Workers’ Organisation before 1843: Radical unionism and the Preston Cotton Martyrs

Preston Cotton Martyrs statue, Preston

The workers' struggles and damning poverty in Preston, Lancashire during the 19th Century have sadly been overshadowed but its power and gravity should not be ignored.

Submitted by robbiejudkins on July 22, 2022

In the vast history of workers’ and trade union struggles in the UK, Preston is quite often a side note. In the 20th and 21st centuries there have been writings and reflections on Red Scar Mill and the Preston Model, but less on struggles in the 19th Century. Labour historians have largely focused on the Toldpuddle Martyrs, Swing Riots, Luddites and others in the 19th century who are without a doubt hugely important events but the Preston Spinners Union and events between 1808 - 1843 in Preston have their own significance. Specifically, in relation to intense poverty, militant organisation and the changing nature of industry and laws which affected the working people of Preston.

The cotton industry was instrumental in the industrial revolution 1 and big business in the north west of England for the first half of the 19th Century 2 , with Preston being a central hub containing over 35 cotton mills 3 and during its heyday employing 50% of Preston’s workforce 4 . Working class organisation with or without unions was prominent in Preston from 1808, however, it is the period between 1819 - 1843 which display the turbulence, destitution and activism at its most vivid and moving.

Industrial labour law and laws affecting unions were changing during this period too. Notably, Combination Acts (1799/1800) - making the formation of workers’ or employers’ groups illegal, Illegal Oath Acts (1797) - similarly swearing an oath to an illegal group or doctrine (often used against trade unions, Toldpuddle Martyrs being the most famous case), Factory Act (1831 & 1833) - sought to reduce working hours and the employment of children, Abolition of Slavery (1807) - ended British use of slaves but continued use of slave-dependent economies like cotton, Reform Bill (1832) - increase in voting writing for certain citizens and Trade Union Act (1871) - which made the existence of trade unions legal, yet still restricted. These acts and laws are key markers in understanding their significance for workers in Preston at the time.

Poverty was a persistent issue in Preston for most of this period, leading to an investigation by the Harry Farnall from the House of Lords in 1854, reports from national newspapers, international financial aid as well as Charles Dickens visiting Preston in 1854 during starvation, revolts and typhoid outbreaks as a research mission when writing Hard Times5 . Joseph Livesy, who spearheaded the temperance movement6 - who called for the abstention from alcohol on religious grounds and as a way to curb violence and poverty, wrote about the condition of young apprentices in Preston in 1818 as,

“‘Poor, squalid, deformed beings, the most pitiful objects I think I have ever beheld. They were apprenticed to a system to which nothing but West Indian slavery can bear any analogy. Many of the children were obtained from the Foundling Hospital in London and were crooked legged through having to stop the machinery by placing their knees frequently against it.”7

Karl Marx was also known to have visited Preston during this period 8 and influenced his writing in Das Kapital. He later stated,

“The eyes of the working classes are now fully opened: they begin to cry: “Our St. Petersburg is at Preston!” Indeed, the last eight months have seen a strange spectacle in the town — a standing army of 14,000 men and women subsidized by the trades unions and workshops of all parts of the United Kingdom, to fight out a grand social battle for mastery with the capitalists, and the capitalists of Preston, on their side, held up by the capitalists of Lancashire.”9

Karl Marx may have been wrong with this prediction but there was enough disruption and capitalist exploitation to merit his view for Preston’s revolutionary capabilities.

Historical and Legal Background: 1800 - 1836

Working conditions in the early 19th century for all workers in the UK were abysmal - employment of children, long hours, fatalities, severe injuries, no sick or holiday entitlements, low pay, harsh punishments for unsatisfactory labour and resultant chronic physical and mental pain and poverty wages10 . For many, the industrial revolution is one of great technological change and modernisation, whilst there is no doubt of this, the impact these changes had on working people in terms of health, rights, life expectancy and specifically the importance of trade unions are not to be overlooked.

The Combinations Acts (1799) were implemented to throttle any trade union organisation and weaken their power, supposedly extending to the combinations of employers as well as employees, in reality, this act was specifically aimed at weakening trade unions11 . In 1808 there were reports of workers’ organisation in Preston, primarily calling for an increase in wages (which would later become a keystone of the cotton workers’ struggle), specifically for the weavers of the industry. The weavers presented a petition to parliament signed by 130,000 people which called for a minimum wage, as seen previously in nearby Blackburn and Chorley at the same time. Clearly this petition and demand fell on deaf ears and later led to mass public protests in the city. With the local government fearing a riot, the army were called in to quash any attempts at violent insurrection. This wasn’t the first time the threat of violence, and later actual violence, was used against workers’ organisation in Preston.

