Trade in 1842, the year of the plug riots, was worse than ever, and the sufferings of the working classes throughout Yorkshire and Lancashire were very great. It was hoped that as summer came on matters might improve, but they grew gradually worse, and at the beginning of August the distress was at its height. The corn laws were then in full operation, and the ports being closed the people throughout the country were starving. In the north it was reported that a fourth part of the population was dying of famine. At Stockport, half the masters had failed and five thousand work-people were walking the streets, nor were they much better in any of the towns in Lancashire. The Chartist movement had gathered much strength during the past year, and the working classes in all the large towns were in a state of great discontent and disaffection. The masses of the people were still persuaded that the “People’s Charter” would enable them to secure higher wages and better food, and that for that very reason the “aristocrats,” against whom they inveighed so furiously would not grant it. Another immense petition in favour of the charter was presented in the House of Commons in May, and great meetings were of almost nightly occurrence in all the large towns of Yorkshire. At Leeds the pauper stone heaps now amounted to one hundred and fifty thousand tons, and the guardians offered 6s weekly for doing nothing rather than 7s 6d for stone breaking. Poor rates swelled to with dismay the heavy drain on their resources. Towards the end of June a meeting of tradesmen and shopkeepers was held in the Bradford courthouse, “to enable them publicly to make known the unparalleled distress which prevailed, and the decay of trade consequent thereon, and to adopt such measures relative thereto as might be deemed advisable with a view to avert impending ruin.
Disturbances of an extraordinary character and on a large scale took place in Lancashire, which speedily assumed an alarming character. They commenced at Stalybridge. On Sunday, August 7th, a large meeting was held at Mottram Moor, which was attended by eight or ten thousand people. The disturbances originated in this way. Some of the manufacturers of Stalybridge finding, as they stated, that others in the vicinity were paying lower wages than they were gave notice of a reduction. The workmen consented at one mill at the expiration of the notice to take the lower price. At another place, however, they refused to submit to the change. The workpeople of the firm last mentioned waited upon their employers, Bayley Brothers, and spake roughly on the proposed reduction, on which one of the masters said if they took the matter up in that spirit they had better play until they thought differently of it. On hearing this the deputation set up a loud shout, when all hands left the mill, without waiting for any formal answer to the demands of their representatives. Proceeding to the different mills in the town, the workpeople nearly all turned out and joined them, and their number soon swelled to more than 5,000, of whom one-third were females. Day by day they extended their march and emboldened by their numbers they determined to put an end to all work until their political demands were met. In accordance with this resolve they stopped all the collieries, and insisted upon men of all trades participating in the general holiday. Finding that all were not willing to join in the mad enterprise, they did not hesitate to overawe and coerce them, and procuring a number of formidable bludgeons, they tried to intimidate any workman who resisted them. Proceeding to the print works of Thomas Hoyle and Son, who had made themselves very obnoxious, they spoiled a great many of their goods, and then went on to Ashton, where they were joined by fresh crowds. An immense meeting was held there, when the passions of the mob were inflamed by the fiery oratory of reckless demagogues. They next proceeded to Oldham and Manchester, where, however, they found the military drawn up to check their excesses. As the mob did not at once commit depredations the military were withdrawn, but a scene of pillage and disorder soon followed, the chief sufferers being the provision dealers and bakers. The military again marched out and fourteen of the ringleaders were taken into custody. At Birley’s Mill a determined struggle took place. The rioters were first deluged with water, but as this did not compel them to disperse, some of the workpeople ascended the roof and threw pieces of iron, stones, and other missiles upon them. Many persons were very seriously hurt, and a young girl killed on the spot. From Lancashire the disaffection speedily spread into Yorkshire.
The Halifax Chartists were on the “qui vive” on Saturday, August 13th, the leaders having received word that large detachments of turnouts were on their way from Lancashire. Groups of suspicious-looking people with bludgeons were seen entering the town. Evening came on, and about eight o’clock the bellman went round the town calling a public meeting to be held next morning at five o’clock. The gathering took place, and was well attended. About six o’clock, while Mr. Ben Rushton, a well known local democrat, was speaking, the special constables, who had been sworn in on the previous day, were seen approaching the gathering, headed by two magistrates, Mr. George Pollard and Mr. William Brigg, and were received with groans. Mr. Pollard at once rode in front of the platform and declared the meeting to be illegal. He advised that the proceedings should be immediately brought to an end, and that all should depart in quietness to their homes. Mr. Rushton attempted to resume his speech, but he was not allowed to do so by the special constables, and, eventually, the assembly formed into procession and perambulated the district. Ere they dispersed it was arranged that another gathering should take place early next morning.
