Politics and Preston Society 1826 to 1832
See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings
3. Radical progress 1826-1832
Only the political muscle of Horrocks’s wealth and local influence had protected the Tory Corporation’s political position against the effects of universal manhood suffrage in Preston: his unexpected withdrawal had left the Corporation hanging like a redundant fig leaf. Captain Barrie may well have been, in his friend Grimshaw’s description, ‘well known in the Navy as a brave bulldog fighter’ (48), but he had had to resort to religious discrimination, and the result had still been humiliation for the Corporation. They had lost their seat to an advanced liberal. Having failed to lead the local democracy from in front, they therefore tried to destroy it from the rear, asking Wood and Stanley to promote a ‘Bill for the regulation of the poll at Elections’, which was already drawn up by February 1827, and must have been initiated almost as soon as the 1826 election had ended. But in February 1828 they decided to oppose the Bill which they had asked their MPs to bring forward. The terms in which Stanley roundly denounced the Corporation show both the Corporation’s intentions and their parliamentary impotence with Whig and Liberal members:
With regard … to the only principle upon which the Corporation seem inclined to give their assistance or withdraw their opposition, namely that of restricting the Elective Franchise, I must state at once that, whatever I may think of the right of voting as an abstract question, I consider it one which is finally settled as respects Preston, and cannot consent to any Bill which has for its object to deprive the voters of their rights. (49)
This ruse therefore failed. Universal manhood suffrage not only survived in Preston until the 1832 Reform Act, but was augmented by Catholic Emancipation in 1829.
There is evidence of harmonious cooperation between Catholics and Protestants at the elite level, both before and after 1829. A ‘very considerable number’ of Protestants ‘supported the Catholic School Ball in 1829 (50), non-Catholics subscribed to the building of St. Ignatius’ Church in the mid-1830s, and prominent Catholics were among the original shareholders of the Winckley Club in 1844 (51). But the emancipation issue appears to have had a reactive effect on the Established Church in Preston, and hence on the nature of political alignments. The Preston Chronicle and Preston Pilot took opposite sides, the latter with unblushing lack of restraint. ‘A Protestant’ correspondent in the Pilot (52) in February 1829 calculated the political effects of emancipation in Preston. Claiming (with what justification I do not know) that in 1826 only 300 votes had remained unpolled, that there were then 4,522 voters, he predicted that the removal of restrictions on Roman Catholics would increase the number to ‘at least 5,200’ (53), with very undesirable effects:
… When it is considered that some hundreds of these new voters are emigrants from the other side of the water … it is highly probable that the riots and disturbances will be increased beyond all former experience … The influence exercised by the Roman Catholic priests – and of the Cobbett-lane-end personage (54) in particular — on this occasion, must never be forgotten.
Probably about one fifth of the electors after 1829 were Catholics. (This was roughly their proportion of the whole population. (See Chapter 1.2). Given the possibility that they might vote en masse as directed by clerical or lay leaders, they might determine the result of parliamentary elections for a long time.
‘Working class’ Radicalism in Preston was strong in 1826, and its potential voting strength was probably more than proportionately increased as the population expanded, because ‘of the great influx of persons who seek for Employment (and) the facility with which such Persons obtain Employment’ (55) – chiefly as weavers, despite the low wages. Addition of Catholics to the electors would have made control of elections by the usual ‘influences’ even harder, even if they had divided their allegiance evenly. But although the historian might have expected a resulting Radical progress to lead to political victory, I think contemporaries did not. The election of Henry Hunt in December 1830 was a surprise (or a shock). This is suggested not only by the devices used in the elections of 1830 to persuade the working classes to vote for Hunt, but also by the fact that Radical leaders did not interest themselves in local poor law administration until April 1831. Developed political awareness and established Radical organisation would have led Preston Radicals to the Vestry, the only local body accessible to them, much earlier. If they could take it in 1832, why not in 1830 or 1828? According to John Foster, in Oldham ‘the working class clung… to the control of poor relief from the late 1810s till the takeover of the new poor law in 1847’ (56). In Preston, given the ability of the working class Radicals to mobilise a crowd in 1826, they must have been capable of packing a General Vestry meeting. But in October 1830 ‘only about a dozen, or at most, a score of persons’ attended (57) and although in April 1851 Radical leaders such as Joseph Mitchell were present the Select Vestry then elected was overwhelmingly dominated by men who had voted for Stanley rather than Hunt in the recent parliamentary election. Of the fifteen Vestrymen I can identify, thirteen were for Stanley voters, and one of the two Hunt voters was Joseph Livesey, a manifold friend of the poor but no revolutionary (58). Radical capture of the poor law lagged behind their success in the parliamentary election.
