The Mighty Cataract and the Webs of Influence
See also: Nigel Morgans’s Desirable Dwellings
2. Cotton and class
It therefore seems that contemporaries were acutely aware of the emergence of a horizontally divided society of mutually opposed classes as early as the 1830s. Such perceptions strongly affected political behaviour at the time of the Reform Agitation in 1830-32, as shown in Chapter II.
A quarter of a century after the diagnosis of ‘Lucius’ (quoted above) the Preston economy was brought to a standstill for nine months by that ‘most important struggle between capital and labour’, the Great Strike and Lock Out of 1853-4. At a meeting at the Theatre attended by ‘many respectable shopkeepers of the town’ and ‘a considerable number of factory operatives’, in March 1854, Edward Ambler, a Liberal organiser and printer (who, pace Dr Fraser, nevertheless retained the (Conservative) Corporation’s printing contract), made the following observations on the social structure of the community:
… on one point there would be unanimity of opinion – and that was, that the time had arrived when the middle class – should say something on the dispute… They would be well aware that there were two conflicting interests in this town – the employers and the employed; and there was only one publicly recognised body which occupied a medium between the two, and that body was the body of tradesmen and shopkeepers.’ (18)
This seems to be conclusive proof that the predictions of 1829 were fulfilled by the 1850s. In the same decade estate developers and speculative builders were sculpting the same class structure onto the landscape of the town, creating the one-class cotton operative communities of the Greenbank Estate (Plungington Road) and of New Hall Lane, in St. Peter’s and Fishwick wards; while the Freehold Land Society began to do the same for the more affluent middle class in Fulwood (see Chapter VI). The same social division began to impinge on municipal affairs, especially in Council elections (see Chapter V). In short, the merest glance at the physical shell which the urban community was building for itself, at its political or its social life, teaches the same simple point.
In many respects I think the impression is far too simple, and that it deflects attention from more important questions. To concentrate on the social division is to neglect to explain the social cohesion, which in any case finally prevailed. There was no ‘mighty cataract’, no ‘torrent’, no ‘conflagration’, Some historians; John Foster famously, but also D.S. Gadian whose work is a corrective to Foster, appear to regard this fact as a working class failure to be explained. Gadian, for instance:
Any conclusion that the Anti Corn Law League campaign in Preston had probably more success than anywhere else in Lancashire in winning working class support away from the Chartists, cannot be divorced from the apparent economic ascendancy of the employers in that town. The difficulties faced by Preston’s workers, in breaking out of their economic subjection, were paralleled by the problems they had to confront in taking independent political action. Indeed it was in Preston that the Chartist general strike of 1842 was .. ended by troops firing…’ (19)
This long extract raises a number of important questions, and is related to points made elsewhere in the same work which require attention.
The first is the assumption underlying the passage emphasised (by me): that there was a single identifiable entity ‘Preston’s workers’, That this was not the case in the 1830s I have shown in Chapter II; and that it was still apparently inapplicable in the 1840s and 1850s is suggested by differential voting patterns in parliamentary elections, analysed in Chapter VI below; a qualification which Gadian rightly makes in his later references to weavers (20). In the context of his comments on the differences in political behaviour between towns with large scale and small scale industrial units (e.g. Ashton and Oldham) (21), the structure of the Preston cotton industry appears to be particularly significant. The average size of the workforce in cotton mills in eleven north west towns in 1838 ranged (by Gadian’s figures) between 276 in Stockport and 77 in Oldham (22); but figures for 1841 and 1847 suggest that Preston was well above the top of this league: the average number of hands for 26 mills in 1841 was 356 (23), and for 46 mills in 1847 it was 301 (24), (see Introduction, and Appendix 1 ) Although static averages are not particularly helpful and half Preston’s mills in 1847 employed under 250 hands (14 of them less than 100), there were fifteen employing more than 300 including nine relative giants of more than 500. (see diagrams above: Introduction 4c ). Preston should therefore be one of the towns experiencing surges of popular agitation rather than a long lasting and deep rooted radical tradition. This seems to have been the case (see Chapters II and VI) but it does not take account of chronological change in the structure of the cotton industry. Eighteen of Preston’s mills in 1847 had only been built in the previous six years, and a good number of those which were employing hands in 1860 were still to be built.
