This summer marks 180 years since the general strike of 1842, when hundreds of thousands of workers walked out calling for higher pay, a shorter day, and democratic reform – demands that remain just as relevant today.

Bayes, Alfred Walter; ‘A Chartist Meeting at Basin Stones, Todmorden, 1842’. (Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council / www.artuk.org)

In the summer of 1842, the world witnessed a momentous event. Beginning in August of that year, ‘in a period of trade recession when masses were unemployed, when wage cut followed wage cut, and starving workers and their families roamed the streets’, as Mick Jenkins writes, workers across Britain organised the first ever general strike in a capitalist country.

In North Staffordshire in early July 1842, colliers responded to threats of wage reductions by withdrawing their labour. In the words of Andreas Malm, the workers fought ‘for pay raises, a working day of nine hours and, notably, the Charter as the sole guarantee of both’. The strike spread to other coal-mining regions, and amid their struggle, Malm suggests that ‘the striking coal workers began to ponder the formation of a nationwide union as a force for defending wages and a shock troop for the wider Chartist cause.’

In the first week of August, 800 delegates from coal mining regions assembled in the West Yorkshire town of Halifax. Malm cites a report in the Leeds Times as noting that ‘It was only a preparatory meeting, in order to secure a general organisation, previous to an [sic] universal strike … and the power which was in the hands of the colliers of stopping all mills, factories, railways & c. was insisted upon by many, as making the colliers a very important political body’. The coal workers, and those witnessing their activity, were beginning to recognise the power they had to bring a halt to Britain’s industrialising economy. Stop the coal, and you stop the mills.

Amid the ferment of the coal workers’ withdrawal of labour and the depressed economic circumstances of the population, cotton workers joined the strike. The immediate spark that lit this tinderbox was a proposed twenty-five percent wage cut for cotton workers in Ashton-under-Lyne and Stalybridge, though Mick Jenkins also suggests that ‘in the event, opposition to wage cuts was overshadowed by more fundamental and long-term demands, above all the demand for universal suffrage’. The strike was generalised by a desire for both economic and political change.

Half a million workers would come to participate in the Great Strike of 1842, stretched across such geographically disparate locations as Dundee and the Scottish coalfields all the way to South Wales and Cornwall—thirty-two counties in all. As Jenkins writes, it lasted twice the length of the 1926 General Strike—yet it is this latter event that has more readily become part of British labour movement folklore. But with this year marking 1842’s 180th anniversary, the modern labour movement can take important lessons from its history.

Naming the Strike

The naming of the events of 1842 is fundamental to how we come to remember their significance. 1842 was also the year of the second national Chartist petition, a movement with which, as Malcolm Chase writes in Chartism: A New History, the General Strike was ‘intimately bound up’. The People’s Charter set out six points that constituted their demands for democratic reform:

A vote for every man over the age of 21
Secret ballots
No property qualification for MPs
Payment of MPs
Constituencies of equal size
Annual Parliaments

Though support for Chartism among the trades and early workers unions was not unanimous, Chase writes that ‘it was typically Chartism that provided the intellectual tools with which trade unionists thought outside the parameters of their own immediate interests’. Chartists played important roles in the organisation of the strike, too. In the Potteries region, two of the leading striking colliers were Chartists; others worked in the mines, and Chartists also addressed rallies in support of the strikers. Without awaiting instruction from their national body, many local Chartists across the country got involved, and soon a demand for the implementation of the Charter began to be added into strike resolutions passed at meetings and rallies.

In her book Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848, Katrina Navickas emphasises how Chartist involvement in the Great Strike differed from the ‘great holiday’ they had encouraged three years before: where the call for the ‘great holiday’ came from Chartists themselves, in 1842, ‘the agitation arose from the trades unions, with Chartists keen to use their power for political ends’, pushed on by those who ‘had a foot in both camps’, like the Ashton organiser Richard Pilling, who appears to have been the first to call for a strike for the Charter in Stalybridge on 29 July. ‘The impetus originated from the unions in a syndicalist-type form of organisation aimed firstly against their employers,’ Navickas explains, ‘but then aimed more widely at forcing the government to concede the Charter’.

North Bridge, Halifax, Illustrated London News, August 1842.

However, to refer to the events of 1842 as the ‘Chartist general strike’, as Eric Hobsbawm did in Age of Revolution 1789-1848, is to go too far. Though many leading and local Chartists supported the strike, there were also a significant proportion who did not. Several leading Chartists became particularly concerned when state repression led to conflicts between strikers and the authorities, and in towns like Oldham Navickas writes that some Chartists ‘enrolled as special constables … in order to suppress the violence’.