On the afternoon of that same Sunday (August 14th) a large gathering took place on Bradford Moor, under the presidency of George Bishop. Mr. Ibbotson, a well known news vendor, whose place of business was on the Bowling Green, addressed the gathering, which was estimated to number 10,000, and was followed by other speakers, stirring up the enthusiasm of the surging crowd, who received their treasonable utterances with wild cheering. The alarmed authorities summoned the chief inhabitants to meet the same evening at the Talbot Inn, when it was resolved that steps should be taken to put down the outbreak. Special constables were sworn in in large numbers, and troops were sent for from Leeds. Next morning another Chartist meeting was held in front of the Odd-Fellows’ Hall, Thornton Road, at the early hour of seven, when it was resolved that the people should never relinquish their demands until the Charter became the law of the land. The immense crowd then formed into military order, marched up Manchester Road towards Halifax, stopping at the mills on the way. The arrival of the Bradford contingent at Halifax was preceded by that of J. W. Hird, Esq., a magistrate, who announced to the startled authorities that thousands were on the way there that the rest of the Bradford magistrates and a troop of the 17th Lancers were coming to the assistance of the Halifax authorities. As news had just been received in Halifax that a large body was also on the march from Todmorden, the alarmed authorities held at once a hurried consultation, and it was resolved to move the civil and military forces to New Bank, it being thought that the aim of the rioters would be to stop Messrs. Ackroyds’ and Messrs. Houghs’ mills. The cavalry, under the command of Captain Forrest, and a body of infantry, under Major Byrne, accordingly proceeded to the spot, and arrived at New Bank just as the rioters were seen coming over the brow of the hill. The first action of the lancers was to range themselves across the road in order to prevent the rioters from going further. Behind the cavalry were ranged the foot soldiers and the special constables. The rioters, pressed forward by the surging mass behind, came marching on until the two bodies met, but eventually the mob, seeing their way was effectually barred, got over the walls, ran across the fields, and formed again in Range Bank, where they encountered the Bradford contingent and joined forces, forming a compact mass of 25,000 men and women - for no inconsiderable number of the insurgents and women - and strange as it may seem the latter were really the more violent of the body. The mob thus reinforced proceeded down Crown Street towards North Bridge, and were met at the top of Park Street by the military and civil forces. Here the Riot Act was again read, but the magistrate who read it was jeered at by the crowd.
…After stopping Messrs. Haigh’s mill the crowd proceeded to Haley Hill, where they did the same at Mr. Dawson’s mill letting off the steam. They then went forwards to Messrs. Ackroyd’s mill where they stopped the works and turned the hands out. They forced the boiler plug, and, while this was being done, a party proceeded towards Booth Town to stop Atkinson’s silk mill, and another branched off into Mr. Ackroyd’s grounds for the purpose of letting off the reservoir.
At two o’clock in the afternoon, a meeting of ten to fifteen thousand people was held on Skircoat Moor, when resolutions were passed touching the “people’s rights,” and a deputation despatched to the Mayor to demand the release of the prisoners that had been captured by the authorities during the day’s “melees.” The women were very excited and were heard urging the men to attack the prisons in which the rioters were confined. Another gathering was held on Tuesday morning, and opened with singing and prayer, as was customary at most Chartist gatherings. The speakers were far more temperate in their language than on the day before. After the meeting they divided into hands and left for Greetland, Elland, Brighouse and other places to continue the work of stopping the mills. At Brighouse they seem to have first attacked Samuel Leppington’s mill at Brookfoot, where they drew the plugs; and from thence they proceeded to John Holland’s, Slead Syke; Perseverance Mill, and Victoria Mill (Rev. Benjamin Firth), Upper and Lower Mills; Robin Hood and Little John Mills, were all visited. At the latter place a local man, Joseph Baines, drew the cloughs in connection with the water wheel, and was tried at York for the offence afterwards, being sentenced to six months imprisonment. Thornhill Briggs Mill was also visited, and part of the crowd then went to Bailiffe Bridge and drew Holdsworth’s plugs. Several local ringleaders at Brighouse and Elland, who made themselves conspicuous, were afterwards punished, some, however, judiciously absented themselves until the storm had blown over.
