Jacobins in Preston?

See also: Walton-le-Dale’s fictional Jacobin

While a great deal attention has been paid to the Jacobites in Preston, with David Hunt supplying a full chapter in his history of the town [1], little has been paid to the town’s Jacobins. If, indeed, there were any. They do not feature in David Hunt’s index. There is a brief and confused reference in Hewitson, in which he seems to discount the presence of any Jacobins in the town. [2] The more reliable Clemesha makes no mention of them in his history of the town; neither does Fishwick, nor Hardwick, nor the VCH. [3]

Edward Baines
Edward Baines: youthful revolutionary?

And yet E. P. Thompson, the celebrated historian of the English working class, would seem to suggest that there was a Jacobin club in the town at the end of the 18th century, with the future editor and politician Edward Baines as its secretary. Further, Baines’ fellow journalist and Prestonian, Thomas Thompson, who went on to edit the Leicester Chronicle, was charged with being a Jacobin while working in Preston.

To deal with Baines the Jacobin first. E. P. Thompson bases his suggestion on Edward Baines junior’s life of his father, writing that ‘Edward Baines had once been secretary of a “Jacobin” club at Preston’ and stating that later in life he was ‘anxious to dissociate himself entirely from “all secret associations for political purposes” ‘. [4] Yet, in the relevant section of Baine’s biography of his father, there is mention of neither Jacobin nor secretaryship:

Happily he was saved by his love of study from acquiring the habit then extremely common in Preston and elsewhere, of spending his evenings at the tavern. There being no public institution in that town for the improvement of the young, he and some of his friends formed a debating society, and their leisure was occupied in reading and writing for the discussions. It is stated by a surviving friend who knew all their proceedings, that young Baines took a leading part in the establishment of this society, and also of a newsroom, which, to prevent suspicion as to the nature of the discussions, was kept quite separate from the society. Nevertheless, the great political excitement consequent upon the French revolution caused them to be suspected, and they were threatened with prosecution by the magistrates. [5]

David Thornton, in his biography of Baines, repeats the son’s account of the debating society and newsroom and E. P. Thompson’s assertion of Jacobinism. However, he points out that, in the Leeds Mercury of the 12 August 1848 it was reported that ‘When asked by a relative whether he [Baines] belonged to any society or institution in the town, he replied “No such thing was known in Preston, except old Dr Shepherd’s Library, nor until the year 1814”.’ [6]

It seems quite possible that Baines followed a similar path to Wordsworth: a youthful dalliance with revolutionary ideas attracting the attention of magistrates, followed by a more sober maturity. The two were pupils at Hawkshead Grammar School at the same time, although Wordsworth was a few years older.

But surely none of the above provides sufficient evidence to characterise the young Baines as an active Jacobin. An important distinction must be made between the Jacobins of Revolutionary France and the British radicals at this period labelled pejoratively ‘Jacobin’. In the same way that the ‘fascists’ that the Guardian commentariat is forever discovering today are not to be confused with the real fascists of Nazi Germany. The fact that E. P. Thompson describes the Baines’ club as ‘Jacobin’ in quotes rather implies that he had the second, pejorative meaning in mind.

And it was in this pejorative sense that the other Preston journalist, Thomas Thompson, was labelled a Jacobin. The following is based on a lengthy account of his life and career in the Leicester Chronicle, in which account Preston is described as ‘a kind of “seed-plot” of provincial newspaper proprietors’. [7]

Like Baines, Thompson trained as a journalist in Preston, although a little while after Baines had left the town for Leeds, going on to edit the Leicester Mercury and Chronicle. He was a member of an old Preston burgess family of the ‘Church and King’ school and his father was a regular companion of the Earl of Derby. This meant that all his ‘antecedents were thus unfavourable to his adoption of Liberal principles’. This reaction against the family politics was brought about by a Preston parliamentary election:

While the subject of this memoir was yet a mere youth, an event happened in his native town which had much to do with shaping his course of life subsequently. This was a contested election. One of the candidates who offered himself on the Liberal side was Col. Hanson, whose animated addresses young Thompson listened to with the greatest interest; and, in fact, he became a convert in consequence of listening to them and of his further enquiries into politics. He at once espoused Hanson’s cause; canvassed for him; and became one of his warmest partisans. This brought down upon him the wrath of his family, who declared he had utterly and for ever disgraced them:–he was, they said, the first and only Jacobin of the family. He however, though subject to much opprobrium and some persecution, never swerved from his adherence to the cause he had adopted; and for nearly seventy years after, until the day of his death, maintained it to the best of his ability, consistently and unflinchingly. (emphasis added)

It is quite clear that here ‘Jacobin’ is being used loosely and pejoratively for English radicalism. Col Joseph Hanson, while undoubtedly a radical, was no revolutionary. Hanson stood in the 1807 parliamentary election in Preston as an Independent against Samuel Horrocks and Lord Stanley, Tory and Whig, who had decided to sink their differences to share the town’s seats. Hanson’s respectable local backers included a banker, an attorney and a timber merchant – not a very revolutionary crew. Hanson was also the lieutenant-colonel commanding the Manchester and Salford Rifle Regiment of Volunteers – not a very republican role. [8]

[1] David Hunt, A History of Preston, 2nd ed. (Lancaster: Carnegie, 2009).
[2] Anthony Hewitson, History of Preston, reprint of 1883 edition (Wakefield: S. R. Publishers, 1969), 33–34.
[3] H. W. Clemesha, A History of Preston in Amounderness. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1912); Henry Fishwick, The History of the Parish of Preston (Rochdale: The Aldine Press, 1900); Charles Hardwick, History of the Borough of Preston and Its Environs, in the County of Lancashire (Preston: Worthing, 1857); William Farrer and J. Brownbill, eds., The Victoria History of the County of Lancaster, vol. 7 (London: Constable, 1912).
[4] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, n.d.), 476.
[5] Edward Baines, The Life of Edward Baines, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, 1859), 18–19.
[6] David Thornton, ‘Mr Mercury – a Biographical Study of Edward Baines with Special Reference to His Role as Editor, Author and Politician’ (PhD thesis, Leeds, 1999), 45.
[7] ‘The Late Mr. Thomas Thompson’, Leicester Chronicle, 21 January 1871, British Library Newspapers, Part II: 1800-1900.
[8] William Dobson, History of the Parliamentary Representation of Preston: During the Last Hundred Years (Preston: Dobson, 1856), 48, https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Kk5TAAAAYAAJ&dq.

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