At other times, as Jenkins writes, historians have ‘seized upon an incidental feature of the strike—the pulling of plugs out of the boilers to stop the mills—to dub the strike ‘The Great Plug Plot Riot’’. The drawing of plugs is described by Malm as ‘the practical act around which the uprising unfolded’:

The plug in question was affixed to the boiler of the steam engine. When marching through the manufacturing districts, the strikers systematically pulled the plugs out or pushed them into the boilers, sending the water onto the floor and the steam into the air and bringing the revolutions of the engines to an instant stop.

Navickas, nonetheless, insists on naming the events of 1842 a general strike in part because of how the geography of the strike saw it spread via roving groups. She notes how:

[T]he strike was spread by large bodies of strikers moving from one town to the next in the form of flying pickets, who turned out mills and mines en route. The strike was organised in nodes of particularly militant towns: Bury, whose delegates and pickets headed northwards, Stalybridge heading south-east, Todmorden east of the Pennines and Stockport to the south. The nodes and routes reflected travel networks and patterns of industrialisation within the regions.

To refer to the events of 1842 as ‘plots’ or ‘riots’ is to risk denigrating the movement of working-class radicals who organised and participated in a nationwide general strike—and to risk undermining the great significance of their achievements.

The Great Strike in Halifax

Halifax is a useful local case from which to view the events of the Great Strike because it captures the dual dynamics at play in August of that year. As Catherine Howe, one of the authors of this piece, writes in her book Halifax 1842, ‘no Yorkshire town experienced quite so dramatically the feelings of its people as Halifax did on the 15th and 16th August 1842. And no Yorkshire town’s people experienced in quite so intense a fashion the violence of military might.’

The strike spread down the Calder Valley from Lancashire. On 12 August 1842 the Chartist national convention began in Manchester; from here, strikers moved out to east Yorkshire towns, before crossing the Pennines from Rochdale and converging on Todmorden, at the head of the Calder Valley. They brought the town to a standstill by turning workers out of mills.

Some of those who opposed the strikes in Calderdale did so because they believed they were fomented by external elements from outside the locality—but although the movement of strikers into Todmorden was an important contributing element, the strikes in Calderdale were led by local workers and communities.

Two meetings in Todmorden on 12 August passed resolutions calling for a return to wages at 1840 levels, for a ten-hour working day, and against pregnant women working near machinery. This latter point illustrates the important role of women in the Great Strike of 1842, a point about which Dorothy Thompson has written extensively.

Thompson felt that historians had too often understood ‘the crowd’ as a male phenomenon and as such had misunderstood women’s role in older traditional forms of politics. From the use of foul and abusive language to being in the front line facing down armed troops and special constables (and being attacked for their troubles), women played the fullest of roles. Chartism also created a space for women to become politicised in this period, in the Calder Valley as much as elsewhere. As Matthew Roberts has shown, Todmorden was the location for one of the twenty-three known female Chartist groups in existence in 1843.

On 13 August 1842, over 4000 strikers gathered in Todmorden before many moved off down the valley, closing all the mills at Mytholmroyd and Cragg. The first group from up the valley arrived in Halifax that afternoon, and some camped with Halifax strikers on nearby Skircoat moor.

Two days later, on Monday 15 August, a crowd of around 2000 workers gathered in Halifax. While renowned local Chartist Ben Rushton was addressing the strikers in the town centre, he was pulled from a cart by a special constable, acting on behalf of local magistrates who declared the meeting unlawful. Strikers moved off from the town, marching up the valley to turn out workers from mills in Luddendenfoot. Notably, at Wrigley’s silk mill on King Cross Lane, they were joined by women and girls, though the male workers refused to come out.

The Halifax group met another strike column moving down the valley from Hebden Bridge just outside Mytholmroyd. It is said that when the two groups met, they gathered in a field to drink ‘treacle beer’ and hear a speech from Rushton, and then moved off towards Halifax again.

The state, meanwhile, had been readying its response. 200-300 special constables were sworn in, and two troops of hussars joined companies of local infantry based in the Piece Hall, a Georgian cloth hall around which the military defence of Halifax against the strikers was organised. When the strikers moved into Halifax, they were met by law enforcement on the town’s North Bridge. For what happened next, it is worth quoting at length from the report carried in the Chartist newspaper the Northern Star on 20 August 1842.

