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The general strike of 1842—‘Charter or no return to labour’

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Talk of a general strike is back in the news and talked about on picket lines. On the 180th anniversary of Britain’s first general strike Judy Cox says the story has lessons for today
Issue 2816
Illustration of the Chartists revolt

Stones meet sabres as the Chartists revolted for political reform. (Alfred Pearse)

Imagine a mass strike ­movement, based on ­working-class communities confronting the political elite during an enormous cost of living crisis and the violent repression of the right to protest. In the spring and summer of 1842, such a movement began. 

Throughout 1841 and 1842, prices of food and essential goods rocketed as employers drove wages down. The workers revolted against starvation wages, but also demanded radical political change.

They instigated Britain’s first general strike, spread and sustained by ­workers in factories, mills and mines. The striking workers demanded solidarity and faced down police and militias who had demonstrated their record of killing ­workers at the Peterloo Massacre 23 years earlier. 

All attempts at organising trade unions in the 1830s were repressed. But workers repeatedly rebuilt the organisations which were their only protection against a rapacious system. 

In February 1834, utopian socialist Robert Owen organised a conference in London which founded the Grand National Consolidated Trades UnionSix labourers in Tolpuddle, Dorset, tried to affiliate to the Grand National but were ­convicted of swearing unlawful oaths, and sentenced to ­transportation for seven years. 

A huge solidarity campaign sparked and the Tolpuddle Martyrs were pardoned in March 1836. This lesson in the power of solidarity wasn’t forgotten and eight years later workers rose again.

The movement began with the second national Chartist petition to parliament. It ended with a general strike across the West Midlands and Lancashire, reaching as far as Dundee in Scotland and Cornwall in the south east. 

The great Chartist petition of 1842 put forward an incredibly radical set of demands which won an astounding level of support. The petition was signed by around a third of the adult population and stretched for six miles and weighed 305 kilograms.

It demanded redress for a wide range of grievances and it resonates strongly with our movements today. For example, it condemned “cruel and expensive wars fought for the suppression of all liberty”. And it criticised the amount of money squandered on keeping the monarchy in luxury.

At the time, MPs were elected by a minority of wealthy citizens and bribery, and corruption were a natural part of the electoral process. The central demand of the petition was universal male suffrage, secret ballots and annual elections. 

Who could disagree with the petitioners that “members elected to serve in Parliament ought to be the servants of the people, and should, at short and stated intervals, return to their constituencies”?

The 1842 petition was not confined to political issues. It also addressed the cost of living crisis, pointing out the, “great disparity ­existing between the wages of the ­producing millions, and the salaries of those whose comparative usefulness ought to be questioned, where riches and luxury prevail amongst the rulers, and poverty and starvation amongst the ruled”.

The movement saw the ­interpenetration of both political and economic demands. There was no separation between the two struggles during early examples of ­working class resistance.

The Chartists argued that parliament should take action to prevent widespread hunger—“That notwithstanding the wretched and unparalleled ­condition of the people, your honourable house has manifested no disposition to curtail the expenses of the state, to diminish taxation, or promote general prosperity”. Such an accusation could well be levelled at the Tory government today. 

The Chartist petition defended the right to protest. They complained that their right to meet and protest was being crushed. 

The petition identified an unconstitutional police force as the means by which the “irresponsible few to oppress and starve the many”. The petition was dismissed by parliament and workers responded with a wave of riots and strikes which grew into Britain’s first general strike

In June, colliers from north Staffordshire struck in protest against a wage cut and strikes immediately began to spread. Striking miners began to pull the plug out of steam engines and stopped coal production at pit after pit.

Strikers marched from town to town, pulling plugs and demanding food from ­shopkeepers. Their confidence grew as the strike wave surged. 

On Sunday 7 August strikers from Stalybridge, Greater Manchester turned out all the mills still working in Ashton. Around 13,000 strikers then marched to Hyde and Oldham. 

Strike meetings held that evening agreed to strike until the Charter was law. Similar events occurred across Lancashire and west Yorkshire with strikers taking over towns and blockading carts of food. 

The demand “the Charter or no return to labour” was heard everywhere. At Preston on 12 August, two strikers were shot dead.

The spirit of revolution was in the air. A huge rally in Bradford pledged “not to work again until the Charter was established”. 

Two columns of demonstrators headed out to Halifax, where thousands of female turnouts—many poorly clad and marching barefoot—refused to disperse until the cavalry was brought in. Six people died during the rioting which erupted that night. 

On 16 August, the anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, crowds of men and women filled their aprons filled with stones and ambushed the cavalry, freeing those who were arrested the previous night. 

Throughout the first two weeks of August, the strike wave involved around half a million workers from the mills and mines. Women were at the heart of the struggle, and many contemporary accounts described their tenacity and courage. 

On Wednesday 10 August, for example, women in Manchester gathered at 5.30 in the morning. They marched to pull plugs at mills. When Kennedy’s mill refused to close, they threw stones through windows and were about to smash their way in when a posse of police arrived. 

The women fought back against the police and were only dispersed when a ­detachment of dragoons—mounted infantry—arrived. The next day, strikers from Rochdale in Greater Manchester marched to Todmorden and back, a route of over 21 miles, closing down mills. 

“Girls, not more than twelve or fourteen years old, wearing heavy clogs,” led the strikers. Some Chartists and trade union leaders tried to spread the movement, but others preached restraint and feared confrontations with the state. 

The strike remained weak in some areas. Faced with ­starvation and a lack of direction, workers began to drift back to work.

The repression that followed was unmatched in the 19th century. In the north west alone over 1,500 strikers were put on trial. 

The political focus and militant spirit of the strikes suggested imminent revolution to many contemporaries. This insurgent movement did rise again in 1848, the year of European revolution. But once again leadership was lacking and the mood dissipated. 

Mainstream ­historians often emphasize the inevitability of Britain’s progress towards democratic majority rule. But the events of 1842 demonstrate how deeply hostile the political establishment was to democracy. 

Two years after the strike the revolutionary Frederick Engels paid tribute to the strikers saying, “The English working men are second to none in courage.”

He praised, “This obstinate, unconquerable courage of men who surrender to force only when all resistance would be aimless and unmeaning.”

The working class militants of 1842 were not just brave. They showed that the working class had entered the stage of history. 

Riots and street barricades were no longer enough to challenge the emerging ­capitalist system. The power to resist the bosses lay in the workplaces. 

This shift was illustrated by the story of the notorious Sir Hugh Hornby Birley. At the Peterloo Massacre, ­captain Birley led cavalry forces, and personally wielded his sabre against peaceful protesters. He was hated by all reformers.

In 1842, striking cotton mill workers came to Birley’s Chorlton Mill. It was defended vigorously with water hoses fired and masonry thrown from the roof, causing the death of a young girl.

How sweet it must have been when strikers nevertheless forced Brierly’s mill to close. Workers’ organisation finally humbled the hated butcher of Peterloo.

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