The 1820s were still virulent in Preston, with one worker, Andrew Ryding, sending an anonymous death threat to his former employer and cotton mill owner, James Kay, who had stagnated on a wage increase for his workers. This tactic was similar to how the Swing Riots were conducted12 , albeit less deadly. Ryding wrote,

"Sir, if you do not advance the wages of cotton spinners at least twenty per cent, you may expect your life to be taken by a cotton spinner of Manchester. You were the cause of the falling wages in Preston. There are many cotton masters deserving to lose their lives, but you are, it is said, and I believe it is true, the worst of them all."13

Ryding was later arrested for trade union membership and violently attacked this same boss in Preston following a church service. Discontent in Lancashire was rife with Luddite-style acts on new powerlooms, seen to increase efficiency and output in the cotton mills, were reported to have happened in local Blackburn, Accrington, Chorley and more14 . In Chatterton near Oldham, around 3,000 workers took to the streets and destroyed over 90 powerlooms, six rioters were shot dead and many arrested15 .

By the 1830s tensions were still high and the wider political environment only fired up resistance in Preston. Dissatisfaction with the delay and rejection of the Reform Bill, calling for greater voting rights, lead to turmoil. National demonstrations were taking place in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol and further afield with some attracting 100,000 participants, often with violent consequences16 . Henry Hunt, Chartist and radical previously active in the battle of Peterloo was elected as an MP for Preston in 1830 and in November 1831 presented a Reform Bill to the Mayor which attracted a swelling group of radicals and led to the height of revolutionary fever in Preston17 .

What started as a peaceful support for Henry Hunt’s call for reforms in the morning eventually led to attacks on over 14 of Preston’s cotton mills by the end of the day; destroying property, forcing wildcat strikes, physically assaulting bosses and attempts to free prisoners.

“A barrage of stones was thrown at the factory windows, while several men made for the engine house and put the mill engine out of action by accelerating its speed so that it was seriously damaged…..

The watch-house was stoned, smashing almost every window, while the interior doors and surrounding woodwork were also smashed to pieces. Even the window frames, front and rear, were kicked out, leaving the outside of the building a wreck. A quantity of cotton was seized, ripped to pieces and dragged through the mud…”18

The riots were brought to a halt after an attempt to liberate prisoners was met with a military threat and the governor declaring, “‘If you come to this door, I will shoot you dead as a robin”.19

Although the Reform Bill did eventually pass in 1832 allowing for increased voting rights for certain members of society20 (namely wealthy men) and the introduction of the Factory Act (1833) - which primarily aimed to stop younger children (under the age of 9) to work in factories and a reduction in working hours21 , there was still mass dissatisfaction with pay and working conditions across Britain, and Preston was not alone.

Although illegal at the time, Preston Spinners Union saw an increase in membership in 1836 and by October a strike across Preston’s cotton mills was called, demanding for a 10% increase in wages. This demand was justified by workers in local towns, such as Blackburn and Bolton receiving a 10% pay rise for the same work. A familiar pattern was starting to form in Preston - belligerent factory owners were resistant to pay increases seen in other mills, whilst mass starvation and destitution escalated.

The strike lasted for thirteen weeks throughout the winter of November 1836 to February 1837 bringing Preston’s cotton industry to a standstill. There were a number of tactics utilised by the bosses to encourage workers to return - in October before the strike, some workers were presented with a pay increase to weaken the potential strike, only to refuse, “…in a remarkable display of solidarity and loyalty towards their workmates the minority of men who received the new rates handed the money back two days later, pledging one for all and all for one.”22 Once the strike started, the mill owners also announced the introduction of “self-acting” spinning machines which was either meant to inflame or confuse the union and striking workers and an unwillingness to meet with the union alongside the introduction of “knobsticks” or “blackleg” (scab) labour to cover the strikers.

Sadly the strike was unsuccessful, the starvation and destitution across Preston was rife at the time, with regular donations coming in from unions in Bolton and Blackburn as well as local councillors and church ministers establishing a poor relief fund. Alongside union funds decreasing and little work available, many strikers returned to work only to be met with an offer for 10% pay increase if their trade union membership was renounced, which many couldn’t refuse.

