Politics and Preston Society 1826 to 1832
1. The social milieu in the 1820s
These six years demonstrated to contemporaries, more forcibly than they do to the historian, what could happen to the established political order in a period of violent social instability without adequate structural support. Very rapid political progress by Preston Radicals in the name of the working classes raises questions about revolutionary divisions in Preston Society comparable with Foster’s view of Oldham (1). The connection is not merely historiographical because the Radicals of Preston themselves looked to Oldham as an example. (see below p. 111)
Violent instability was literally violent. Small traces of evidence suggest not only the penal savagery of impotent medieval government but the gunlaw of the frontier. A man found guilty of burglary at the Lancaster Assizes was hanged in front of a dense and silent crowd. The repeal of the Combination Laws in 1824 was followed by a wave of strikes, and in Preston there were turn-outs of spinners, during which one ‘nobstick’ (strike breaker) was shot. (2) Millowners struggled to restore control by other means: for example, the magistrates punished two 13 year old boys for leaving Swainson’s mill without due notice with a month’s hard labour in the House of Correction. What was possible at the extreme, though of course not typical, was shown in an incident in 1825, on the estate of Robert Townley Parker’s Cuerden Hall, just south of Preston. Fourteen poachers were ambushed by a larger number of gamekeepers, and the fierce gun battle which ensued left one poacher apparently dying and all but two of the others dreadfully cut up’ (3)
In a society-accustomed to a fairly uninhibited use of violence both by and against authority, the combination of circumstances at the time of the parliamentary election of 1826 should have produced a clear political division along the line of underlying social faults.
A severe depression afflicted the cotton trade in the spring of 1826. Manufacturers who had invested heavily when prices were high were embarrassed or put out of business when they fell (a consequence, Cobbett was to point out, of government meddling with paper money). Weavers’ wages, even when in full employment, were ‘deplorably reduced’, eight shillings a week being considered ‘a fair statement of the individual average earnings’: as ‘a Weavers Friend’ wrote to the Preston Pilot:
The fact is, they cannot get the necessaries of life … their skeleton forms and ghastly faces are sufficient proof of their sad condition … the wives in many instances … are obliged to leave their homes and children … to work at the factories or at the steam looms. … Orders for turning off are becoming general and… some are determined to close their concerns. (4)
At the end of April rumours reached Preston that in the Blackburn district people in the surrounding villages ‘were making preparations for a general attack on the power loom factories’ (5). This was immediately confirmed by a report in the same paper that a mob of about ten thousand had caused £30,000 worth of damage in three days of machine breaking in Blackburn, ‘about 300 having picks shouldered. They seemed determined upon executing their work of destruction’. According to the Pilot the whole population of Preston was thrown into alarm by a ‘rumour that the rioters were at the neighbouring village of Walton’. The atmosphere in Preston became so tense that a crowd on the moor watching a ‘pugilistic contest’, seen from the upper storey of one of the factories, was mistaken for ‘a muster of loom breakers’ (6); a detachment of the 73rd Infantry and a troop of the King’s Dragoon Guards was called into the town by the magistrates; and millowners prepared for a siege:
In and about most of the buildings (of the power-loom factories) pieces of artillery have been planted, with an ample supply of ammunition, to say nothing of a grand reserve of missiles on the roofs (7).
In the principal industry of the town therefore, employing a quarter of the population, open alienation was revealed in both the mechanised and in the traditional branches: between millowners and spinners in 1824-5, and between power loom manufacturers and weavers in 1826.