One reason for this is that the defeat of Stanley by Hunt in December 1830 was at least as much the result of a Tory vendetta on the Whigs as a Radical challenge to either. The true relationship between social and political development is more accurately shown by the conduct of the elections of August 1830, December 1830, April 1831, and December 1832, and the alignments and debates on the Reform Bill, than by the fact that Hunt either contested or won.
Perhaps Hunt would have contested the general election of August 1830 without Tory encouragement. One of the veteran Lancashire Radicals, Joseph Mitchell, was now a draper in Preston. Mitchell had been an active member of the ‘Manchester Constitutional Society’ (59), and of the Liverpool Concentric Society (60); he had met Cobbett, and acted as local agent for his Political Register, shared with John Knight and William Benbow the hazards of political conspiracy after the suspension of Habeas Corpus, described by Samuel Bamford, (61) as one of the ‘missionaries’ to other Lancashire towns elected by the Manchester Society, had been associated with the Ardwick conspiracy (62), and had been described in 1816 by a Lancashire magistrate as ‘a sort of chief for the whole of this part of the country’ (63). Mitchell himself, at a dinner to Hunt in August 1830, claimed to have been ‘a principal instrument’ in rousing the country to general petitioning for reform of parliament, and to have been sent to London to explain ‘the plot’ to Cartwright and Burdett (64), His character, conduct, and sufferings for ‘sedition’ were commended by Thomas Smith of Liverpool, who had introduced Cobbett in 1826 (65). Mitchell avowed that the ‘only worthy object’ of their exertions was ‘to get good men into parliament’ (66). But Mitchell had been implicated in the treachery of Oliver the Spy (67), he had not seen Smith since 1819, and his sympathies were with Cobbett rather than Hunt. Neither he himself nor his political connections were native to Preston (he was not in Baines’ Directory of 1825). Just before the December election in 1830 the Chronicle published an exchange of correspondence between the officers of some unnamed Preston society and Edward Baines of the Leeds Mercury in which the latter expressed disdainful mistrust of Mitchell, and the former challenged him to prove his ‘vituperation’ of Mitchell as a government spy at a meeting to take place at the Theatre or the Black Bull Inn in Friargate (68).
Therefore, although it is likely that Mitchell played a leading part in organising the Preston Radicals who invited Hunt to Preston, his Radicalism was not home grown, and his leadership was not beyond doubt in local circles. A report in the Chronicle of a meeting of a Reformation Society in 1829, attended by Mitchell and Robert Segar, shows Radical and Catholic combining (69).
Although Hunt claimed, ‘I would rather be elected for Preston than any other place, because there you have Universal Suffrage’, (70) he showed a marked reluctance to come to Preston, refusing to start the journey in August until he received from the town funds to cover his expenses, and in December until the voters had proved themselves by putting him at the head of the poll on the first day (71).
In fact it was common knowledge that the decisive initiative came from some of the Tories:
The hope of returning the apostle of Radical Reform has been fostered, and the funds raised … have received their main support from the adherents of the old blue or tory party. (72)
The Pilot confirmed this, identifying the individual mainly responsible, as Joseph Bray (attorney), and purifying his political reputation thus:
At the time when that gentleman (Bray) expressed his determination to support Hunt’s election – or rather, strictly speaking, to oppose the other candidates – there were scores and hundreds who entertained precisely the same disposition … (73)
Because the members seeking re-election were the Whig Stanley and the ‘liberal’ Wood, Hunt was therefore at one and the same time the Radicals and the Tories’ candidate. From 1826 to 1830 Preston’s Tories were still fighting the battle which the Corporation had lost to the house of Derby in 1768. It would seem that they were more alarmed at the reality of a moderate reforming Whig government, or of a rising challenge by hometown outsiders, than at the possibility of animating the Preston working classes. If this is correct, it suggests that in 1830 the established elite of Preston did not perceive political differences in class terms; until the polling began.
The election of August 1830 was shorter and therefore less ritualised than that of 1826. But for Hunt, there would have been no contest, and even on Friday 25th July it was not certain he would come. The court of election began on 30th July and ended on 4th August, when the final state of the poll was
This demonstrated either that the Tories’ new muscle had failed, or that they had lost their nerve at the sight of the evil spirit they had conjured.
It was of course an unrealistic alliance, and had been organised very late. ‘A mixed assemblage of radicals and tories’ at the Garth’s Arms in Great Avenham Street on Tuesday 20th July had failed to agree, and the decision to form a committee and invite Hunt was only taken on Thursday 22 July at the Black Bull in Friargate (74). The composition of this committee is revealing: (75)
John Johnson, Market Place, tailor
John Irvin, 114 Friargate, shuttlemaker
Henry Wallis, Old Cock.Yard, tailor
Richard Leaver, Friargate? painter?