A very marked characteristic of ‘popular movements’ in Preston is that they were more open, generalised and violent in the early period, and more specific, organised and peaceful in the later. Furthermore, while the Spinners’ Strike of the winter of 1837-7 and the Strike and Lock Out of 1853-4 both originated in demands for ‘ten percent’ (as an advance in the first, and a recovery after cuts in the second), what turned disputes into strikes was the right to belong to a trade union. (25) In both cases the masters had mostly conceded the ten per cent asked for; these battles were not attempts of the workers to break out of their economic but their social-subjection. The Preston Guardian for August 1853 contains reports of the masters’ agreement (Ainsworth’s, Swainson and Birley’s, Paley’s, McGuffog’s, George Smith’s, Naylor and Gardner’s, Leigh’s, Arkwright’s and so on (26)) to the ten per cent rise, and on 27th August ‘All the mills in Preston, except five, are now working at the advanced rate’. The same issues also report the usual factory pleasure trips to the seaside in the midst of the negotiations: 6,420 hands of Horrockses, Paley’s, Ainsworth’s, Catterall’s, Birley’s, Humber’s (and others’) mills on one Saturday alone (27). It was the tactical device for the persuasion of the laggard masters, resorted to by the Union leaders, Baxendale, Swinglehurst and George Cowell, which caused the conflict: they collected from those who were now working at the higher rates subscriptions to support the few who were still on strike, and therefore attracted the wrath of the masters to the alternative organisation:
Notwithstanding this (agreed advance) the masters regret £0 find that the operatives have put themselves under the guidance of a designing and irresponsible body, who have no connection with this town, nor settled position anywhere, but living upon the earnings of the industrious operative, interfere for their own purpose and interest in the relation between master and servant… (28)
Therefore the masters combined and applied the Lock Out policy. From this point onwards the interest of the struggle passes from the morphological to the pathological: the struggle became the main point of the struggle. But even after seven months Ambler could observe to the shopkeeper audience that the operatives
could not have pursued the struggle in the peaceable manner they had done, were they not perfectly convinced that they had a just and a right case . (Loud applause.) (29)
Significantly, in the earlier Spinners’ Strike of 1836-7 the weavers were separately distinguished as innocent victims, and supported by public subscriptions, even from the Corporation itself which donated £100; but the lockout affected all.
On the working class unity fallacy, there is also the question of the relative strength of the social classes. Not only were factory hands, although the largest minority, still a minority in the population of the town in 1851, but the ‘middle class’ was much more important than Gadian supposed The ‘three class model’ of Victorian society would be a ludicrously blunt instrument for dissecting the tissues of the Preston community, or of any 19th century town, even if ‘class’ could be regarded as a clear enough objective concept to be helpful in understanding any particular conflict. Bedarida’s references to Marx (30) are less subtle than Marx himself, who did at least refer to the lower middle class, ‘the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan’ though at the time he thought they were fighting ‘to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class’ (31). Kitson Clark’s observation that ‘there was now more continuity in good fortune’ (32) is much more useful than Gadian’s strange notion that the ‘middling people’s’ ‘social significance in the north-west industrial towns was hardly great enough to justify their categorisation as a separate distinctive and independent class’ (33).
There are several intertwined problems here. The first is that in a period only slowly relieved by the railway from the confines of pedestrian travel the models of social class derived from a view of the country as a whole, which opponents of the Corn Laws found useful, are simply too wide to fit through the gates of the town, leaving the insoluble problem of deciding which side of the middle class/working class line to drop the tailor or the cheese factor. The second is the chronological (and historical) problem of deciding who was ‘working class’ and when. The apparently working class Radicalism of the 1820s and early 1830s (in Preston at least) looks uncomfortably like a struggle of ‘the shopkeeper, the artisan’ (Mitchell? Irvin? Taylor?) ‘to save themselves from extinction as fractions of the middle class’. The third is the fundamental sociological and semantic problem of whether social class as a concept should be used in the sense of a noun, an adjective or adverb (and the same doubt applies to the closely related concept of ‘respectability’). In a period of very rapid change, in Preston, the 1820s to the 1850 in particular, it is difficult to use the term ‘class’ substantively or comprehensively. References to ‘classes’ or ‘respectability’ and the contexts in which they seem applicable, are neither stable in meaning, nor distinguishable from other social considerations in reality (religious affiliations. and neighbourhood groups in particular).
It seems more sensible to understand classes ‘as conflict groups arising out of… authority structure’ as Dahrendorf suggests (34), and conflicts as evidence not of incipient social disintegration but of the integrative processes of group formation (35), as Simmel suggested long ago. Without appreciation of the nature of group formation at the popular, the in-between and the elite levels, it is impossible to understand the leadership of any particular individual: because leadership and influence were derived either from the social basis of a following, or from a place in a network, or from both. The next three chapters demonstrate this in the formation of local government bodies and in politics. One of the most striking features of leadership of the formalised political and administrative kind is the number of different contexts in which the same few individuals appear. Given the size of the population as a whole, and the relatively large number of those in possession of wealth and ‘intelligence’ (36), the reason for this cannot be that there were no others fitted for leadership, but rather that the overlapping of networks and hierarchies narrowed the channels to the top. The Conservative Anglican establishment enjoyed the advantage of networks (see below) so the rising Liberal challenge resorted to movements which attracted a following (see chapters IV and VI especially).
By a neat but deceptive elision (in the passage quoted above) Gadian manages to suggest some sort of organically causal relationship between the Anti Corn Law League, the Chartists, the economic ascendancy of the millowners, and the fact that ‘the Chartist general strike of August was ended by troops firing’. This was certainly an important episode, all the more so for suggesting to historians that the shooting necessarily, if indirectly, followed from the economic structure of the town, and that the ‘Plug Plot’ riot in Preston was the work of the Preston Chartists. It is relevant to my understanding of the relationship of ‘classes’ and groups, because in Preston the normal pattern was for factory workers to negotiate for limited and defined objectives peacefully, while violent demonstrations for sweeping political goals were the work of non-factory workers, generally from the surrounding country districts. In other words, where a definable class relationship existed, conflict was related to it and contained within limits laid down by mutual acceptance that the System itself should continue; and where no such identifiable relationship existed, violent demonstration was an expression of frustration at the inability to locate a partner-in-conflict.
