'revolutionist'.

The talk now was of 'ulterior measures' to secure the Charter:

In this atmosphere of rising tension, White was arrested in August for extortion by threats. He had been appointed by the Great Northern Union to collect subscriptions for the 'National Rent (cf. the Catholic Rent) in Leeds. He visited shopkeepers and traders with two books - a subscription book and a "Black Book". If no cash was forthcoming, the trader's name was written in the "Black Book" and 'hints' were dropped concerning bloodshed. The magistrates committed him to the York Assizes in April 1840 and he was refused bail. White verbally attacked "Whig justice" from the dock and got his bail. He was free in Leeds during the winter of 1839-40 and was active in Chartism's cause.

The winter 1839-1840 saw the end of the first period of Chartism in the West Riding with a series of risings in Sheffield, Bradford and Dewsbury. The familiar pattern of unemployment, police spies and clashes with soldiers and subsequent arrests was to be found. In Leeds there was no rising.

In March 1840, White was sentenced to six months in prison and served a particularly rigorous sentence of hard labour, rigid discipline and no visitors. He became ill and fell off the treadmill twice. On his release from Wakefield gaol, White went to Birmingham as the agent/reporter for the Northern Star. In May 1840, Feargus O'Connor was sentences to eighteen months imprisonment for seditious libel. The collapse of the physical force wing was virtually complete and the Leeds Northern Union quietly disappeared.

The Chartist revival in Leeds was different from elsewhere. New leaders, a new policy and new methods were evident. More significant was the new form of organisation. The re-formed movement was called the Leeds Radical Universal Suffrage Association. Membership was open to all wanting the Charter and using moral and lawful methods. The entrance fee was 2d and 1d per week in subscriptions and the Association used the Methodist 'class' idea for every twenty members. Officers were elected by ballot every two months. There is nothing new here: it was a revival of pre-Chartist radicalism and was very moderate. The physical force men lost all influence. By July 1840 the Leeds RUSA was flourishing and even Jones and O'Connor were allowed to join. In the autumn of that year its name was changed to the Leeds branch of the National Charter Association. This was only a change of name, however: its policies and personnel remained the same. The new temper of Chartism is reflected in the direction of Chartist energies in Leeds: a variety of societies were set up under Chartist auspices

The Leeds Charter Association reported that the meetings

'get ever more respectable, are better conducted, less uproarious, and partake more of the reasoning and intellectual qualities'.

The Leeds Chartists failed to get a mass following either because of, or in spite of their policy. Leeds Chartists remained a small group of able, intelligent enthusiasts: a general staff without an army. They were unable to ally themselves with moderate traditional radicalism or with the middle-classes. Neither the extreme nor the moderate Chartists could ally with the middle-classes because there was no common ground between them.

In January 1839, Samuel Smiles became the editor of the Leeds Times - which then took a distinct turn to the right. Under Nicoll it had identified with Chartist in principle but this ended in mid-1840. Smiles became secretary of the Leeds Parliamentary Reform Association which advocated household suffrage. The paper also abandoned support of the Short-Time Committees in favour of the ACLL.

Leeds Chartists feared competition from the ACLL in the winter of 1838-39 so they 'captured' or broke up ACLL meetings. There was no real objection to the repeal of the Corn Laws; the Chartists merely feared a rival group. From early 1841 opposition to the ACLL revived, because the Chartists said the anti-Corn Law agitation was an attempt to shelve the struggle for the Charter. Apparently this was plausible because the ACLL in Leeds declared for household suffrage. The ACLL tried to win working-class support and militant Chartists attempted to prevent it, trying hard to discredit the ACLL and middle-class radicals, especially the "pigmy doctor", Smiles.

In 1841 the Conservatives under Peel won the general election, thus strengthening the case for a middle/working class alliance for repeal of the Corn Laws and fiscal reform. The Chartists had opposed the Whigs and let the Tories in, but militant Chartism in the West Riding was primarily a struggle against the middle class, making an alliance impossible. The stumbling block was over universal suffrage. The middle-classes and Chartists all saw that political democracy eventually would lead to social democracy. If co-operation was to be achieved, it would not be in national politics. In Leeds the opening for co-operation was found in local government.

