On Wednesday 25th and Friday 27th September 1816, large demonstrations took place in Leeds, involving hundreds of unemployed men. The protests were against their predicament, but also directed at the publisher of the Tory Leeds Intelligencer, who had recently published editorials scoffing at the distress of the unemployed.
Both Leeds Newspapers carried reports and editorials about the demonstrations.
The Leeds Mercury of Saturday 28th September 1816 carried a long editorial:
On Wednesday last an assemblage of several hundred men, chiefly work-people out of employment, took place in front of the Leeds Intelligencer Printing Office, but after remaining in that situation for some time they separated, without committing any act of riot or excess. The motive of this meeting we have heard differently stated, but we believe the real object of the unfortunate people of whom it was composed, was to shew the town, and more especially to prove to the Printer of the Intelligencer, that the distress which has been felt and complained of in this town and district is a reality, and not, as he has indiscreetly and insultingly represented it, in his paper of the 16th instant, a mere "farce" and an "excellent joke." After the meeting in Cross-Parish a number of the people adjourned to the Workhouse, where the Committee, consisting of the guardians of the poor, was then sitting, and the applications for the relief of distressed families were on that day unusually numerous.
In speaking of the public distress in this town, we have uniformly guarded with extreme caution against those exaggerations into which we think opposite sides have fallen. We have stated repeatedly, that according to our views, the Mayor's Letter to the Ministers of Religion in the town, coloured those distresses too highly; but his error was on the side of humanity; and we are far from thinking that he could be guilty of the folly of wishing to impart éclat to the conclusion of his mayoralty by seeking to obtain contributions for distress which had little or no existence. Such an insinuation it remained for those who condemn others for speaking disparagingly of authorities, to level against the chief magistrate of the borough. The truth of the declaration made from the hustings in Westminster we have also denied, not in degree, but to the extent. We have said, and we now repeat, that the distress is neither unequalled nor indescribable. But while we have combated these exaggerations on one side, we have with equal earnestness, and certainly with more feeling, denied pointedly and positively that the distress on which so much has been said, has no existence. Existence it unfortunately has, and to an extent too that no well regulated mind can contemplate without feelings of deep commiseration. But it is not sufficient that the public should feel; it is necessary that they should act; and we hope the time is not far distant, when the town of Leeds, properly convened, will have an opportunity of shewing that they are alive to the destitute state of their distressed neighbours. In the mean time, it is the wisdom of men of all parties to sooth the public feelings, and to guard against those exaggerations, as well on one side as on the other, which are calculated only to convert into a subject of discussion, those misfortunes which it ought to be the business of all, by united efforts, to alleviate, if they cannot remove.
It has been suggested to us, that all discussions on these subjects are prejudicial; and if he be meant all intemperate discussions, we fully concur in the truth of the observation. But if it be meant to deprecate all mention of the subject as well that which exaggerates as that which tends to place the matter in a sober and proper point of view, we must beg to express our decided dissent from such a proposition. Truth, humanity and justice, never suffer by investigation. The gloomy silence of studied suppression, is, if possible, more mischievous than even the language of violent discussion. It closes the door of hope. It appears like abandoning the cause of the poor in despair; and that we will never do while we have a mind to exercise and a pen to wield in their behalf.
WHILE we are upon this subject, we must be excused, if we expose the extreme want of candour, and the palpable, and we will add, wilful misrepresentation that has taken place regarding the statements in our last paper. We never adduced as a proof of the public distress the fact that only 1046 men were out of employment in the whole of the West-Riding of Yorkshire; what we said was, that's 1043 men were out of employment in one particular department of a single branch of the woollen manufacture. It is dealing fairly with the public, is it honest towards the labouring classes, to make these wilful and deliberate perversions of the truth? Let any man of integrity answer that question. We did not, as a proof of public distress, say that an accumulated surplus of £400 was at this moment in the hands of the parish officers. What we did say was, that an accumulated surplus of £1800, which was in the treasury of the parish in May last, had since that time been reduced to £400. Are not these repeated efforts to deceive, a proof that they are a part of a system? and what must be done the nature of that cause that requires such support?
It is in pursuit of this system, that the Dissenters of Leeds are represented as answering the solicitations of the Mayor "to contribute to the relief of their suffering brethren, with dry eyes and immovable countenances, quietly keeping their hands in their pockets, and protesting that they could not discover any objects on whom they could properly bestow their charity." Do the Dissenters deserve this reproach? Let the numerous charities in Leeds answer this question. Do they deserve, in a time like this, to be held up, in a public newspaper, as fit objects for popular indignation? Is this a just representation of their conduct, or of the language of the paper that might be supposed to speak their sentiments on the occasion in question? In the first place, the letter of the Mayor was not, as is here insinuated, confined to the Dissenters. It was sent also to the Clergy of the Established Church, who acted, and very properly acted, in the same way as the Dissenting Ministers. But is it true that "the organ of the party" denied the propriety of raising funds for the relief of the distressed? Did we not, on the contrary, recommend that the inhabitants of the town should be called together, "to devise a mode of relief, that should be, in some degree, commensurate with the distress it is meant to abate?" And yet our accusers have the unblushing effrontery to come forward and state publicly, that the propriety of raising funds, for the release of the distressed, was denied. We have long treated the calumnies and misrepresentations, flowing from the contaminated source in which these imputations originate, with silent contempt, and impunity has made the slanderers audacious. There have evidently been making an experiment upon public credulity, and endeavouring to compress into a focus the greatest possible mass of misrepresentation, calumny, and falsehood.
