Friday 3 May 2024

Book review: Workers of Their Own Emancipation: Working-Class Leadership and Organisation in the West Riding Textile District, 1829-1839

Workers of Their Own Emancipation: Working-Class Leadership and Organisation in the West Riding Textile District, 1829-1839, by John Sanders (Breviary Stuff Publications, 2024)

When in the autumn of 1830, two delegates from the National Association for the Protection of Labour arrived in Halifax to promote the union’s cause, they encountered an immediate problem. Having called a public meeting, they were unable to find even a single local working-class radical able to take the chair - and through want of local leadership, their cause foundered and failed in the town.

In the years that followed, everything changed. By October 1838, when the radicals of the West Riding met on Peep Green to elect delegates to the First Chartist Convention, all but a handful of the 21 speakers were local working men – among them Lawrence Pitkethly and George Barker of Huddersfield; Abram Hanson of Elland; Peter Bussey of Bradford; George White of Leeds; Thomas Todd of Dewsbury; Samuel Dickenson of Almondbury; Robert Wilkinson and William Thornton of Halifax; and Joseph Crabtree of Barnsley. And in the towns they represented, there were many other capable working class leaders able to articulate their well-developed political ideas in writing and on platforms, and to organise their friends and neighbours in support of a wide variety of causes affecting their lives.

In Workers of Their Own Emancipation: Working-Class Leadership and Organisation in the West Riding Textile District, 1829-1839 John Sanders explores in detail and in depth what happened in the 1830s to make this possible. This is a story of short-time committees, trade unions (and trades unions), political unions, Owenite co-operatives and distinctly non-Owenite co-operatives, both of producers and consumers, of non-electors’ committees, radical associations, unstamped newspapers, radical print shops and book vendors and anti-poor law groups. As these organisations came and went, often with overlapping memberships, so their leaders learned their craft and built their regional and national networks, and the relative quiet of the 1820s gave way to a growing self-confidence among a significant section of the area’s working class in its ability to organise independently in its own interests.

Emancipation in some ways feels quite old fashioned – in a good way. Its author works in the tradition of E.P. Thompson and his genre-defining The Making of the English Working Class, and it is possible to imagine the books pages of a national broadsheet devoting half a page or so to its review had it appeared in the 1970s or 1980s. Books such as this are seldom published today and still less frequently given that sort of prominence, and that is a great shame. Some explanation for this labour history heyday feel about Emancipation can be found in its own history. As John Sanders explains, at the heart of this book is the PhD he completed in 1984, and to which he returned during covid lockdowns and social restrictions nearly 40 years later. But there is nothing out of date in Sanders’ historiography. Much of this book is based on primary research, but it also builds on the work of a roll-call of historians active over many decades. Alongside the work of Jacob Epstein, J.F.C, Harrison, Patricia Hollis, and of course both Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Emancipation is informed by the work of John Halstead, Malcolm Chase, Katrina Navickas, Matt Roberts, Tom Scriven and others.

The book is impressively detailed. It recounts, meeting by meeting, often speech by speech, and pamphlet by pamphlet, the story of West Yorkshire working-class radicalism in the hugely important decade leading up to and including the early years of Chartism. This is a story of advances and setbacks, of differences between towns affected to a greater or lesser extent by economic and political developments, and of the pure chance that gave some towns leaders and organisers of greater talent than others. The development of working-class leadership and organisation in Huddersfield was at times very different to that of Leeds, that of Halifax was different to that of Bradford and so on. At the core, however, is the story of the divergence between middle-class liberalism and working-class radicalism, as, in the words of Joshua Hobson which form the title of this book, the ‘workers of their own emancipation’ gradually and largely abandoned the alliance of ‘the industrious classes’ in favour of class-based politics.

This was not, of course, a straightforward process. Although the 1831 general election and the Reform Act of 1832 had been won by an alliance of middle- and working-class reformers in the country, some were already sceptical of promises that the new £10 franchise would be a first step towards greater reform. And they were right. The new Whig government actively opposed further extension of the vote, introduced a Coercion Act to suppress popular protest in Ireland, promulgated the hated New Poor Law, transported the Tolpuddle labourers for combining against pay reductions, and enforced the Stamp Acts to imprison radical publishers, editors and booksellers. In the West Riding, Whig-liberal mill owners fought bitterly against factory reform and sought to smash trades unionism.