Municipal Chartism

All other avenues of practical ways of achieving the Charter had been exhausted in Leeds:

The idea of Municipal Chartism originated in January 1840. Hobson was nominated as an Improvement Commissioner. Nineteen citizens were elected annually and in 1838 and 1839 Tory Commissioners were elected. In 1840 a combination of Whigs, radicals and Chartists defeated the Tory bloc. Hobson was not elected, but another Chartist, John Jackson (a Chartist corn miller) was. In 1841 the liberals' list was carried again and in 1842 the Chartist list was carried. All nineteen members of the Improvement Commission were, according to the Northern Star, 'staunch friends of the people's cause'.

In July 1842 the old Improvement Act was replaced by a new one. The commission was abolished and the town council implemented the Act. The Chartists would now need to elect town councillors to continue the new line of action. The qualifications needed for town councillors were lower than those for Improvement Commissioners. From 1842 to 1845, Chartists stood and were elected as Churchwardens. The Chartists prepared for the municipal elections, to have Chartists elected. In November 1842 two Chartists stood for local election but failed. The Chartist cause was not helped by the Plug Plots of August, which convulsed the West Riding.

There was much distress in the Leeds area after four years of continuing depression. 20% of the population was pauperised; 16,000 people (of a population of 80,000) existed entirely on workhouse relief. The Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of Leeds wrote to HM Treasury, in July 1842,

'Never at any former period in our recollection has this manufacturing district experienced distress so universal, so prolonged, so exhausting and so ruinous'.

The Plug Plots in the Leeds Area: 1842

Saturday 13 August

news of turn-outs of factory workers in the West Riding.

Sunday 14 August

troop movements in Leeds

Monday 15 August

1,500 special constables were sworn in

Tuesday 16 August

reports of riots and clashes in Halifax. A meeting of 4,000 operatives on Hunslett Moor passed resolutions in favour of the Charter

Wednesday 17 August

turn-out in villages near Leeds 6,000 operatives stopped all mills in Calverley, Stanningley, Bramley and Pudsey. They drove in the plugs at mills in Armley, Wortley, Farnley, Hunslet and Holbeck. By 5 p.m. they were in Meadow Lane, Leeds and stopped all the mils in Leeds. The Riot Act was read in Leeds and 38 men were arrested.

Thursday 18 August:

Leeds was quiet except for a turn-out at coal pits at Hunslet and Middleton

Friday 19 August

The pits were visited again and 14 prisoners taken by police. A meeting took place on Hunslett Moor which was then dispersed by police and troops.

Those arrested were given prison sentences varying between two and eighteen months.

There is little evidence to show that local Chartists were responsible for the riots although they made political capital for the Charter out of them. No leading Chartist was arrested in Leeds. The Leeds riots were basically a violent reaction of unemployed operatives spurred to desperation by hunger and destitution.

In November 1843, Hobson and Jackson were elected to Leeds council: they were outnumbered 62:2 so they could do little to affect policy. They did provide an 'awkward squad', though. By November 1844 there were four Chartists on the council (of 64 members) and between 1849 and 1850 seven Chartists were councillors. The Chartist label was last used in the 1853 election - and this marked the end of municipal Chartism.

Effects of Municipal Chartism

  1. There were never more than seven or eight Chartist councillors, although between 1843 and 1853 some 25 Chartists stood for election, eighteen with success
  2. The men who stood for election on the Chartist platform were mainly shopkeepers and small tradesmen, not working-class.
  3. They had little in the way of a distinctive Chartist policy, but spoke on specific issues. The opposed 'arrangements' and jobbery; they were suspicious of the police and opposed the extension of police powers and they always voted for a reduction of expenditure.
  4. Moderate leaders assumed leadership of Chartism in Leeds, which moved back to its traditional radicalism.

Municipal Chartism was not concerned with national issues so Leeds Chartism 1843-1848 became something of a backwater.

Later Events

In November 1844 the Northern Star moved from Leeds to London, removing several top-level Chartists from Leeds, including Hobson and Harney. This was indicative of the shift of Chartism from the north to the south at this time. Leeds Chartists continued to meet but new names appeared: Squire Farrar, James Harris, John Shaw. Much time and energy was given to the land question.

