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Chartism, the Workers’ Fight for Rights – Part 2

The Chartist Movement, which occurred across the country between the late 1830s and late 1850s, was Britain’s first mass working class movement for voting and parliamentary rights. This series of blogs will tell the history of how the movement took place in our area, specifically Darlington, Stockton, and Middlesbrough.

This second part investigates how chartism in Middlesbrough took a very different stance to Stockton and Darlington, how their working and middle classes were on more even footing, and how chartist activities started to lean more towards education, co-operation, and trade unionism.

'Chartist Demonstration!! Peace and Order is our Motto!' Heading for posters advertising Chartist meetings. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

The Aftermath of 1839

Following the events of August 1839 there was some effort to keep chartist meetings in public spaces going despite the bans. Some local leaders including James Maw, a bricklayer’s labourer, held open-air meetings which were poorly attended and did not lead to any significant action. Some of the remaining Darlington chartists openly defied the ban in April 1840 by assembling in the marketplace, and those who weren’t fined were imprisoned. Stockton chartists either chose to meet at Darlington or, in the case of three meetings held in the spring of 1840 by a Sunderland chartist named George Binns, often crossed boundary lines to flummox the authorities.

Protesting and physically enforcing reform had been forcibly put down by the authorities, so many chartists started turning their attention towards providing aid and education to those who needed it the most. This is the point in which chartism in Middlesbrough enters the picture.

Middlesbrough marketplace at St. Hilda’s. Peaceful chartist meetings took place in the marketplace from 1841. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

Chartism in Middlesbrough

At the time of the chartist riots in Stockton and Darlington, Middlesbrough had only existed as a town for about 10 years. Joseph Pease and Partners of Darlington had bought a small farmstead at the mouth of the River Tees in 1829, built Port Darlington there for coal shipping and built an extension of the Stockton and Darlington Railway (SNDR) a year later. Within just a few years the new town had attracted people from across the country and the world, housing was hastily built and new businesses including James Laing shipbuilding, the Middlesbrough Pottery and Bolckow and Vaughan’s ironworks were established. The town’s population had expanded rapidly from 154 in 1831 to 5,463 in 1841.

At first there were very few prominent chartists in Middlesbrough in the same vein as Miles Brown, and open-air meetings were also restricted, so chartists held meetings in each other’s homes until they won the right to hold meetings in the marketplace in 1841.

Middlesbrough’s approach to chartism was very different to Stockton and Darlington’s. The young town was owned and controlled by Pease and other Quaker businessmen who did not live in the town and had benefitted from the 1832 Reform Bill which had extended the vote and parliamentary representation to them. Business owners who did live in the town had not received the same benefits of the Reform Bill since they were not as wealthy and their businesses were smaller, and they were more likely to attend chartist meetings and hear the concerns of workers.

A drawing of a Reading Room. While this one was founded in Middlesbrough Town Hall in the 1880s, it would have been similar to the Working Men’s Reading Room founded by Middlesbrough chartists on Newcastle Row in 1840. Image courtesy of Dorman Museum.

Rather than holding meetings to stir up protests, the Middlesbrough Charter Association encouraged temperance and systems of education. They opened a Working Men’s Reading Room on Newcastle Row in 1840, where workers could meet to read selected books and articles on engineering and mechanics. The Northern Star newspaper was read out during meetings, and lectures also took place. While the subject of these lectures were on the merits of pursuing the People’s Charter, they also included the current industrial and economic situations across the country and the world.

The Reading Room was so influential in its first few months that Stockton Charter Association formed a Mechanic’s Institute in April 1841 complete with a Reading Room in the same vein as Middlesbrough’s.

Co-operation and New Move Chartism

On 6th September 1839 during a meeting the Durham Charter Association gave a speech enthusing Stockton and Darlington chartists to found co-operative stores –

In response to this call to action, two Joint Stock Provision Stores were opened in the last months of 1839, with one in Darlington and the other in Stockton. These Provision Stores were forerunners to co-operative stores in which the business was owned by its shareholders. Middlesbrough’s attempts at opening co-operative stores were not as successful until Newport Rolling Mills Co-operative Store opened in 1867.

From 1840 chartism as a national movement started to adopt more ways of encouraging education, co-operation, and temperance, and this was sometimes referred to as New Move Chartism.

This new direction in Chartism was seen by some members as very controversial, that some were giving up the fight to achieve the People’s Charter through force and protest.

After the unrest, it does appear that Teesside and County Durham were adopting more forms of New Move Chartism, and this may have been down to the eroding of the leadership and the failure to achieve reform through the meetings and riots of 1839.

However, this may not be the case – it could be that New Move Chartism’s efforts in education and co-operation worked better for the area’s industrial culture. Some leading chartists contributed to this in various ways.

One of them was James Hollinshead who in 1842 was among the founders of Middlesbrough Oddfellows, a Friendly Society. Friendly Societies were alternative forms of poor relief compared to the dreaded Poor Law which forced the needy into the workhouses. Those who paid a weekly or monthly membership received assistance when they were sick or unemployed.

There was also John Jordison who, by virtue of owning his printing business in Middlesbrough, undertook the mortgage of the new Oddfellows Hall when it was built in Bridge Street in 1853.

An early logo for Stockton Co-operative Society Limited. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum and Grounds.

The second petition of the People’s Charter

In 1842 the General Convention were preparing to present the second petition for the People’s Charter to Parliament. Middlesbrough Charter Association had gained a strong leadership at this point and were looking to have regional conferences with the Stockton chartists, perhaps hoping to form a better union with their neighbours.

However, the Stockton chartists had not recovered well from the events of 1839 and were reluctant to holding meetings with them. As a result, no such conference took place.

This was then followed by further disappointment when the petition for the People’s Charter was rejected a second time on 3rd May 1842, despite that the petition had gathered 3 million signatures, a marked improvement on the 1.25 million previously. At least 1,200 of the signatures had been collected in Teesside and County Durham.

What followed was the 1842 General Strike, in which many mines and potteries in Lancashire and Yorkshire ceased work, and workers demanded less hours and increased wages. Once again, the military were sent in to ruthlessly put down the strikers. Elizabeth Pease wrote of the strike –

In the end it appears that no rioting occurred in Darlington or Stockton this time, and from autumn 1842 the chartist movement stagnated on a national scale. For Stockton and Middlesbrough, the following year saw the closure of both their chartist reading rooms and economic upheaval with the closure of Middlesbrough Pottery and the decline of the linen-weaving trade in Stockton.

Chartism wouldn’t really recover until 1846.

Next week the final part of this blog series will examine how Chartism in Stockton, Darlington and Middlesbrough recovered in time for the third petition, and how social reform eventually came about following the decline of the Movement.