For some, especially in Huddersfield, this was enough for working-class radicals to ally with a strand of Tory Radicalism epitomised by the populist ‘Factory King’ Richard Oastler – a genuine advocate of factory reform and opponent of the Poor Law. Others, however, remained wary of Oastler and the Tory party of ‘Old Corruption’ and of bloody oppression. Memories of Peterloo still loomed large. But even when working-class radicals and later Chartists continued to work with middle-class liberals, it was now on a more contingent and tactical basis: with one party having largely abandoned much of the progressive cause, the old alliance was at an end.

By the late 1830s, popular discontent with all its causes, and the organisations and leaders that radicalism created as a result, were desperately in need of a unifying principle. In its seventh and final chapter, Emancipation takes us through the emergence of Chartism in the West Riding, focusing first on a series of local studies that build on rather than replicating the detailed work of previous historians, and then on questions of leadership and support. John Sanders is a reliable and informative guide to the events of 1838 and 1839 as the early excitement and expectations of imminent victory based purely on weight of numbers proved overly optimistic, and Chartists divided over the ulterior measures that might now be needed. With his grasp of the granular detail of radical politics and radical activists, he avoids falling into easy tropes of revolutionary workers betrayed by vacillating leaders to explain to what extent, and why, measures such as the ‘sacred month’ found support in some towns but not others, and how elements of West Riding radicalism prepared for but were unable to carry through successful risings co-ordinated with insurrectionary efforts in South Wales and possibly the North East too.

In his epilogue, Sanders suggests that despite its ‘veneer of completeness’, Emancipation only scratches the surface, with much still to be discovered. In this he is overly modest, though it is true to say that the work of history is never done.

Inevitably, the book includes a huge cast of characters, many of whom appear once or twice to serve on a committee or propose a resolution, never to be seen again. Others, however, pop up time and time again in different contexts, becoming the experienced and confident leadership that would be such a feature of West Riding radicalism by the end of the period studied here. In the case of Thomas Hirst, the author takes us aside for a few pages to provide a short political biography of this important figure in the co-operative movement of the day. But I cannot help thinking this would also have been a helpful for the likes of John Hanson, George White, Lawrence Pitkethly, and James and Alice Mann, to name but a few. As Sanders indicates, the volume of records available to historians is now far greater than it once was, and in the vast numbers of family historians working on them there is endless scope for collaboration and new discoveries. The life stories of lesser-known radical leaders, activists and supporters must surely feature large in future studies.

This is also a very male book. While acknowledging the numerous and various ways in which women were involved in radical activities, Sanders rightly makes the point early on that ‘the nature of the sources and the lens through which we view leadership’ makes it more difficult to see women in leadership roles. But there are glimpses here of women’s activism: supporting factory reform in an age when many worked in textile manufacturing; as members of co-operative societies; in exclusive dealing; and especially in opposition to the Poor Laws. But there is much more that needs to be discovered. Indeed, if a central thrust of this book is that Chartist leadership and organisation emerged from years of learning and experience in earlier causes and campaigns, then the same must apply to the women involved in the hundred or more Female Radical Associations and Female Chartist Associations to be found in Chartism’s early years. They surely did not appear out of nowhere.

Workers of Their Own Emancipation is a huge achievement on John Sanders’ part. I cannot say I read its 554 pages at a single sitting, for it takes rather more thought and focus than such an approach would allow. But I did find it absorbing, informative and enlightening. And it is an important contribution to our understanding of pre-Chartist (and early Chartist) radicalism. I can see myself returning to it many times in future to look up a half-remembered fact or idea. I should also add that the publishers, Breviary Stuff, have done a magnificent job in bringing this book into print and at a reasonable price – as they have done previously with other works on radical history.

Finally, I realise that early nineteenth century radical history may not be everyone’s idea of a good holiday read, but if your luggage allowance permits, you could do worse than to pack this as your choice of summer blockbuster.

Workers of Their Own Emancipation, by John Sanders, is available from the Breviary Stuff website.

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