The Lancashire Riots by Christine Goodier MA
Between 1770 and 1830 British society experienced a period of great social tension.
Abroad, the country was at war, first with America and then with France, while at home groups like the machine-breaking Luddites spoke of overthrowing the established order. Nascent Trades Unions were springing up to fight the many inconsistencies and injustices that went hand in hand with industrialisation. Revolution was in the air, and the government response was a crack-down on free-speech and the outlawing of many peaceful groups, moves which only forced them underground. With no police force the maintenance of law and order fell to local magistrates, aided by the military. Bad harvests and the fluctuating price of staples such as bread and potatoes, left many families in dire need.
Periodically East Lancashire, the heartland of the textile industry, was subject to serious outbreaks of violence directed primarily at the growth of the factory system. Mobs made up of Handloom Weavers, who saw their very way of life threatened, attacked and destroyed hundreds of looms -and the mills that housed them- in short but violent outbursts of fury, fed by fear and desperation.
At West Houghton in 1812, and again in a more widespread outbreak in 1826, ordinary men and women who could see no other option, took the law into their own hands, with inevitable consequences.These were dangerous and volatile times.
The Lancashire Weavers
The ‘golden age’ of the independent handloom weaver lasted roughly from 1790 to 1812. For most of this period entire families were involved with the trade. Many men who had once worked the land turned to weaving, and immediately prospered. With a four- day week, high status as skilled craftsmen, and a wage that allowed them to live in comfort, the weavers were the elite of the burgeoning working class. However, things were changing. Almost from the start of this period a series of inventions followed one upon the other that at first assisted the weavers, allowing for the production of larger quantities of finished cloth. Ultimately, of course, these innovations would actually lead to the destruction of the weavers way of life.
Many of these ground-breaking advances were the inventions of Lancastrians.Their impact was phenomenal, and would ultimately change the face of the western world.
1733 John Kay of Bury invents the first real innovation, the “Flying Shuttle” This allowed cloth to be produced in wider bolts at twice the previous speed.
1767 James Hargreaves from Oswaldtwistle invents the “Spinning Jenny”- increases the number of spindles one man could operate.
1769 Richard Arkwright from Preston invents the “Water Frame” allowing water-powered multiple machines to operate.
1779 Samuel Crompton from Bolton invents the “Mule” which produces finer thread a thousand times faster than could be produced before. Too large for home use.
1784 Edmund Cartwright invents the “Powerloom.” First factory open in Manchester in 1784 with 400 looms operating.
The proliferation of such mills was swift, rising from just over 300 in 1819 to nearly 1,000 in 1841.Semi-skilled workers could now produce far greater quantities of cloth at lower prices, gradually squeezing the independent weaver from the marketplace.
The West Houghton Riot of 1812
On Friday April 24th 1812 a mob 60-100 strong attacked the mill of Thomas Rowe and James Duncough at West Houghton. Trouble had been expected for some time and the military had maintained a presence at the mill for much of the week. However, by Friday they had gone and the mill, which housed 180 powerlooms, was left undefended except for 12 workers armed with borrowed guns. At about 4 p.m. the mob arrived at the mill. The Superintendent, Joseph Kay, rode to Bolton to fetch help, but by the time he returned the mill had been destroyed. The events had been witnessed by many workers and people who lived nearby, and this was to prove crucial when the cases came to trial.
Several arrests were made and a Special Assize was convened at Lancaster Castle on May 23rd to try those accused, not only in this riot, but also in others in and around Manchester. Also up for trial were a number of men accused of ‘Administering Illegal Oaths.’
The evidence presented against the rioters was damning by the standards of the times. The accused had been seen setting the fire that destroyed the mill, and one had even mentioned being “Ludd’s man.” Little more was needed and four men were found guilty and sentenced to death for their part in the West Houghton riot. They were Job Fletcher, Thomas Kerfoot, James Smith and Abraham Charleson , who was officially listed as being 16, but who may have been as young as 13.
Also condemned at the same assize were Hannah Smith for the theft of butter and potatoes in Manchester, and three men, John Howarth, John Lee and Thomas Hoyle who were all convicted of stealing food from a house in Deansgate.
Those accused of “Administering Illegal Oaths” were sentenced to terms of imprisonment, or else Transported to Australia. The effect this must have had on their starving families can only be guessed.
After a period of prosperity in the 1810s the textile industry suffered a serious slump in 1825. Weavers who had been employed to supplement production at local factories were the first to be hit, and by the spring of 1826 there was, once again, real hardship in the county. Pleas to the government for a minimum wage had fallen on deaf ears, and attempts by the workers to better their own lot had been met with repression and even, as witnessed in Manchester in 1819, with appalling violence (the so-called “Peterloo Massacre”) The average earnings for weavers had nearly halved, and unemployment was running, in some areas, at a staggering 60%.
On Monday April 24th 1826 a mob some 1,000 strong gathered on Whinney Hill, near Accrington. The mob split into two groups, one marching to Sykes Higher Grange Mill, where they smashed 60 looms, the other making for Oswaldtwistle where two mills were attacked and a total of 154 looms destroyed. The mob had encountered troops on the way, but the soldiers did nothing to stop them, indeed some gave the rioters their own rations, leading the mob to believe that the army was on their side. The attacks continued all that day and into the next, with mills destroyed in Over Darwen, Helmshore and Blackburn, among other places. At Chatterton the army finally made a stand. They fired into the crowd, killing 4 people- one a woman who was merely waiting for a coach to Manchester. By Thursday 27th April the riots had run their course. and over 1,100 looms had been destroyed at an estimated cost of £16,000.
Over the next few weeks a number of suspected rioters were arrested and sent to prison in Preston and Lancaster. There had been government agents in the mobs, and these men were damning witnesses when the cases came to trial in August. In total 53 men and 12 women were tried for their part in the riots in Lancaster Castle. Of those convicted, 35 men and 6 women received the Death Penalty. In the end all of these people were reprieved, with some receiving short prison sentences or fines. However 8 men and 2 women (Ann Entwistle and Mary Hindle the only female rioters to ever receive such a sentence) were transported for life to Australia.
Mary Hindle’s case was tragic. She had gone to find her small daughter who had run off to watch the riot at Helmshore. A spy in the crowd had cut a piece from her skirt to prove she had been there, and on this evidence she was convicted. Despite pleas from her vicar and William Turner, the mill-owner, she was sent to Australia. For many years her fate remained unknown until the recent discovery of a letter in a family Bible which suggests that, unable to accept her fate, she may well have taken her own life while in the female factory at Paramatta.
Ironically, the mill-owners fared very well as a result of the riots. Compensation (levied on the rates) enabled them to re-stock their mills with new machinery, and most of them became very wealthy indeed.
Despite a charity fund set up to aid them, the weavers had a terrible time following the riots. In Haslingden between May and September 1826, 35 children under 4 died. Between December 1826 and March 1827 a total of 107 people were buried in the churchyard.
The handloom weavers never recovered. All that remained was the factory, a 78 hour week and the end of everything they had fought so hard to defend.