Monday, 19 March 2012

19th March 1812: Secret weavers meeting at Dawes Field, Bolton

At 9 p.m. on Thursday 19th March 1812, about 20 weavers from Bolton gathered in a field ('Dawes Field') belonging to Matthew Corr Dawes, a local brewer, for the purpose of a secret meeting.

For both William Rothwell & Noah France, two local weavers, it was their first visit to any such meeting. Upon arriving, they would have been hailed by 3 or 4 men at a distance from the main group, whose job it was to ask for a countersign or password. Having been invited along that night, Rothwell & France would have known the countersign was 'Bolton'.

The men were not to know at that time, but amongst them was a spy, a man called John Stones (aka Stones or /S/ in the reports provided to Colonel Ralph Fletcher), a member of the Bolton Local Militia. His role at this and subsequent meetings and what later occurred in the Bolton area in the Spring of 1812 is still the subject of much debate amongst historians. Indeed, there are at least 3 reports of what took place at this meeting, and all the accounts differ.

The most detailed account is the report provided by Stones himself  and taken down by Adjutant James Warr, another member of the Bolton Local Militia reporting back to Colonel Ralph Fletcher.

According to Stones, plans were laid out for the destruction of 4 factories in Little Bolton by arson. They were being targeted because of the presence of Steam Looms, although one of them had yet to have any installed. Nevertheless, the fact that the establishment planned to do so meant the factory was condemned to burn by those present. It was made clear that anyone who had cold feet would be killed (a violent threat that has, as we shall see later, the hallmark of Stones himself all over it). It was estimated that 26 men would be sufficient to complete the task, but the plans did not stop there. It was made clear that delegates had been in town the previous week from Manchester & Stockport and were to travel to Preston, in an effort to get the four areas to make simultaneous attacks on factories on the same evening at some point in future. The attacks would then culminate with the groups amalgamating to burn down the Mill at nearby Westhoughton.

According to Stones, 2 delegates from the meeting were to be sent to Manchester the following Sunday evening for 'instructions'. Each town had 6 people chosen to administer illegal oaths, and they each were given tickets to admit entry to meetings. Stones had been chosen to have such a ticket.

The planned date for the attacks on factories was to be kept secret until the night prior to the attack, but the night in question would most likely be one with a 'dark moon' and prior to the evenings becoming too short. The next 'new moon' was due on 18th April 1812.

The meeting was read a letter from a Mr Croney, who was travelling and administering illegal oaths. He had written from Nottingham in the last week and brought news that things were 'going on bravely' and that none of the Luddites had been caught (obviously not true).

The meeting agreed a resolution - that any Magistrate who apprehended anyone involved in attacking the factories would be killed by those sworn in and their house would be set alight.

Finally, Stones gave information on some of those present, confirming the names of a handful that he presumably had been introduced to or knew already. These men were:

Noah Gerard of Pilkington Houses
Mr Dewhurst of Pilkington Houses
Noah France of Dumar Street
Mr Rothwell of Slater Field
John Burkitt of Slater Field
Hugh Brown of Pilkington Houses
An un-named person that lived at 'Corner house'

Although Stones named only 7 people, and started his report saying 20 were present, it's not clear why there is this anomaly, unless others drifted away before the end. This would seem unlikely given the subject matter. But in his deposition given 7 months later, William Rothwell stated that 8 people in total were present, and corroborated the presence of Hugh Brown and John Burkitt (transcribed as 'Becket' in his deposition) as well of John Stones. Indeed, Becket/Burkitt had brought Rothwell to the meeting, having administered an illegal oath to him a few nights before.

But here the accounts of the meeting given by Noah France and William Rothwell diverge from Stones' report. France stated the topic of conversation was 'the badness of trade' and the 'mischief which steam looms did'. Rothwell states that Stones had a copy of a illegal oath with him at the meeting, and reported that he had a contact in Leyland whom he planned to pass this onto and who had related that the people there were 'ready for anything'.

Neither Rothwell nor France say anything about the plans to attack factories, or delegates from other towns, or the resolution passed according to Stones, and this may have been because their depositions were taken months later, and they didn't wish to incriminate themselves. This is understandable, but it doesn't help us to determine exactly what went on that night.

Stones' report can be found at HO 42/121. The depositions of France and Rothwell can be found at HO 42/128.

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