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The Plug Plots of 1842

Thomas Cooper worked in Leicester as a journalist and edited the Northern Counties Illuminator, a Chartist paper. He was elected as a delegate to the Chartist conference which took place in Manchester in August 1842. On his way to the conference he spoke at a number of Chartist meetings in Warwickshire and Staffordshire, where workmen already were out on strike. When he returned to Leicester at the end of the conference he was arrested and brought to trial by the government. This is his account of the events known as the "Plug Plots'.

'The Plug Plot', of 1842, as it is still called in Lancashire, began in reductions of wages by the Anti-Corn Law manufacturers, who did not conceal their purpose of driving the people to desperation, in order to paralyse the Government. The people advanced at last, to a wild general strike, and drew the plugs so as to stop the works at the mills, and thus render labour impossible. Some wanted the men who spoke at the meetings held at the beginning of the strike to propose resolutions in favour of Corn Law Repeal; but they refused. The first meeting where the resolution was passed, 'that all labour should cease until the People's Charter became the law of the land', was held on the 7th of August, on Mottram Moor. In the course of a week, the resolution had been passed in nearly all the great towns of Lancashire, and tens of thousands had held up their hands in favour of it. I constituted myself chairman of the meeting on the Crown Bank, at Hanley, on Monday morning, the 15th of August, 1842, a day to be remembered to my life's end. I resolved to take the chief responsibility on myself, for what was about to be done. I told the people so. I suppose there would be eight or ten thousand present. I showed them that if they carried out the resolution which was about to be proposed, no government on earth could resist their demand. But I told them that 'Peace, Law and Order' must be their motto; and that, while they took peaceable means to secure a general turn-out, and kept from violence, no law could touch them. John Richards, who was seventy years of age and had been a member of the First Convention, - the oldest Chartist leader in the Potteries, proposed the Resolution, 'That all labour cease until the People's Charter becomes the law of the land.' A Hanley Chartist, whose name I forget, seconded it, and when I put the resolution to the crowd all hands seemed to be held up for it; and not one hand was held up when I said 'On the contrary.' Three cheers were given for success, and the meeting broke up. . . .

The day wore on, wearily, and very anxiously, till about five in the afternoon, when parties of men began to pass along the streets. Some came into my inn, and began to relate the history of the doings at Longton, which had been violent indeed. Yet the accounts they gave were confused, and I had still no clear understanding of what had been done. By six o'clock, thousands crowded into the large open space about the Crown Inn, and instead of lecturing at eight o'clock in the room, the committee thought I had better go out at once, and lecture on the Crown Bank. So I went at seven o'clock to the place where I had stood in the morning. Before I began, some of the men who were drunk, and who, it seems, had been in the riot at Longton, came round me and wanted to shake hands with me. But I shook them off, and told them I was ashamed to see them. I began by telling the crowd - for its numbers were soon countless - that I had heard there had been destruction of property that day, and I warned all who had participated in that act, that they were not the friends, but the enemies of freedom - that ruin to themselves and others must attend this strike for the Charter, if they who pretended to be its advocates broke the law. 'I proclaim Peace, Law, and Order!' I cried at the highest pitch of my voice. 'You all hear me; and I warn you of the folly and wrong you are committing, if you do not preserve Peace, Law, and Order!' At dusk, I closed the meeting; but I saw the people did not disperse; and two pistols were fired off in the crowd. No policeman had I seen the whole day! And what had become of the soldiers I could not learn. I went back to my inn; but I began to apprehend that mischief had begun which it would not be easy to quell.

[Cooper left the same evening under cover of darkness.]

My friends had purposely conducted me through dark streets, and led me out of Hanley in such a way that I saw neither spark, smoke, or flame. Yet the rioters were burning the houses of the Rev. Mr Aitken and Mr Parker, local magistrates, and the house of Mr Forrester, agent of Lord Granville [principal owner of the collieries in the Potteries] during that night. . . .

Next morning thousands were again in the streets of Hanley and began to pour into the other Pottery towns from the surrounding districts. A troop of cavalry, under Major Beresford, entered the district and the daring colliers strove to unhorse the soldiers. Their commander reluctantly gave the order to fire; one man was killed at Burslem. The mob dispersed; but quiet was not restored until the day after this had been done, and scores apprehended and taken to prison.

[After narrowly escaping arrest at Burslem Cooper got away to Crewe to take a train to Manchester.]

When I entered the railway carriage at Crewe, some who were going to the Convention recognised me, - and, among the rest, Campbell, secretary of the 'National Charter Association'. He had left London on purpose to join the Conference; and, like myself, was anxious to know the real state of Manchester. So soon as the City of Long Chimneys came in sight, and every chimney was beheld smokeless, Campbell's face changed, and with an oath he said, 'Not a single mill at work! something must come out of this, and something serious too!' In Manchester, I soon found McDouall, Leach, and Bairstow, who, together with Campbell, formed what was called 'The Executive Council of the National Charter Association'. They said O'Connor was held that afternoon, at a public-house. He came to the place, but said it was not advisable to hold the Conference there: some better place must be had for the evening; and we had better separate. We all thought he seemed frightened. In the streets, there were unmistakable signs of alarm on the part of the authorities. Troops of cavalry were going up and down the principal thoroughfares, accompanied by pieces of artillery, drawn by horses. In the evening, we held a meeting in the Reverend Mr Schofield's chapel, where O'Connor, the Executive, and a considerable number of delegates were present; and it was agreed to open the Conference, or Convention, in form, the next morning at nine o'clock. We met at that hour, the next morning, Wednesday, the 17th of August, when James Arthur of Carlisle was elected President. There were nearly sixty delegates present; and as they rose, in quick succession, to describe the state of their districts, it was evident they were, each and all, filled with the desire of keeping the people from returning to their labour. They believed the time had come for trying, successfully, to paralyse the Government. I caught their spirit - for the working of my mind had prepared me for it. McDouall rose, after a while, and in the name of the Executive proposed, in form, that the Conference recommends the universal adoption of the resolution already passed at numerous meetings in Lancashire, - that all labour shall cease till the People's Charter becomes the law of the land. When the Executive, and a few others, had spoken, all in favour of the universal strike, I told the Conference I should vote for the resolution because it meant fighting, and I saw it must come to that. The spread of the strike would and must be followed by a general outbreak. The authorities of the land would try to quell it, but we must resist them. There was nothing now but a physical force struggle to be looked for. We must get the people out to fight; and they must be irresistable, if they were united.

[In the debate most of the delegates supported the strike for the same reasons as Cooper. On the other hand O'Connor deprecated any talk of fighting and William Hill, the editor of O'Connor's newspaper, the Northern Star moved a resolution condemning the strike as merely playing into the hands of the Anti-Corn Law League.]

There were only six votes in favour of Editor Hill's amendment. O'Connor spoke late - evidently waiting to gather the spirit of the meeting before he voted with the majority, which he meant to do from the first. Yet he meant to do nothing in support of the strike, although he voted for it!

McDouall was a different kind of spirit. He hastily drew up an exciting and fiercely worded address to the working men of England, appealing to the God of Battles for the issue, and urging a universal strike. He got Leach to print this before the Convention broke up in the evening. The address was brought into the convention, and McDouall read the placard; but Editor Hill defiantly protested against it; and O'Connor moved that instead of its being sent out in the name of the Convention, the Executive should sent it out in their own name. McDouall said the Executive would do so - and the Conference broke up.

Life of Thomas Cooper, written by himself (1879), pp. 190-211.

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