General Strike and Assassinations: 1842

Following the strike of 1836 - 37, Chartism was beginning to grow in Preston, specifically with the leadership of Richard Marsden who gave talks and meetings in Preston, Lancaster, Burnley and more23 . The Chartists demands had been rejected by parliament twice, with the second petition holding 3 million signatures24 . This dissatisfaction with government simply fuelled the fires for revolutionary struggle. At a similar time there were calls for a “Grand National Turn-Out”25 , sometimes known as the “Grand National Holiday” following a wave of wage cuts in Lancashire mills and support for the so-called ‘Plug Riots’26 spread to cities across Lancashire and Yorkshire that coincided with the Chartist demands for electoral reform, a People’s Charter.

Richard Marsden was keen to forge links between trade unions at Chartists, who he believed could represent the working class both in trade and government27 . On Friday 12th August 1842, following a Chartist demonstration from Blackburn to Preston, mill workers were called out to support the protest which in a similar fashion to the riot in 1832, brought mass property destruction and attacks on mill owners28 . The demonstration came to a halt following threats from the military brought in from Blackburn and Wigan but the protest reignited the following day after mill owners decided the mills were to reopen. Similar disruptions followed,

“Catterall’s mill near Sedgwick Street was also stopped when rioters forced their way into the yard, then into the engine house, where they disabled the machinery. The magistrates, learning of these developments, decided to mobilise the military and police…”29

Along the busy streets of Preston, rioting workers were met with pushbacks from the police and army. The rioters were able to hem in the authorities and pelt them with stones. This only led to increased frustration by the army who were instructed to open fire leading to the eventual death of four men aged between 19-36. Many of the victims were passionate and active members of the Preston Spinners Union and Chartists, such as Richard Pilling; sometimes refereed to as the ‘Father’ of the Plug Riots at this time in Lancashire30 . A statue commemorating this occasion was unveiled on the site in Preston in 199231 .

This abysmal display of state power against the working class didn’t stop the Charists, unions or resistance evident in Preston or across the country, but became a reminder of the hardship for activists and resultant fatal response the authorities were willing to take. However, it wasn’t until 1918 that Parliament were willing to accept five of the six demands made by the Chartists32 , as well as women’s right to vote following similar direct action and militancy taken up by the suffragettes.

This period in Preston’s history and to the wider history of radical politics and trade unionism in the UK is an essential period of study and reflection - the determinism of the workers, coupled with levels of poverty unseen in England, violent repression from the state coupled with a fervent mix of radical ideas in one small city.

  • 1The Making of the English Working Class (p.211, Thompson, E.P.)
  • 2 A History of British Trade Unionism (p.47, Pelling, Henry)
  • 3 accessed April 2022
  • 4 visited April 2022
  • 5 accessed April 2022
  • 6 accessed April 2022
  • 7 Preston Cotton Martyrs: The Millworkers Who Shocked A Nation (p.19, Leigh, J.S.)
  • 8 accessed April 2022
  • 9 accessed April 2022
  • 10 accessed April 2022
  • 11 accessed April 2022
  • 12 accessed April 2022
  • 13Preston Cotton Martyrs: The Millworkers Who Shocked A Nation (Leigh, J.S.)
  • 14 Preston Cotton Martyrs: The Workers Who Shocked A Nation (p.31 Leigh, J.S.)
  • 15 accessed April 2022
  • 16 The Making of the English Working Class (p.888 - 889, Thompson, E.P.)
  • 17 Preston Cotton Martyrs: The Workers Who Shocked A Nation (p.31 Leigh, J.S.)
  • 18Preston Cotton Martyrs: The Workers Who Shocked A Nation (p.31 Leigh, J.S.)
  • 19 Preston Cotton Martyrs: The Workers Who Shocked A Nation (p.32 Leigh, J.S.)
  • 20 accessed April 2022
  • 21 accessed April 2022
  • 22 Preston Cotton Martyrs: The Workers Who Shocked A Nation (p.34 Leigh, J.S.)
  • 23 Richard Marsden and the Preston Chartists, 1837 - 1848 (p.22 King, J.E.)
  • 24 Richard Marsden and the Preston Chartists, 1837 - 1848 (p.26 King, J.E.)
  • 25 accessed April 2022
  • 26 accessed April 2022
  • 27 Richard Marsden and the Preston Chartists, 1837 - 1848 (p29 King, J.E.)
  • 28 Preston Cotton Martyrs: The Workers Who Shocked A Nation (p.46 Leigh, J.S.)
  • 29Preston Cotton Martyrs: The Workers Who Shocked A Nation (p.47 Leigh, J.S.)
  • 30 The Making of the English Working Class (p325, Thompson, E.P.)
  • 31 accessed April 2022
  • 32 accessed April 2022