Social and Political Leadership in Preston 1820-60: chapter 2.4a

Politics and Preston Society 1826 to 1832

See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings

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4. Society and the Politics of Parliamentary Reform 1830-32

(a) Poor Law

One of the indirect consequences of the Radicals’ triumph over Lord Stanley in the election of December 1830 was that their leaders, Joseph Mitchell in particular, attempted to carry their victory into the only organ of local administration which was open to them, the Select Vestry. If poor law administration had any political colour before 1830, it was Whig, and there is evidence to suggest that this bastion of power was defended against Tory encroachment. The economical policy of the early 1820s was continued, the Vestry having theoretically shed responsibility for the great mass of immigrants by the decision on settlement (see Chapter 1.2), so that despite the growing population the annual amount spent on relief dropped from £4,000 in 1821 to under £2,000 in 1828, and rates fell from 1/3d to 6d (100). The Workhouse Rules (101) agreed in 1827 were intended ‘to inculcate and encourage religious and moral duties, industrial and frugal habits… submissive and obedient behaviour’, by such means as the separation of the sexes, silence at meals, and a scale of punishments which included solitary confinement and a bread and water diet. But there were signs of humanity in the stipulation that at mealtimes everyone was ‘to have as much as is required’. The number in the workhouse set to weaving (with little profit) varied between 100 and 250, depending on the condition of the cotton trade, but out relief was probably far more important, and it was used then, as it apparently still was in the 1850s, to subsidise the weavers (102).

The political conflict between the Vestry and the Tories came with the building of the House of Recovery. This was decided at the General Vestry in October 1828, when the medical arguments of the Surgeon John Gilbertson (the need to contain infectious diseases by removing fever cases from, for example, cellars containing eight or ten people) were supported by an arch-Tory attorney (Joseph Bray), a Whig attorney (Peter Haydock) and the reformist proprietor of the Preston Chronicle (Isaac Wilcockson) (103). The committee formed to execute the plan included the Whig Haydock and the Jesuit rector of St. Wilfrid’s chapel, among the overseers, vestrymen and doctors, but not the Tory Joseph Bray. Late in 1828 this committee enlarged its plans, at a greatly increased cost, and thereby raised a ratepayer reaction (104). The opposition was led first by Bray, who doubted the legality of the committee’s decision. He was supported by ‘a considerable body of ratepayers, poor men’ who, though they paid rates, would nevertheless ‘have to beg to the gentlemen for a ticket to make use of it’ (105). Peter Haydock defended the new plan in terms which confirmed this social anxiety from a different point of view: the new site was further from the workhouse, and ‘there were many worthy inhabitants… whose feelings might be hurt, if it could be supposed that they would be pauperised by going into it’.

Until typhus and cholera took the decisive initiative in 1831 (106), progress on the House of Recovery was delayed, partly by depression and parish debts, but partly also by Tory opposition. In April 1831 the magistrates objected to the Overseers’ accounts, the mayor, Nicholas Grimshaw, expressing ‘an unfavourable opinion of the mode of obtaining the sanction of a public meeting for the purpose of expending large sums… Such matters were made party concerns, and subjects of political canvass…’ (107).

I do not know why the poor’s affairs remained the preserve of these rival elites during the decisive year of reform agitation. The reason may be that Radical leaders still regarded the Tories as tactical political allies. It is also possible that poor law administration was felt to belong in a paternalistic pattern of charity which included such voluntary agencies as the Dispensary, the Lying-in Charity, the Clothing Charity, and the Samaritan Society: these were listed together by a correspondent concerned with ‘Bettering the condition of the Poor’ in 1829 (108), who was thankful that in Preston ‘the social bond has not been broken’. (I explore this general theme more thoroughly in chapter III.) But if this is the case it suggests that full social extension of political awareness was very slow, even retarded.

When the Radical assault came in 1832, its impact on the Vestry was as an aberration in the established routines of social administration. It was a direct consequence of the ‘politics of reform’ in the town: an attempt by the Radical Joseph Mitchell to ‘recover his lost popularity’, after he had been ejected from the company of the Huntite Political Union (see Chapter 2.4b); and the result of it was to widen the political gulf between middle class reformers and working class Radicals.

At meetings of the General Vestry on 29th March 1832 for the appointment of Overseers and on 19th April for the election of the Select Vestry, Joseph Mitchell challenged established procedures. The magistrates normally appointed three Overseers from a list of 21 submitted by the Vestry. Mitchell persuaded the meeting that this gave the Vestry little control. He was for challenging the magistrates by sending only three names. If they rejected all three ‘Let it be seen if they would so far fly in the face of the parishioners’ (109).

