Thursday, 19 April 2012

19th April 1812: Secret weavers meeting on Deane Moor, near Bolton

The last secret meeting of Bolton weavers that we know about took place on Sunday 19th April 1812.

Joseph Lomax, who later gave a long & detailed account of the meeting he had attended 5 days before at the Rope Walk, knew about the meeting, although at that point the plan was to meet at Haulgh Hall Cricket Fields. A Richard Taylor had told him that he must attend this meeting and "be prepared to face a mad dog" & be disguised. Lomax took this to mean that he should come armed with a weapon, and understood the intent would be to kill Colonel Ralph Fletcher. He did not attend the meeting and had to persuade his wife not to divulge the information he had told her to Fletcher himself.

At 10 p.m. that night, a weaver from Bolton-le-Moors called John Heys was returning from a trip to the countryside in an effort to find work, and was now making his way along Deane Moor. At one point he could see two figures in front of him and, coming closer, he realised he could not make out their faces. As he drew even nearer to them, it was clear that they had blackened faces. They told him there was a meeting taking place on the moor, and wanted him to attend. Heys was tired and a little frightened - he did his best to excuse himself, but the men said that soldiers were on patrol, and that now he had seen them, they could not risk him giving information away should be run into the militia.

Shortly afterwards, 2 other men - not in disguise - approached, and brought Heys over the Moor to the site of the meeting. 20 people were present, and it was clear that they were all waiting for more people to attend. A general discussion was taking place, with complaints about the time it took to obtain poor relief from the poor law overseers, the disastrous effect of the Orders in Council, the price of provisions and how bad trade was. Some reminded the meeting that an old law of Queen Elizabeth gave magistrates the power to raise wages to the price of provisions, and wondered why this was not being used to relieve their plight.

More people arrived in dribs and drabs and at around 11.00 p.m., a large group of 10 to 12 arrived. All of them were in disguise: their faces were either blackened or covered in masks or cloth. One of them took the lead, and beckoned that all present should form themselves into a circle. By then, up to 60 people were in the field. The man in charge explained the ground rules - that all could speak freely, but one at a time.

An undisguised man then gave a lengthy talk that touched upon some of the issues raised in the earlier discussion. He ended by suggesting that the meeting should make an application to Lord Ellenborough to compel the magistrates to act.

Then a disguised man spoke: he said it was "damned nonsense" to talk of using the law - that this had been tried for years to no avail and had depleted the funds the weavers had subscribed to. He suggested they should draw inspiration from the events that had taken place in the previous week in Stockport and Yorkshire, and over the last few months in Nottingham. That they should look to themselves for a similar solution.

The mood of the meeting was now fearful. Many expressed a desire to go home, but the disguised man informed them that it was too dangerous - the military were out and would arrest those trying to get back to Bolton. Richard Eckersley was present and told the group that he had heard that cavalry were out patrolling. The disguised man said that 200 people in nearby Chowbent (nowadays called Atherton) were ready to join the group, and that if they made their way there, by the time they came back, the military would be dismissed, and they would have a clear run to proceed to Westhoughton to destroy the factory there. The others in disguise voiced their agreement. A disguised man said that 2 men had been sent to scout out the Westhoughton factory - if it was not guarded, they would remain there and not join them at Chowbent. The meeting relunctantly agreed to go to Chowbent. Some were more reluctant than others: Richard Eckersley was ready to leave, but later claimed that one of the disguised men confronted him with a pistol and said "by God I'll blow your brains out if you attempt to go back." Eckersley later found out this was John Stones.

Robert Waddington was present and recognised Stones, despite his disguise. He also knew others present, like Samuel Ratcliffe, Thomas Pickup and John Hurst. He asked Stones if he had a pistol, and Stones offered him one, which he then gave to his brother Thomas, who was also present. Stones posted Waddington as a sentry to keep watch.

They made their way to Chowbent. Michael Bentley and some others were lagging behind on purpose - they wanted to go home. But as they dragged their feet, they found some of the disguised men bringing up the rear who made it clear they would shoot them if they didn't proceed on to Chowbent.

By the time Heys had reached the Four Lane Ends at Over Hulton, there were only 3 other men with him, as they seemed to have proceeded faster than others present. Nearing the bridge at Chowbent, they decided to wait for the others to catch up.

Behind Heys' group, Robert Waddington was with a group of 40 at the Four Lane Ends.
Nearby, they met a man out on his own and not part of their group. He was confronted, with one of the group saying that he recognised him as a Sergeant in the Bolton Local Militia, called Holland Bowden. Bowden wanted to leave, but the group would not let him, and insisted on twisting him in. Afterwards, someone shook Bowden's hand and told him to go home, which he did, and then straight on to the High Sheriff of Lancashire, William Hulton who lived just over a mile away.

Eckersley had by then evaded the group and had gone home, as had some of the others who were originally present.

Proceeding further, they all stopped at the cross in the Marketplace at Chowbent. It was cleat that the expected numbers that the disguised leader had promised on Dean Moor had not materialised. One man raised a pistol into the air and fired it, and another shot followed. They were then all told to disperse, and to use a different route than the one they came by. Waddington went home with a group via Tyldesley that included John Hurst, where they passed the home of the Reverend William Hampson. In a final act of defiance that night, someone fired a pistol.

The weavers weren't to know, but the disguised men who had arrived on Deane Moor together at 11.00 p.m., led by the spy John Stones, were all members of the Bolton Local Militia, many of them instructed directly by Colonel Ralph Fletcher's Adjutant, James Warr, to attend. They included Stones' father, Simon. They left Chowbent together and on the way home were detained by members of the Bolton Local Militia. They were taken to the Pilkington's Arms in Bolton and held there until they could convince their comrades they were acting under orders: they finally proved it by showing them their military foraging caps, and were later discharged.

This has been compiled from a number of sources, including: the depositions of John Heys, Richard Eckersley, Robert Long, Michael Bentley & Robert Waddington, which can be found at HO 42/132; the Lancashire Gazette of 6th June 1812; an 'Imperfect copy of the Trial of the "Twisters in" at Lancaster' which can be found at HO 42/132.

Heys and Eckersley attested that 50-60 were present at the meeting, while Robert Long said 40 were  present, as do the undercover members of the Local Militia who gave evidence at the subsequent Lancaster Special Commission. Michael Bentley said 30 men were present, and 10 in disguise.

The Pilkington's Arms at 154 Derby Street is no longer a pub, but now a shop, and can be seen on google street view here. The lost pubs project has a page about it here.

The Four Lane Ends at Over Hulton today. The Hulton Arms which stood at the time is still there today (on the immediate left).

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