The great pressure brought to bear on the Halifax authorities with respect to the prisoners, and the strong manifestations on their behalf, led them to think it would be better to remove them to safer quarters, and it was decided to convey them to Wakefield. For this purpose two omnibuses were procured, and six police officers being told off to escort the eighteen men in custody to Elland railway station, a band of eleven hussars accompanying them. Upon arriving at the bottom of Salterhebble hill the party encountered a large mob, who made way for the omnibuses, but sent a volley of stones after them. The soldiers, however, escaped without much injury, passing through Elland Wood in safety, and the prisoners were duly placed in the train. Upon returning, Mr. Brigg wisely resolved that the troops should proceed up the higher road by Exley to Salterhebble, as he feared another encounter with the mob in Elland Wood. In coming down Exley Bank the soldiers were observed by the mob, who rushed out of the wood in vast numbers. Mr. Brigg, who was a little in advance of the hussars, motioned them forward. This magistrate appears to have been a special object of attack, and the first stone that was thrown hit his horse a severe blow on the head. The soldiers galloped forward, but, when opposite the Elephant and Castle, they encountered the mob in force congregated on the rising ground. Scores were also on the tops of the houses. The mob had all large stones, and it was evident from the number that they must have accumulated them. These missiles they hurled with fearful violence upon the devoted soldiers in the road beneath. Mr. Brigg was hit in several places, his left arm being broken; his groom was hurt, and three of the hussars were unhorsed and taken prisoners. The soldiers fired upon their assailants, but the shots took little or no effect. Deeming that to continue the conflict would mean certain death, the hussars wisely retreated to a position on the brow of the hill, where they were joined by the remainder of the troop from Halifax, who had fortunately gone to meet them, expecting that their help would be required. Reinforcements were immediately sent for from Halifax, and the infantry with ten hundred special constables were shortly on their way to Salterhebble to disperse the mob. At another meeting held at Skircoat Moor, it was agreed to proceed to Haley Hill, which was now defended by the authorities, the entrance being protected by wool packs, &c. About four o’clock the turn-outs began to arrive, a large number of the malcontents being as usual, women. A shot was fired from the crowd at the military massed at the bottom of Haley Hill, and the bullet or slug struck one of the officers, but did him no great injury. Several stones were then thrown, whereupon the soldiers received orders to fire upon the mob, which they did, and several persons were wounded. The hussars also dashed up the hill at full speed and several sabre blows were administered to the flying crowd. The mob gave way, and then made for Bankfield, the residence of Mr. Ackroyd, but were met by a well directed fire from some defenders of the mansion, and about thirty persons were captured. After this the mob made no further headway in the town and on the day following order was restored.
The Lancashire turn-outs commenced operations in the Huddersfield district by stopping two manufactories at Milnes Bridge. They met with a slight resistance at Armitage Bros’. Mill; and one still more determined at Starkey’s at Longroyd Bridge, the gates being closed against them, but they had to be opened or soon would have been broken down by the enraged mob who congregated round them. At Folly Hall, a very extensive factory, the workpeople, being apprized of the approach of the rioters, left the mill to avoid any collision. At places where the mob encountered any opposition they threatened to return next day, when, if they found the mills running, they would pull them down. The first halt they made in the town was at Joseph Schofield’s Scribbling Mill in New-street, where, meeting with some resistance, they drew the plug and let out the water. The crowd then divided, parties proceeding to Paddock, Marsh, &c., the main body next visiting Lockwood’s factory in Upperhead Row. Thence they proceeded through the town to the factories of Messrs. Roberts and Mr. W. Brook. At the latter place Mr. Brook hesitated to turn his workpeople out, and endeavoured to reason with the mob, but they refused to listen to him, threw him While this was progressing, other parties proceeded down into the engine house, and drew the boiler plug to every mill in the neighbourhood, stopping them all. A meeting was then held at Back Green. The speakers were chiefly Lancashire men, and their utterances were resolute and determined. After the meeting, a raid was made upon many of the shops and houses for eatables. Mr. Brook, a magistrate, attempted to harangue the people at a meeting on Back Green, but the crowd refused to disperse and would not listen to him. The streets were by this time filled with people. In front of the George Hotel the mob was especially demonstrative, brandishing their bludgeons, and shouting and gesticulating wildly. Here some of the leaders were captured by the military, and taken into the inn. Rescue was attempted, but the result was that several others of the more prominent mob leaders were taken into custody. At this time the Market Place, New-street, Kirkgate, and Westgate presented one dense mass of human beings, and the aspect of affairs was very threatening. The military were commanded to clear the streets, and an awful scene took place as the trumpets sounded and the lancers dashed into the crowd, cutting down or riding over all who stood in their way. The crowd, thus assailed, ran in all possible directions, screaming dreadfully in their terror. Every street and corner was soon speedily cleared, the mob rushing wildly into the open country to escape the soldiers and by eight o’clock on Monday evening the town was comparatively quiet.