Haydock contrived a compromise at six names, and these, including Joseph Livesey and one liberal Catholic, were then voted singly. Mitchell’s use of a proposed rise in salary for one of the assistant Overseers made his social allegiance clear: ‘before the wages of those in Mr. Walker’s sphere of life were raised, he wished the wages of another class to be raised… the working class’ (110). (Note the singular.)

At the next meeting (111) the same voting tactics were applied to the election of the Select Vestry. Instead of the Overseers’ prepared list being voted en bloc, the names were voted individually. Joseph Bray and Peter Catterall (an attorney who had been a Whig election agent) opposed this, but Mitchell had the support of Peter Haydock and of three liberals linked with resistance to Easter dues: Robert Ascroft (attorney) (112), John Bryning (grocer) and Thomas Dowson (tea dealer); and with the connivance of the chairman, Bryning, who announced that ‘it was still competent to anyone to propose additional names’, Joseph Mitchell himself, and John Taylor, a Huntite clogger, got upon the Select Vestry. The Huntite Addresses… (113) celebrated ‘the election of men, (who)… will act in a humane manner towards the indigent poor’.

This they did with a vengeance. The ratepayers were surprised to find the poor rate raised by a third (£1,530 compared with £1,138 for the same quarter the previous year), a rise which the Select Vestry report of October attributed partly to ‘the system of arbitrary fines in some factories by which men left their work and could not easily procure other situations, being refused characters’. (114) – in other words, rates were used as political subsidies. But Peter Haydock indicated another reason

they had been exceedingly charitable… They had increased the meals of the paupers from four to five in the day, (this) was certainly very good living … if they continued to give five meals a day, – everybody would be -.., rushing to the workhouse…

The General Vestry held in the Corn Exchange in October 1832 was crowded, turbulent, and protracted, taking two days for meetings, and four consecutive days of polling. This was the Radicals’ attempt to control the workhouse regime by dismissing the Governor as ‘cruel, partial, and arbitrary’. Mitchell’s idea of the purpose of the poor law was quite different from the social and moral discipline of the Whigs. The parishioners ought to be

instrumental in protecting the widows and orphans, and soothing the indigent and unfortunate … When he looked at the state of the weavers, he would, rather than see then in such destitution, say to them – ‘Go, my lads, to the parish, and keep up your prices’… (115).

Deadlock and disorder having brought the debate to a halt, Peter Haydock asked for a poll on the motion to adjourn sine die. This was the ultimate test of the Radicals’ assault on the Vestry. The Corn Exchange had been ‘full to repletion’, the polling began with ‘considerable spirit’, the Tom Clerk’s decision that compounding ratepayers were disqualified from voting produced uproar on the second day (‘bitter threats and furious imprecations were uttered by the claimants’), and the magistrates, ‘informed of the disturbance’, supported the decision. The mountain laboured, and it brought forth an unconvincing display of working class strength: 644 persons were polled, only 258 on the Radical side. The distribution of votes, however, is revealing, because the richer ratepayers enjoyed the advantage of plural voting:

For adjournment (Haydock): 386 persons – 736 votes
Against adjournment (Mitchell): 258 persons – 264 votes (116)

As most householders rented their houses, and the compounding ratepayers were mainly those who paid the lowest rates, and who by the evidence of the Land Tax lists, were the majority (117), it may be said that the result of the poll was determined by the Town Clerk. In football parlance ‘we was robbed’.

The Radical assault on the Vestry had failed. Election of the Select Vestry returned in 1833 to the traditional mode (118). Recovery of financial control was rapid, but the cost of the middle class victory must have been grave damage to their paternal image. Given the rules of the game, it was pointless to resist, and this must explain the sudden evaporation of popular interest in the Vestry before the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. In poor law affairs, Whigs found they had more in common with Tories than with Radicals.

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100. Lancs C.R.0. 140/3 and P.C. passim.
101. Lancs C.R.0. 140/3.
102. P.C. 30 October 1830; Report of Select Vesta.
103. P.C. 1 November 1828.
104. P.C. 20 June 1829.
105. ibid: a reference to rights of recommendation by subscribers to the Dispensary (my emphasis).
106. P.C. 29 October and 5 November 1831.
107. P.C. 16 April 1831 (my emphasis).
108. P.C. 16 May 1829.
109. P.C. 31 March 1832.
110. ibid (my emphasis).
111, P.C. 21 April 1832.
112. A leading Liberal in 1832, later councillor, appointed Town Clerk in 1853.
113. Addresses by One of the 3730 Electors, 21 April 1832.
114. P.C. 13 October 1832.
115. P.C. 3 November 1832, my emphasis: he owed Hunt’s victory in 1832 to the weavers.
116. P.C. 3 November 1832.
117. Lancs C.R.O. QDL: Land Tax Assessment 1831.
118. P.C. 13 April 1833.

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