The Preston temperance campaigner Joseph Livesey has been fashioned into a secular saint — largely by his own writings and those of his family and disciples. In fact, he was a much more complex character, as emerges when he is treated to historical analysis rather than hagiography.
I’ve been working on the widely accepted narrative about Joseph Livesey for some time. Something about it disturbed me. Autobiographies are never the most reliable of sources and material written by ‘followers/disciples’ is equally suspect. When the subject of the written material is also the owner of a popular newspaper caution is even more important. As I worked through the Livesey story I became more and more aware that the man and the myth are hard to disentangle. So, I went to the sources and I looked for contemporary evidence which might confirm or challenge the popular perception of one of Preston’s most famous characters.
One of my lines of enquiry was land ownership. When I found that a Joseph Livesey owned acres and acres of land in and around Preston it came as a shock. The more I checked, the more land I found recorded as belonging to Joseph Livesey. Not only was there land but a working farm at Holme Slack. I published the findings on ‘Preston History’ as I uncovered them.
Then History bit me on the backside. I went to Lancashire Archives to start working on the rest of the Walton-le-Dale tithe records other than Livesey’s. I’d previously checked the pages relating to Livesey but had gone no further. And there I discovered buried in the preamble that the acres belonged to a Joseph Livesay of Lincoln. I think the Frenchwood acres must have been owned by him as well. Livesay sounds like Livesey, which would account for the divergent spelling. One of the lessons I learned long ago is that spellings vary in records. So, I’ve been down a line of enquiry which promised much but delivered nothing.
Time to reset. To go back to what I have already discovered about Preston’s Joseph Livesey
As an example, Livesey makes much of his frugality in the autobiography and urges the poor to follow his example in keeping a tight control on what they spend. This does not square with this account of his business dealings from Chapter Twelve:
I once bought a farm which I had never seen. Entering the auction room, it was hanging under the hammer at £1,700, and I immediately bid another £100. I knew the distance it was from the town, and the measurement of the land, but nothing more. Some other person offered another £100, and I followed, when it was knocked down to me at £2,000. I could ill spare the money, but, before the day of payment arrived, a friend of mine, fancying the place, took it off my hands, giving me a couple of sovereigns for my trouble.
To commit £2,000 on a whim seems so unlike the usual picture we have of Livesey: it’s a sum that that would represent considerably more than the lifetime earnings of a handloom weaver, as Livesey himself records in Chapter Four of his autobiography. There he quotes from an 1831 edition of his Moral Reformer journal where he calculated that the average wage of a handloom weaver was 5s. 11¾d. [30p in new money] per week: ‘Such is the miserable pittance of the weaver, and with provisions at the present exorbitant price, if any man in the country can behold this state of things without raising his determined voice against it, he must be destitute of the common feelings of humanity.’
The following extract from Chapter Eleven gives another insight into Livesey’s character, revealing the inflexible bigotry governing his life that contrasts strongly with the Livesey who could buy a farm on a whim. It also provides a good example of his smug self-satisfaction:
Some have expressed surprise how I have been able to give my attention and labour to so many matters. Well, in the first place, I seem as if I had never given myself rest or relaxation like other people. I have known very little of what is usually termed recreation; duty has been my pleasure, especially when engaged in something productive of good to the masses or the castaways. For years together I have never attended a “party,” though often invited, and when the mayors of the borough have sent me invitations to their “dinners” or festive gatherings, I have always declined going. I had a strong objection to be found at any gathering where wine drinking was sure to be prominent, and where I could not with propriety protest against it. Indeed, I have carried this objection so far as always to refuse attendance at the wedding breakfasts of my own sons, when the lady’s parents or friends would have wine on the table. I am not sure but I have carried this feeling too far; it has tended to separate me so much from the influential classes that the temperance cause may have gained less than it would have done by my mixing more with them. But I have always felt happiest among the poor—far happier sitting at a drunkard’s fireside than in the drawing-room of my richest friend.
What I propose to do is carefully examine the autobiography chapter by chapter looking at what it reveals, and what it conceals. For I think Joseph, and his eldest son William, were very skilful early exponents of what is now termed image manipulation. In this they were aided by Livesey’s first biographers. As an example, in Chapter One Livesey describes living in the Walton-le-Dale of his childhood ‘surrounded by mental darkness and vice’. Yet, another account by a radical political writer who was educated in the village during Livesey’s childhood there paints a totally different, idyllic picture of life in late 18th-century Walton-le-Dale.
Another example can be found in the treatment of the Preston Cotton Famine to which Livesey devotes a chapter, largely concerned with his part in bringing relief to the starving. A more self-effacing and empathetic account is provided by the journalist Edwin Waugh, who focussed more on the suffering than the relief. His verdict on the plight of the town’s poor was that Preston ‘… has seen many a black day [but] it has never seen so much wealth and so much bitter poverty together as now.’ Interestingly, he makes no mention of Livesey. Also, I discovered another report that shows that the poor relief offered and the work required to obtain it led to riotous opposition that required the intervention of the military. The rioters rejected attempts by Livesey to placate them. The rioting is not mentioned in the autobiography, but then industrial action of any kind is hardly mentioned there. I can find no mention of the Preston strikes of 1842 and 1853-4, yet these were pivotal events in the history of the town and in the workers’ own attempts to better their lot.
Another area to be explored is the surprising absence of Livesey from the 1873 Return of Owners of Land, which recorded, for every parish in England, everybody who owned an acre of land or more, based on the parish poor law records. The return is filled with the names of scores of Preston inhabitants, listing how many acres they held, and the rental value, yet I cannot find any trace in it of Livesey owning land anywhere in the country. Does this mean that Livesey did not hold any land at this time, is it an omission in the records (there were several), or am I off on a fruitless tangent again?
I would be grateful for any corrections, or suggestions for further areas and sources to explore. All contributions will be credited.