The same edition also had a shorter article about the demonstration on Friday:
Yesterday another assemblage of unemployed workmen took place in Briggate and Cross-Parish, from whence they proceeded to the Court-House, where the Magistrates were sitting, and paraded for some time in front of Park-Row. Though we are by no means dispose to censure these meetings with undue severity, the first of which might be considered in some degree necessary in order to prove by an argument the force of which could not well be resisted, the reality of the public distress; yet we must say, that we do not perceive any good, and we fear much ill, may arise from their repetition. We hope and believe, that no violence or outrage is intended; but all large bodies of men, assembled under such circumstances, resemble a magazine of combustibles, and who shall say that some incendiary hand, either from a mistaken zeal, or from worse motives, may not cast in a spark, the consequences of which would probably be less fatal to those without than those within the garrison? It is, we allow, a great evil for men that are willing to work to be unemployed; but there are still greater and more lasting evils. In a country like this, no man will be suffered to perish for want. The masters in general, are as anxious to give employment to their workmen as the men are to be employed. They have a common interest. One cannot be pinched by penury, but the other must be threatened with ruin. They are embarked in the same ship, and the crew may depend upon it that the officers will not suffer her to sink, if any effort of theirs can keep her afloat. The mess at present may be slender, but popular commotions would not strengthen it. We hope trade will soon begin to improve; we hear, indeed, that some alteration for the better has already taken place. In the mean time, the more opulent inhabitants of the town, will, we do not doubt, do their duty. There never yet was a well founded appeal made to them in vain. It is some consolation to know, that in many branches of trade work-people are tolerably well employed, among those may be ranked joiners, bricklayers, and handicrafts men in general; there are, to be sure, many exceptions, but the principal distress is found among those usually employed in the different branches of the woollen manufacture.
The Leeds Intelligencer posted the following editorial about what had occurred, and in response to the Leeds Mercury's comments:
In our Market-place, on Wednesday and Friday last, there was an assemblage of between three and four hundred men, who stated themselves to be out of work. They paraded in different places, but, we are happy to say, did not commit any violent acts of outrage. The general belief is, that the sole object of this assemblage was to convince us, that there were so many persons as composed it out of employment.
As this belief is avowed by our opponents, we would ask, Why then, do they insidiously seize such a moment, to enter into a long strain of falsehood and declamation, in order to render us as odious as possible in the eyes are lower orders? They know we cannot treat them, in a reply, as they deserve, without the hazard of adding to that irritation which has already been excited, and which we are anxious to allay, not on our account, but for the sake of public tranquillity, and of the misguided men themselves, whose safety might be compromised by their own unthinking rashness.
We have never contended that no distress whatever existed—that not any persons were out of employment;—this has, all along, been self-evident. What we have argued, and that merely in refutation of the Westminster Patriots, is, that the distress the poor, in this place, did not warrant the assertions of the redoubted Major Cartwright, and the truth of this is fully admitted, even by those who have taken the occasion to malign and misrepresent us. That even a single individual should be destitute of work, we lament as much as anyone—but we will not, though the task would not be difficult, cast back or recriminate the foul aspersions put upon us by our angry and insidious adversaries.
To the proposal of those adversaries we fully agree, and are willing to abide by the judgment of an impartial public, which of the two has advocated the cause of Liberty, and which the cause of Licentiousness—which has contended for the honour of Britain, and which has supported the cause of her most inveterate enemies. In the real, unexaggerated distress of the labouring classes, and in the present depression of trade (which is not confined to this country, but which extends all over Europe, and even to America) we ever did, and ever shall, feel the deepest interest: and whatever our enemies may insinuate or threaten, we shall never be found wanting, as far as our feeble means allow, in giving our support to the cause of humanity. Have not our columns, on every agitation of great questions in commerce, and on the recent Wool Question in particular, been zealously crowded with articles to promote that commerce and the consequent employment and prosperity of the labouring classes? For the vigilance with which we have watched over their real interest, we are not afraid of a comparison with any paper in the Kingdom. Have we, in public or in private, ever withheld our mite from any effort to relieve public distress? We may be represented as enemies of the poor: but the consciousness of an exactly opposite character, and the invariable exercise of that character in the discharge of our duty, shall with us, as we trust it will with the Public, suffice better to silence the voice of calumny, than the prolongation of a discussion which several reasons render it improper to continue. For the actual difficulties that exist, both with respect to workmen and their employers, we trust the returning title of prosperity will speedily bring an efficient remedy, if it be not interrupted and frighted back by the designing clamour of those whose business it is to sow dissatisfaction, and to excite despair.