When the strikers found themselves halted on the bridge,

several of the women went up, and seizing the bridles of the cavalry, exclaiming, ‘You would not hurt a woman, would you?’ endeavoured to turn them on one side. One of the women coming up in front shouted to the magistrates and soldiery, ‘We didn’t come here for bayonets, we came for bread.’ It is stated that one woman was stabbed in the breast by one of the soldiers with a bayonet, though not seriously, but in general the soldiers did not molest them.

In the end, the authorities retreated from the bridge and the strikers proceeded across, turning out workers from other mills and uniting with a strike column of another 5,000 or so that had marched down from Bradford. The numbers involved were such that, as Chase wrote, it must have appeared to the Bradford strikers as though ‘all Halifax, or so it seemed, was waiting to great them’. This demonstrated an impressive level of coordination and marked a significant victory.

Historian James Dean has suggested that the documentary evidence points to the fact that ‘the arrival of the Bradford contingent [in Halifax] was anticipated’ and that the ‘synchronisation of processions’ into the town is suggestive of ‘forward planning’. At the time, the local Halifax Guardian estimated that there were an astonishing 20,000-30,000 strikers in the town. Strikers stopped nearly all the mills, and of their high level of organisation the Halifax Guardian noted that ‘a number of men were seen, as if sitting in committee, at the top of New Bank and who every now and then sent off pigeon expresses which flew in different directions’.

Why such coordinated action in Halifax? Dean suggests that this may have been down to the strategic importance of the town. He writes that ‘Halifax… was one of the major bridgeheads in the West Riding at that time. It was also a key centre where the strike was most clearly entwined with the Charter’.

‘There is much evidence to suggest’, Dean continues, ‘that Chartists at Bradford and Halifax planned the fall of Halifax’. This point is worth emphasising, given the tendency among historians to reduce the levels of organisation on display in 1842. Hobsbawm, in Age of Revolution, writes of the ‘spontaneous social combustion’, and refers to that year as a ‘spontaneously spreading hunger-riot’. Against this view, Dean continues:

When strikers descended on Halifax it was in a pincer movement that appears to have been pre-meditated. The hope may have been that they would have controlled Halifax by the end of Monday, with the pickets able to concentrate on Bradford on Tuesday and Leeds on Wednesday. As it was, the clashes at Halifax sapped the energy of the strikers.

As Dean suggests, the state’s response would go on to overwhelm the strikers in Halifax.

State Repression

On Tuesday 16 August, strikers heard speeches that the Halifax Guardian reported as seeking to ‘dissuade the meeting from all acts of violence’, and then, after prayers, moved off. Having marched through to Elland and turned more workers out of mills, the strikers became aware that those arrested the previous day in the North Bridge confrontation would soon be transported out of Halifax towards Elland train station.

Between those two destinations lay the road down Salterhebble Hill. Having faced bayonet and rifle attacks the preceding day, the strikers were keen to show solidarity with their comrades and free them if possible.

Shortly after midday, troops moved prisoners down Salterhebble Hill aboard two omnibuses. At the foot of the hill the strikers, caught unawares, attempted to block their passage but failed to do so. The prisoners arrested the day before were successfully put onto trains at Elland—one was ultimately to be transported to Australia—and taken out of Halifax.

Yet as the hussars escorting the prisoners sought to return via Salterhebble, they were met by thousands of strikers bearing stones. The protesters dislodged a number of the troops from their horses, injuring them but none seriously so, before disappearing into the surrounding countryside before the rest of the military force had time to arrive from Halifax. It is believed that at least one protester was fatally shot during the altercation. The response from the military, then and later that day, was clearly disproportionate.

The masses moved back to Skircoat moor to plan their next move. It was decided to move off to Haley Hill, the location of a number of mills owned by prominent industrialists, the liberal Jonathan Ackroyd foremost among them. By about 4pm, strikers arrived at Haley Hill. The military, thirsting for revenge following their humiliation that morning, had regrouped at the Northgate Hotel.

The Attack on Salterhebble, Illustrated London News, August 1842.

As the military crossed North Bridge one protestor was bayoneted and beaten with a rifle butt. Then the order was given for troops to fire into the crowd. Following volleys of shots, the Hussars rode into the crowd bearing sabres and slashing indiscriminately. A Halifax reporter of a conservative persuasion noted that ‘the people seemed terror-stricken’.

