Yet although by the summer of 1842 despair about the prospects of Chartism was setting in, as it had done in 1839, this time despair did not lead to apathetic acceptance of distress but (after a pause) to direct industrial action. Economic distress was now at its peak.
‘Any man passing through the district’, wrote the Manchester Times on 9th July, ‘and observing the condition of the people, will at once perceive the deep and ravaging distress that prevails, laying industry prostrate, desolating families, and spreading abroad discontent and misery where recently happiness and content were enjoyed. The picture which the manufacturing districts now present is absolutely frightful. Hungry and half-clothed men and women are stalking through the streets begging for bread.’
‘Stockport to Let’, one wag chalked on the door of an empty house in Stockport: one house in eight was empty in the town. A soup kitchen in Manchester was dispensing a thousand gallons of soup per day to the poor. This was the background to the Plug Plot strikes.
The spark which set off the explosion was a threatened reduction in wages, already much reduced. A meeting of protest was held on Mottram Moor on Sunday, 7th August at which some 8,000-10,000 operatives were present. The meeting passed resolutions calling for the Charter and for ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’. Events soon proved that this latter demand was much the more widely supported. All work had ceased in Ashton on the 5th, and on the 9th the strikers there marched into Manchester. Within hours the strike had spread throughout the cotton districts. In nearly every town work stopped and excited meetings of operatives assembled to demand fair wages and fair hours of work. A meeting of about two hundred trade delegates gathered in Manchester on 11th August and demanded a ten-hour working day and fair rates of wages for both weaving operatives and factory workers; detailed wage rates were drawn up for every branch of the trade.
Thus within a few days a great and spontaneous upsurge of feeling had taken place: extreme suffering had led to sudden action.
‘The people in the neighbouring towns were entirely ignorant of what was coming; there was no combination among them to have a general strike; no deputies had travelled to arrange it, and yet there was a bond of union so firm, that by almost universal consent the movement was sanctioned and adopted. This bond was stronger than a written and sealed bond; it was the bond of suffering and of servitude; it was the feeling that life was become a round of helpless drudgery, or the endurance of forced idleness with want and starvation.’
The strike was thus a sudden economic explosion, not the beginning of a planned political revolution. There was no causal connection between Chartism and the outbreak. Many of the strike meetings did indeed pass vague resolutions in favour of the Charter, but the audiences were much more interested in work and wages than in Chartism. The Chartists made no attempt to claim the credit for the outbreak, but merely attempted to exploit it once it had occurred. By a coincidence a national Chartist delegate meeting had been called to meet in Manchester in the third week of August; O’Connor, McDouall, Cooper, and most of the national leaders of the movement were present. The meeting passed a resolution strongly urging the strikers to remain out until the Charter had been won: ‘while the Chartist body did not originate the present cessation from labour,’ it declared, the Chartist delegates none the less wished to express ‘their deep sympathy with their constituents, the working men now on strike; ... we strongly approve of the extension and continuance of the present struggle till the PEOPLE’S CHARTER becomes a legislative enactment’. This appeal does not seem, however, to have had much effect. Its impact was seriously undermined by differences within the Chartist leadership. O’Connor advocated peaceable action in support of the strikes and the Charter. McDouall, on the other hand, was all for physical force; he urged the people to ‘leave the decision to the God of justice and of battle’. The Chartists were thus seriously divided at a vital moment, and their division lost them whatever chance they may have had of gaining control of the strike movement. Nothing was more remarkable, observed the North of England Magazine in retrospect, ‘than the feebleness and incapacity of the Chartist body’ during the Plug Plot crisis. Not that their ineffectiveness saved the Chartist leaders from arrest; by the beginning of October virtually all of them, national and local leaders alike, had been arrested.
To escape arrest McDouall fled the country. His appeal to physical force had met with almost no response: the strike movement in Lancashire was remarkable for its peacefulness. Plugs had been pulled out of factory boilers (hence the name given to the movement), but this was generally the limit of popular violence. ‘The object has not been to destroy, but simply to stop,’ remarked the Manchester Times on 20th August; ‘and the simplest and least destructive manner has been chosen .... While at a distance Manchester is thought to be in a state of siege, the whole town may be traversed without a single act of violence being witnessed.’
But peacefulness could not in itself make the strike movement a success. Bound by laissez-faire economic beliefs and confident in the support of the military, the cotton masters offered no concessions. Reluctantly but steadily the operatives returned to work. Some mills in Manchester were already back in production as early as 17th August. Within a month the great strike had petered out.
The fact that the Plug Plot strikes could break out without Chartist assistance and the ineffective part played by the Chartist leaders during their course, showed how weak the Chartist movement in Lancashire had become by the summer of 1842. It was in fact destined never fully to revive again. Between 1842 and 1846 a great change came over the social atmosphere in Lancashire. The hostile feeling of the operatives towards their employers which had poisoned the social atmosphere for so long and which the Chartists had exploited so assiduously, at last began to lessen. Between 1842 and 1846 both the attitude and the aspirations of the Lancashire working classes underwent a remarkable change.
D. Read, ‘Chartism in Manchester’, in Chartist Studies, ed. A. Briggs, 2nd ed., Macmillan, 1965, pages 53-56.