J. Huffman, Church Street, shoemaker
Edward Jacobs, Friargate? Lord St? tailor
Edward Grubb, Avenham Road, tailor
John Eamer, St. John’s Place, porter dealer
Five were members of traditional small-master trades. The company of tailors had headed Stanley’s procession in 1826, and shown public anxiety about their status in 1822. But although nearly half this committee were tailors, it would be wrong to assume that Preston tailors were Radicals, because in December 40% of the 128 listed in the pollbook voted for Stanley (76). If the figures prove anything, it is that the small number of men who led the Preston Radicals in 1830 were discontented craftsmen. (77) There is nothing in the membership of this committee to suggest that it was the Radical vanguard of an advanced industrial working class, or associated with the decline of handloom weaving (43 prisoners had been taken in the Blackburn riots of 1826 and 35 of them were weavers) (78). Four or five years later John Lennon and Richard Marsden were recognised as local leaders of the weavers, and Marsden was a leading Chartist but neither is in this list. Joseph Mitchell, who was not typical (as I have demonstrated above) was involved with the Chartists in 1838, but John Noble (maltster) who also supported the Chartists explicitly dissociated himself from the Radical committee in 1830 (79). Maybe the genuine working class leaders went to earth for the period of the Tory alliance? – but if so, that would only confirm the point that Hunt was not initially a candidate of the working classes. In its small way this Radical committee had something in common with Foster’s lists of Oldham working class leaders, except for his small proportion of factory workers (80), but in the case of Preston subtle explanations of the role of shopkeepers are unnecessary.
The Radicals’ address to the electors (81) was integrationist:
In the name of languishing Agriculture, and overburdened manufacture … and especially of the long suffering patient and deserving Weavers … Gentlemen of influence … gentlemen of property … Let us join all interests in returning (Hunt) along with Mr Wood, and by joining together the rich and the poor, do away with party feeling …
But their candidate was beaten into the field by Stanley and Wood, who arrived on Monday 26th and Tuesday 27th. The political opinions which they expressed differed little from 1826, but on this occasion ‘it soon became evident that Mr Wood was the popular man’, and that he had the support of the mechanics – ‘I have this day got 500 votes (i.e. promises) from the ‘black fleet”, and of the Catholics – ‘They now told him they could vote for him’, a claim which is justified by the fact that his nomination was seconded by John Bushell, a leading Catholic politician and lawyer whose office was close to St. Wilfrid’s Chapel (82).
Although Hunt set off from London on Thursday, ‘as fast as horses could carry him’, he had not arrived when John Irvin and Joseph Mitchell nominated him at the hustings. Irvin had political tact, but Mitchell, who had not, could not refrain from belligerent references to ‘that starvation law – the Corn Bill’, and the ‘swindling debt which the aristocracy had created for their own benefit’. Hunt’s arrival interrupted Stanley’s speech ‘with a tremendous burst of cheering’ (83).
Despite the impression given by the show of hands, which Stanley won among the minority in the galleries and Wood and Hunt won outright in the crowd massed in the area of the Corn Exchange, the end of the second day of polling found Hunt at the bottom and Wood at the top of the poll. Miss Proctor has given an adequate account (84) of the tactics of the polling in both 1830 elections which need not be repeated. Again we lack a pollbook, but it seems that Wood benefitted from splits while Hunt did not, so that the contest was really between Stanley and Hunt at the extremes, and the resources at their command were so unequal that Hunt could have had little chance unless the Tories held to the alliance, which they evidently did not. Stanley already knew what the Preston electors voted for, and it wasn’t for rooting out the consumers of the ‘swindling debt’ or repealing ‘that starvation law’: they voted for the short-term solution to the problem of hunger:
On Sunday… the taverns were thrown open in all directions (by ‘Mr Stanley’s committee’) … the public houses were crowded with “unbought, unbiassed, and uninfluenced” electors, duly instructed on how to exercise their noble privilege
and on Monday, when polling was resumed,
The invited guests… mustered at the inns of their respective districts, where meat and drink were dispensed with liberal profusion, and clothing was provided … From these feasting places the parties flocked to the poll, and continued to plump for Stanley so fast that they soon overcame Mr Wood’s majority … (85)
Hunt benefitted from a share of Wood’s ‘Black Fleet’, the mechanics who ‘spurn all attempts to win their votes by liquor … bribes … or interference’ by their employers, but the influence of Stanley with the upper crust counted for more. Hunt’s analysis of the way it worked is probably correct. Although the Whig and Tory factions ‘hated each other as they hated the devil, they hated the people a great deal more … and acted accordingly’, quoting the case of a druggist ‘Fairfield… (cries in the crowd “Fallowfield”)’ who belonged to the blue party, promised money to Hunt’s friends in order to keep out Stanley, but after an agreement at Knowsley that he should ‘be allowed to physic and drug the family of Knowsley’ (and their hounds), had voted for Stanley. The cotton employers had also, by Hunt’s account, withdrawn their neutrality at the urgent request of the Whigs. Paley ‘was now requiring his men to vote for Stanley’ and Horrockses ‘had acted the same part’ (86). Repetition of the names similarly accused by Cobbett in 1826 is slightly suspicious, but the number of millhands so influenced was probably of less account in the polling than the behaviour of the poor but nominally independent hand weavers. Hunt could have won the election if the far greater number of weavers had had serious political convictions. The contradiction between the judgment of the electors at the show of hands and their behaviour at the poll is only apparent: in the dense crowd at the Corn Exchange an arm held up for Stanley would have invited attack and reduced one’s defence. But, in the light of the response of the electors to Stanley’s ‘influence’, it is likely that hands were held up less for Cobbett’s election than for Stanley’s predictably generous means of persuasion.