Henry Walton, of Skircoat Green, was reported as receiving a deep sabre cut to the head. Jonathon Booth, a stonemason resident in the local area and not actively participating in the strike, was shot through the abdomen. Another local resident non-striker, Sutton Brigg, was shot through the groin.

Strikers and non-strikers alike had felt the full force of the state and dispersed for their own safety. It was then, after the strikers had moved off, that one of the most troubling events of the day occurred. An elderly man, Samuel Crowther, was walking down King Street, beside Halifax Minster, towards his home, when he came across a soldier.

This lone trooper eyed the man before shooting him in an unprovoked attack witnessed by two Leeds journalists. Crowther would live out his remaining days in pain, suffering relentlessly from the effects of the unprovoked shot through the stomach he received in 1842.

We will never know exactly how many were wounded or killed by law enforcers in Halifax on 16 August 1842, ‘a day’, Chase writes, ‘heavy with symbolism as the anniversary of Peterloo’. Catherine Howe notes that ‘the events of August 1842 were demonstrations with revolutionary possibilities.’ Thirty-seven arrests were made, and the violence inflicted upon those arrested was such that Howe notes how ‘the Halifax police-house was as much a hospital as a prison.’

In the end, the strikers in Halifax were defeated by the superior force of the authorities, rather than any lack of planning for their ‘spontaneous’ actions. With their defeat went the wider movement in the West Riding. As Benjamin Wilson, a young man from Halifax, wrote of events in the town in his later memoirs Struggles of an Old Chartist, ‘the struggle was short but fierce’.

Lessons for Today

Malm argues that ‘in terms of numbers involved, geographical extension, duration, sheer insurrectionary fervour and near-revolutionary dynamics, the general strike of 1842 was the greatest revolt of the British working class in the nineteenth century’. One reason for this is the way that those involved in the Great Strike united economic demands with political demands. Workers struck for better wages and a shorter working day, but they also struck for political reform and for the Charter. This bringing-together of the political and the economic fields of struggle was innovative, but also a logical response to the time when working-class communities faced pronounced political and economic disadvantage.

The Great Strike was, crucially, a strike on the move, centred on the regions and with only limited involvement from London. It was spread by workers in communities, moving between workplaces and turning out fellow pickets. It was in this way that the strike spread out of places like Manchester and into regions like the Calder Valley and Halifax. This mobility of the strike required sophisticated organising techniques and pan-regional communication networks, facilitated by mass meetings, the emergent radical press and even the use of pigeons to transmit messages between localities. The heightened level of organisation and radicalism shown through the strike is all the more impressive when viewed in the context of the emergent nature of the labour movement and trades unions at the time.

The response of the state was brutal and decisive, and relied upon reactionary elements in towns to which the strike spread. In the West Riding, for instance, Dean argues that the region was rapidly militarised with assistance from industrialists and their supporters, who backed the civil authorities in their opposition to the strikes. This was the ultimate reason for the defeat of those who participated in the Great Strike of 1842. Indeed, as Neil Pye argues in The Home Office and the Chartists, the events of 1842 marked a watershed moment after which occurred a whole-sale reorganisation of the Home Office approach to protest.

Today the state continues to refine its response. We see this in the Spycops scandal (one of the writers of this article was himself spied on for many years); in the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill; and in renewed attempts to attack trade unions and further tighten already restrictive trade union laws in this country. In such a repressive atmosphere, when we again see an economic downturn inflicting real-terms pay cuts on workers while profits and executive salaries continue their upward trajectory, we find ourselves once more in an opportune moment for the unification of political and economic struggles.

The lessons of 1842 are clear: solidarity and labour movement organising have the capacity to put political and economic demands front and centre of the national conversation, and can make gains in our communities. But without finding ways to challenge the repressive apparatus of the state, any generalised movement of the working class today will face the same barriers as that in 1842. We must look again at the historical meanings of the Great Strike of 1842, and we hope you will join us in doing so in Halifax during this, its 180th anniversary year.

Calderdale trades council are holding a number of commemorative events this summer in honour of those who struck in 1842, supported by the trade unions, and to the Society for the Study of Labour History.

On Saturday 13 August we invite the whole of the labour movement to join us in Halifax for a day of commemoration. Between 11.30am and 12pm we will gather outside Calderdale Industrial Museum to unveil a commemorative plaque in honour of those who lost their lives in the Great Strike of 1842.

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