Wednesday, 4 April 2012

4th April 1812: Rising tensions in Stockport - almost at boiling point

For a while it seemed that the factory owners in Stockport had begun to accede to the demands of their workers. The use of direct action and the threat of strikes had brought concessions, and at a meeting facilitated by Stockport Magistrates in March, an agreement was reached to raise the wages of weavers by 20%. 12 years later, before a Parliamentary Committee, the weaver Joseph Sherwin, who was on the Stockport Weavers Committee at this time related that the the capitalists were not serious:
"They told me, that they were only making game of us; they said one thing in the presence of the magistrate, and another when they met themselves."
Yet the people who this ruse was being played upon could not bear it any longer. Around this time, the journal 'The Philanthropist' (1812, p316) reported the situation in Stockport:
"Hundreds of families with three or four children have only ten or twelve shillings per week: such families cannot get sufficient food. A considerable number out of work; others only partly employed; poor unable to buy clothes; in rags. Never before saw the labouring poor look so ill, or appearing so ragged; many miserably wretched; a few nearly in a starving state. Parish consists of 20,000, and the proportion of the inhabitants able to contribute very small. The poor rate ten shillings in the pound on the assessment, and likely to bed doubled, many who formerly paid being now obliged to apply to the workhouse for relief."
 For the poor in nearby Disley, the situation was dreadful:
"Necessities of the poor urgent and extreme: the writer had not heard of any place inclosing more indigence and perishing want; many families have sought sustenance from boiled nettles and wild greens without salt" (ibid, p.317)
To make matters worse, many weavers in Stockport were Irish immigrants and therefore had no access to Parish relief. Many of them lived in Edgeley where various manufacturers had installed steam looms in their factories. The contrast between their destitution and the masters' fortunes was written starkly against the skyline that each new hungry day brought.

On Saturday 4th April 1812, the disappointment and anger of the working people in Stockport began to simmer more violently. At a Stockport steam loom factory, several windows were broken by stones being thrown. On the same night, John Goodair, the owner of a similar factory, was sitting in his house relaxing when he was shot at through his windows: he and his family managed to avoid injury despite 11 lead slugs being fired.

The manufacturers had sown the wind in March, and would be reaping the whirlwind soon enough.

Joseph Sherwin's comments are recorded in the First report from the Select Committee on Artizans and Machinery (1824, pp.417-418). The Hereford Journal of 1st April 1812 confirms the details of the offer to the weavers (though not the precise date).

William Cobbett reported the Stockport incidents in his 'Political Register' for 25th April 1812, whilst Glen (1984) provides the specific detail (p.175).

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