Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Abel Heywood - the Chartist who built Manchester's town hall

Manchester's Radical Mayor: Abel Heywood, The Man who Built the Town Hall
By Joanna M. Williams (The History Press, 2017)

Abel Heywood’s memory deserves better. Search on Google for the man who almost personified Liberal Manchester in the middle decades of the 19th century and you will find page after page about a boutique hotel bearing his name.

Finally, eventually, an entry in the DNB appears before we go back to more hotel guest reviews. And that is about it.

Fortunately, a new biography by Joanna Williams sets out to recover the life story of this important figure from Manchester’s radical past – from the campaign for a free press in the 1830s, via Chartism and the Liberal Party to the office of mayor.

Born in 1810 and from a relatively impoverished background, in his youth Heywood had been an Owenite socialist. And like many of the more experienced working class radicals drawn into Chartism, he was a veteran of the campaign for a free press.

In 1832 he had been prosecuted for distributing Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian, which sold at 1d a copy by refusing to pay the 4d stamp duty due on newspapers. He was confined in Salford New Bailey prison for four months after failing to pay a fine and costs amounting to £48.

He was later prosecuted and fined on at least three further occasions for selling the Guardian and a number of radical almanacs.

However even at this early stage his business had made him a man of some substance. Joanna Williams believes that he may well have qualified as a £10 voter in the general election that followed the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.

The advent of Chartism provided Heywood both with a business opportunity as the biggest publisher of radical publications in the North of England and an outlet for his political views. When the Manchester Political Union was reassembled in April 1838, Heywood became its treasurer.

With the launch of the National Charter Association in July 1840, Heywood took on control of the national movement’s finances, stepping down only in 1843 when the role of treasurer was taken over by Feargus O’Connor himself.

Throughout the Chartist era, Heywood and O’Connor were clearly close, with O’Connor paying tribute to his friend’s financial support on a number of occasions.

Heywood would remain a central figure in the business of the Chartist movement for many years, while apparently avoiding any blame for the disastrous financial mismanagement of the land company. He was also prominent in chairing and speaking at meetings.

Despite this, and perhaps surprisingly in view of O’Connor’s praise for the Manchester publisher, Heywood also backed William Lovett’s New Move, and alliances with middle class reformers through the Complete Suffrage Union and Anti Corn Law League.

More disturbingly, Heywood was also a police informer. Driven by his opposition to the use of physical force, he developed a close relationship with Manchester’s police commissioner - on at least one occasion giving advance warning to the authorities of a planned rising in Bolton.

Heywood was rewarded for his duplicity when charges of selling blasphemous material were suppressed at the instigation of the Home Secretary.

This had not gone unnoticed. In the mid 1840s, as the Chartist movement descended into one of its periodic bouts of civil war, Heywood was directly accused of having been a police spy. Yet, with his accusers discredited for other reasons, he escaped with his radical reputation intact.

Heywood’s politics went hand in hand with his business career. From those early days as an agent for the Poor Man’s Guardian, Heywood became perhaps the largest printer, publisher and distributor of radical material in the country.

And from there he branched out into educational tracts, cheap works of fiction, almanacs, and printed works of all kinds. Aside from the hotel that carries his name, the few other references to Heywood online today are mostly to the travel guides his company published well into the 20th century.

Branching out, Heywood also invested in a wallpaper business which made his fortune, and was soon involved with manufacturing, shipping and insurance companies - and as a bank director.

Despite his business success and personal wealth, Abel Heywood would continue to be a prominent social reformer for the rest of his long life - progressing in to the mainstream of the Liberal Party while never forgetting the interests of the working class.

And as a member of Manchester town council he made his mark on the modern city in numerous ways, from his advocacy of public parks to his support for public libraries and most notably for steering through the construction of Manchester’s new town hall.

Heywood had been elevated to the ranks of the town’s aldermen as early as 1853, and became its Mayor in 1862, returning to the office in 1876 in time to oversee the great celebration that marked the opening of the town hall.

That event must have marked the high point of his long political career. However he continued to serve on the town council for many years to come, and lived on to the age of 83, dying in August 1893.

The publishing firm that had launched him into public life, meanwhile, long outlasted its founder. Eventually, the firm of Heywood & Son was swallowed up by WHSmith in 1964.

In Manchester's Radical Mayor: Abel Heywood, The Man who Built the Town Hall, Joanna M Williams has written an engaging account of an important figure in the city’s radical history - and one whose ambiguous role in Chartism is of great interest.

Buy Manchester's Radical Mayor: Abel Heywood, The Man who Built the Town Hall.

Follow Joanna M Williams on Twitter.

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