The by-election in December, a consequence of Stanley’s appointment as Secretary for Ireland, gives a very different impression of Radical progress. They benefitted from a straight contest between two candidates for a single seat, so that there could be no splitting, which must have reduced the complexity of the issue so that every elector could understand it, and removed all ambiguity from the resulting pollbook, The returning officer, the Tory mayor Nicholas Grimshaw, who had conducted proceedings with partiality in 1826, now played a neutral, almost an irresponsibly passive, role; presumably because improprieties on the Radical side increased the chances of Whig defeat.
The evidence contained in newspaper accounts shows that Radical leaders were now much better organised for mobilising the voters when and where they were required, and that, from the example of an ‘electioneering fund’ run in part by ‘Mr Hadock’ for the relief of voters ‘turned out of employment for giving their votes’ in 1822 and 1826 (87) they had created a ‘ political union’. They also used surprise tactics: on 27th November the Pilot predicted that Stanley would be returned ‘without opposition’ (88) but on 3rd December, four days before the poll, placards announced that Hunt would be put in nomination, and the Pilot reported that ‘the political union’ had subscribed £10 towards his expenses (89). Stanley, reminding the electors on Monday 6th December that Hunt had said ‘the time was not come when the People of Preston could elect him’, assured them ‘you will not see him here’. Hunt had only been nominated, he said, ‘for the disgraceful purpose of occasioning that expense which it is my firm determination to avoid if possible’ (90). In other words, information had leaked out that Stanley was not armed with a bottomless purse on this occasion. Even Hunt was taken by surprise: having been put in nomination without his knowledge or consent, he had received the news that he was at the top of the first day’s polling as ‘some good joke of my friend Mitchell’ (91).
Joseph Mitchell and John Irvin, now untrammelled by Tory alliance, appear to have been the organising geniuses mainly responsible for Hunt’s victory. They were helped by Stanley’s plain resistance to popular causes: his resistance to universal suffrage and the ballot, and acceptance of office in a Whig government offering only limited reform of parliament, allowed Mitchell to accuse him of ‘selling’ the electors of Preston. He declared that it was ‘impossible’ that the Corn Laws could be abolished, which provoked ‘loud and continued disapprobation’ (92). But in every tactical aspect of electioneering the Radicals had taken the initiative. Irvin told the electors to drink as much as they could and vote as they pleased, the Whigs countered by offering five shilling drink tickets, and the Huntites promptly beat up the ‘ticket men’. The possibility of intimidation by employers they countered first with the promise of compensation from the penny subscriptions and the ‘trades’ union’, which were now supported by contributions from the Stockport Political Union, and from Liverpool ‘and other places’ (93), and secondly by parading the town in the evenings with flaming tar barrels, drums and fifes, ‘visiting all the factories in particular’. Their discipline was good: the Pilot reported that although six or seven thousand took part in this tour, ‘ it is quite impossible that any men could behave themselves more peaceably’; while in the Corn Exchange ‘in all they did they acted upon a preconcerted plan’. They used drums and fifes for their muster of strength long before dawn, and in the dinner hour ‘a very strong muster’ turned the tide against Stanley (94). They had also planned to take advantage of Grimshaw’s neutrality by polling many ‘bad’ votes, either by introducing non-residents, or by polling the same voters several times over, knowing full well that Stanley would be unwilling to submit to a scrutiny. The result was:- (95)
Total number polled 7122.
I have not attempted a complete analysis of the pollbook, but in the process of analysing the voting of all the spinners and weavers (and tailors) the overwhelming impression of a clear division between upper crust and working classes is unavoidable, which confirms the pattern of Vincent’s small sample. Figures for spinners and weavers alone are as follows:- (96)
Table 8. Voting of spinners and weavers in December 1830
This shows that in a straight contest with clear issues good leader-ship and relatively little extraneous ‘influence’ the working classes’ of Preston would vote as a group for a Radical, even those who were mill hands giving him a distinct majority, though less marked than that of the independent weavers. This was either a great encouragement or a great threat for the future. But what would matter would be the aftermath.