May and June 1845 saw the first meeting connected with O'Connor's Land Plan being held. Thirty-five members were enrolled because the appeal of a new life in rural surroundings attracted the workers of industrial Leeds. Chartists were in competition with the Owenites.

1847 saw a severe trade depression, mass unemployment, high food prices. Things did not improve in the following year because 1848 saw unrest in Ireland and European revolutions. Conditions similar to those of 1838 and 1842 were reproduced and there was renewed activity among the Chartists. In 1848 in Leeds, Chartist meetings which had been used to discuss Land Company business were replaced by meetings addressed by George White - this time talking about the rights of man and so on. White proposed a great West Riding demonstration on Hartshead Moor: the time to get the Charter had arrived.

The Hartshead Moor meeting was held March and processions were organised from Bradford, Leeds and Halifax. Republican flags were flown and radical addresses were delivered. In March and April 1848 there was great enthusiasm for the Charter in Leeds. Huge meetings were held: there were between 10,000 and 15,000 in attendance, with local Chartist speakers who attempted to broaden the Chartist base by linking up with the Leeds Irish population. The Tricolour was flown, with the inscription, 'Republic for France, Repeal for Ireland, the People's Charter for England, and no surrender!

The Leeds Times thought Leeds Chartism was being taken over by wilder, more extreme Irish elements and feared for the 'good sense and moderation' of the Leeds radicals. Hobson continued to condemn physical force. By May 1848, there was a new air or desperation in the West Riding. Arming and drilling was reported in many areas and from 28 May onwards sporadic violence occurred in several areas.

In Bradford, two thousand Chartists fought with a similar number of police, infantry, dragoons and special Constables. In Bingley an attack was made on the police station to release Chartist prisoners. In Leeds, two hundred paraded for drill on Woodhouse Moor. The JPs warned against this activity so the men went home. Of fifty-eight persons tried at York Assizes for riot and sedition in August, only one was from Leeds. The government's policy of intimidation and arrests followed by harsh sentences, during the summer of 1848, successfully crushed the immediate threat, but did not extinguish Chartism. New ideas and personalities emerged.

Joseph Barker of Bramley, Leeds was the son of a Wesleyan preacher. He was a self-educated man who became a Wesleyan Methodist preacher himself. His religious progress was downwards: Methodist, Quaker, Unitarian and then secularist. In 1848 Barker was helped by Unitarian friends to set up a print-shop at Wortley where he published cheap reprints and also began publishing The People, most of which he wrote himself. He published three volumes in all, covering 1848-51. It declared itself to be republican and ultra-democratic, and attempted to adapt Chartism to new needs and conditions. It emphasised the need for some general union of all reformers and represented the old idea of 'the Charter and something more'. His republican ideas came from the 1848 Revolutions but more importantly, The People emphasised the need for some general union of all reformers.

Chartism in Leeds 1848-1853 represented a coming together of reformers from several fields of popular endeavour:

The name 'Chartist' came to mean one who favoured a policy of an independent working-class radicalism, tied neither to middle-class Liberals nor to Radicals. In 1853 the last Chartist councillors (RM. Carter and John Williamson) were elected. After this, Chartists stood as Radicals and/or Liberals. Chartism as an organised movement ended but revived in 1855 as the Leeds Advanced Liberal Party. Of the fourteen originators, eight were ex-Chartists and three more were ex-Owenites. Their programme included the six points of the Charter and municipal reform. In 1860 the Leeds Working Men's Parliamentary Reform Association was founded by the last of the Leeds Chartists.

Chartism in Leeds as a powerful force suffered because

  1. O'Connor was not based in Leeds to establish firm control
  2. The woollen industry was not so badly affected by depression as cotton, and there was little 'class' hostility in Leeds as yet.
  3. There was a strong alliance in Leeds with the Tory radicals - the new Conservative Party - for immediate benefits through organisations such as the ACLL, the Ten-Hour movement, Trade Unions and anti-Poor Law agitation. The factory reformers tended to be Tory protectionists who wanted to protect the Corn Laws.
  4. The Leeds 'fustian jackets' had little sympathy with the Lancashire cotton operatives - they were textile rivals, after all.

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