The hidden tradition in Oldham
Lancashire’s radical history
By Matthew Cookson
THE RECENT election boost for the Nazi British National Party in Oldham has thrown the Lancashire town into the news. It has also exposed a long history of racism towards the Asian community. The Nazi vote shows that people’s despair and bitterness can be turned against scapegoats.
Karl Marx pointed out long ago that capitalism both unites people against it, and divides them against each other. The history of Oldham makes both of these traditions clear. Oldham in the 19th century was at the heart of England’s cotton industry. There was a huge disparity between the rich and poor of the town. The great bulk of the population of 60,000 was concentrated in the unsewered slums of the town centre.
The 50 families that lived in the mansions on the edge of the town grabbed around half of Oldham’s income. This, and the bosses’ attempts to increase their profits, produced huge bitterness and struggles.
FOR THE first half of the 19th century the town was at the forefront of the collective struggles of working people in Britain. But the employers then tried to divide the opposition against them-only then it was anti-Irish racism, not anti-Asian racism. At the start of the 19th century there were hundreds of members of radical working class groups in Oldham.
Many of them were influenced by the revolution that had shaken France ten years earlier. Although trade unions were illegal, there was intense union activity throughout Lancashire. “About Oldham the colliers are universally out,” wrote a magistrate in 1818. “The masters have not the courage to proceed against them for combination or neglect-although the workmen’s committee sits on stated days in Manchester as if on legal business.” In 1819 a huge rally at St Peter’s Field in Manchester demanding political reform was attacked by the yeomanry, representatives of the employers. They killed 11 protesters, four from Oldham, and injured hundreds in what became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
In the summer of 1826 Oldham’s mill owners tried to cut workers’ wages. Some 2,000 struck in response. Strikers attacked the soldiers who escorted the strikebreakers to work. By mid-November the scabs had been stopped, as had all the mills. The strikers then attacked each mill in turn and destroyed the machinery. They attacked the military again in January 1827, and it was saved only by cavalry from Manchester.
Attempts were made to kill two of the employers, and the house of a third was partially burnt.
OLDHAM WAS also a centre of resistance throughout the 1830s and early 1840s. One study of Oldham says: “Throughout the second quarter of the century the town was more or less permanently under the control of the organised working class. Much of its local government was subordinated to the trade unions, the new poor law was unenforced, and for well over a decade radicals were elected as MPs.”
Although working class people did not have the vote, such was the weight of their power in the area that the candidates they supported won elections. Many shopkeepers and farmers voted for the radical candidates Cobbett and Fielden in the general election of 1832.
The MPs were elected on the understanding that they should resign “when required to do so by a majority of their constituents”. The policies they followed were agreed at mass meetings of the Oldham Political Association.
Fielden always emphasised that he was “a representative of the poor”. The two MPs campaigned in parliament for one man one vote, state control of working hours and decent wages for workers. In the 1830s there was a nationwide campaign for an eight-hour working day. The authorities clamped down on workers in the run-up to a general strike in June 1834.
When an Oldham cotton spinners’ lodge was raided by the police, Oldham exploded. Two men were taken before a magistrate and “a crowd of several thousand assembled from the cotton factories in the neighbourhood. They were rescued by the rioters.” One man was shot dead by the armed works police.
Factory workers, miners, engineers, bricklayers, weavers, hatters and tailors joined a general strike in response. Hundreds of troops were moved into Oldham to prevent an uprising. Similarly, support for another general strike in 1842 was strong in Lancashire. The strike was called to force the granting of universal adult male suffrage. Some Chartist leaders opposed the call for a general strike. Thousands of people attended a debate between the two sides. A mass meeting voted narrowly to join the strike.
The next day the town’s mines, factories and engineering works all stopped. For the next five days Oldham’s streets were crowded with workers, and the whole of south Lancashire was in revolt.
THIS HIGH level of struggle, resistance and unity worried both local and national rulers. The strike was broken by massive repression. The authorities arrested 1,500 labour leaders, and the military moved permanently into many Lancashire towns. Straightforward repression was not enough, however.
In order to quell the struggle against them, many employers adopted workers’ slogans. Some spoke in favour of a ten-hour day in the factories, and others backed extending the right to vote. But employers encouraged other tactics as well. There was a sizeable Irish population in Oldham. Many Irish workers were centrally involved in the struggles of the previous decade.
The Irish community began to be segregated into certain areas of Oldham. Anti-Irish racism increased massively during the 1850s. The Orange Order, a Protestant anti-Catholic group, had 11 lodges by 1855. It organised anti-Catholic lectures and sold books denouncing Catholics. The mining employers were strongly behind the Orange Order.
By the 1860s the order had a stranglehold over the miners as well. By 1861 Protestant speakers were lecturing mass audiences. Many young English men abused and attacked any Irish person they came across. Unemployment was hurting both Irish and semi-skilled workers. Anti-Irish racism encouraged a significant section of people to blame the Irish for their problems.
In June 1861 thousands of people took part in anti-Irish riots in Oldham. Two Catholic chapels were attacked and many people were injured. In the Priesthill area Irish people had to fight off an attack on their community.
The town with the most radical history of challenging the rule of profit had been divided by crude racism. But the tradition of unity and resistance did not completely disappear. It could be seen again when the civil war began in America in the 1860s. There was massive pressure from the cotton industry employers to back the pro-slavery states of the South, which produced cotton.
But amongst the cotton workers of Lancashire, including Oldham, there was huge support for the Northern states and the fight against slavery-irrespective of what this could have meant for Lancashire workers’ jobs. Abraham Lincoln, the leader of the Northern states who was to become US president, described the support of Lancashire cotton workers as “an instance of sublime Christian heroism which has not been surpassed in any age or country”. Both traditions-of unity and resistance, and division and scapegoating-run through the history of the working class.
It is the radical tradition of fighting the real class enemy that needs to be reclaimed in Oldham today.
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