There was little significant relationship between the Anti Corn Law League and the Chartists in Preston. The Operative Reform Association formed under the leadership of the League member William Ainsworth and Joseph Livesey in ‘Mr Livesey’s large room’ in July 1841, was ‘intended to embrace all classes of Reformers, no declaration of political principles… required’ (37) and the attempt by ‘a few Chartists’ to carry a resolution embodying the five (sic) points of the Charter was ‘of course, rejected’. But I have found no other reference to this organisation in the newspapers, and ‘suspect that the too-ready enrolment of ‘leading gentlemen in the Reform interest’ simply absorbed it into League organisation. The Chartists of Preston were well enough organised to have a news room of their own (38), and to intervene in League meetings (39), but the leaders among them who were named were certainly not ‘(Initially) factory operatives: Richard Marsden was an elderly handloom weaver, James Brown a shopkeeper, Joseph Mitchell a draper. One of those who attended the ‘ great ‘Radical Demonstration’ of 6th November 1838 was John Noble, a maltster and one of the first aldermen (ejected from the Council at the first opportunity) who had led a long campaign of ‘the freemen’ in defence of their rights of pasturage on the moor against Corporation enclosure. Chartism in Preston seems to have been a continuation of reform Radicalism; after passing through a phase of association with Owenite Socialism the movement gradually came under the influence of George Cowell and Edward Swinglehurst, who were the principal leaders of the strike of 1853-4.
Chartist opposition to the Anti Corn Law League in Preston did not automatically put them in opposition to the millowners, few of whom belonged to it (see Chapter VI). If anything the Chartists’ attitude to the factories before the Plug Plot riots was Luddite or tactical: in April 1842 Samuel Horrocks jun., the Mayor, wrote to Sir James Graham, Home Secretary, that the Superintendent of Police (who had been ‘diligently exerting himself in watching the motions of the Chartists’) had reported that although there was no evidence of overt acts of violence ‘the’ language used at some .of these meetings has been very inflammatory’, to the effect that if their Petition was not attended to ‘they suggest that the destruction of Mills and Factories would throw many persons out of employment who would then join them’ (40).
This was not class conflict,-it was (as Horrocks himself said in the same letter) a reaction to ‘the distress of the labouring classes’ which would give the Chartists the opportunity to recruit support for violent action. There is little suggestion that the Preston. Chartists were directly concerned in the class relationships of the cotton industry. They wished to make use of its embarrassment, but in the event they were forestalled.
The tide of mob demonstration spread northwards from Ashton, gathering country weavers and labourers in its wake, and leading to a meeting in Chadwick’s Orchard chaired by one Joseph Hutchinson (who is not mentioned in other sources as a Preston Chartist, or in the pollbooks), and addressed by two delegates from Ashton who
used very violent language and they held up the manufacturers of Preston as the Worst Tyrants in the County a resolution was passed… that the people should do no more work until their wages were raised (41).
Despite this plain message, the millhands still had to be forcibly turned out by the mob on the following morning. In some instances the insurgents had to break down the gates and climb over the yard walls, showing a marked preference for the smaller mills in the west of the town between Bow Lane and the canal, but also visiting Mr James Hogg’s ‘Dandy Looms’, and Horrocks and Jacson’s small concern in Turks Head Yard; and no political discrimination whatsoever. After the event the Preston Chartists, meeting in ‘their room’, issued an address complaining that ‘By whomsoever the move was concerted, if concerted at all, the Chartists of Preston knew nothing of it beforehand…’ So far from being the originators, ‘they were inclined to regard it jealously, believing it to originate with other parties for factious purposes’ (42), although they justified the compliance of workmen distracted by the millowners’ reductions of pay. While motives for their disavowal of the violence are not hard to guess, their account has a ring of truth, particularly because it is so untidy; and it is corroborated by the lists of prisoners taken in the riot: very few of the names of those over 30 appear in the pollbooks, and those which do belong to weavers and labourers (43). The conclusion is that the Preston Plug Plot riot of August 1842 was not originated either by Preston Chartists or in Preston, that Preston Chartists would have made use of it if they could, and that, although the circumstances gave great cause for a conflict of capital and labour in the town, the event did not spring from native class conflicts generated either by or within the mechanised cotton industry. It was transitional and incidental to the economic and social organisation of the community in normal times. Only the self-employed really had the time to spare for meetings in the Hall of Science; and the vestigial ambition to survive by such novel means of self-help. Preston Chartism was probably more direct1y associated with the early development of the ideology of English socialism than with the practical realities of industrial relations. These matters belonged to the unions which caused such social offence.