…By this time all the towns and villages in Yorkshire were in a state of great excitement and confusion. On Tuesday, the 16th of August, a considerable mob entered Cleckheaton, and met with much opposition from the people at work in the mills. They succeeded in stopping one mill, and then went on to the works of Mr. George Anderton. Here they were gallantly opposed by the workmen within the mill, who with the assistance of a large number of the inhabitants drove them out of the mill yard, and pelted them with stones, until they finally expelled them from the town. On the same day mob law was put in force at Dewsbury. A large meeting was held at the Market Cross at six o’clock in the evening, after which a procession was formed, and the crowd proceeded to Batley Carr, Batley, Birstall, Littletown, and Heckmondwike. They tapped all the boilers on the way and turned out all the hands, after which another meeting was held at the Cross, at which it was stated that thirty-six boilers had been “let off.” The Dewsbury shops were closed as soon as word came that the rioters were returning, and the public-houses closed at six o’clock. Next morning another gathering took place after which the mob marched through Earlsheaton, and Horbury Bridge, coming back by way of Thornhill Lees. They had some time to wait at the colliery of Joshua Ingham, Esquire, to get out the men and horses before they tapped the boilers. Here a field of turnips belonging to the Rev. Henry Torr, the rector, was nearly stripped of its produce. Another meeting was held at the Cross on their return and it was arranged that the next muster should be held at Birstall. The shops were again closed although it was market day. The men, who were all armed, went from house to house begging, and in many instances, if refused and only women happened to be in the house, force was resorted to. The magistrates, J. B. Greenwood and John Hague, Esquires, attended from early in the morning till late at night to swear in special constables, and many hundreds from Dewsbury, Batley and Heckmondwike offered their services.
On Thursday morning, all the factories and collieries round Dewsbury were stopped by a mob 5,000 strong. The same mob then visited Batley and stopped Bromley’s and Ellis and Sons’ mills, where they drew the plugs without any opposition. They then resolved to pay a second visit to Cleckheaton, to do the work they had been unable at their previous visit to accomplish, and strong parties were told off to stop the mills, collieries, etc., at Gomersal, Millbridge, and Heckmondwike. It does not appear that any opposition was offered at any of those places, and as the various mobs passed rapidly through the towns to rejoin the main body of their comrades at Cleckheaton their ranks were swelled by a large number of local chartists, who, deceived by the apparent impotence of the authorities, were persuaded that they were about to inaugurate a revolution…The first attack of the mob at Cleckheaton was on the mill of Mr. Sutcliffe Broadbent, where they were suffered to draw the plugs without any serious resistance being offered, and being joined by some of the other detachments, they proceeded in a body numbering some five or six thousand to St. Peg mill, and had withdrawn the plugs from two of the boilers when an alarm was raised that the soldiers were coming. As soon as it became known that the rioters were approaching Cleckheaton in strong force, the late Mr. Jas. Anderton, of Upper House, then a young man, rode, it is said, from Cleckheaton to Bradford in the incredibly short space of half an hour to fetch a troop of the Lancers then stationed there, but before they arrived a troop of the Yorkshire Hussars came from Leeds, where Prince George of Cambridge was acting against the insurgents. When the Yeomanry reached Cleckheaton they were joined by some hundreds of special constables, and then proceeded in a body to Peg Mill. The mob had, as we have stated, withdrawn the plugs from two of the boilers, and were proceeding to the third when they saw the soldiers defiling down the lane. Hastily massing themselves, those who were unarmed proceeded to pick up all the loose stones in the yard, while those who were armed with bludgeons, scythes, &c., were thrust to the front. The appearance of the rioters, as they somewhat unsteadily waited for the arrival of the troops, was certainly formidable, but the discipline of the little band who came to attack them more than counterbalanced the disadvantage of the great disparity of numbers. The leader of the friends of law and order called out for a halt as they neared the mob, and addressed to his men a few simple words of encouragement, appealing to their sense of duty to the throne and the peace of the realm. He then waited for the reading of the Riot Act. Before this could be done the mob advanced in disorderly fashion and threw pieces of dross at the compact mass before them, and several men were knocked senseless and bleeding from their horses.
The moment was critical, as the mob, taking advantage of the confusion occasioned, were advancing with stones in their hands once more, Clissett, who was in the front rank, excitedly waving his arms and crying, “Follow me, my brave boys!” when orders were given to fire. Though this and a second volley was fired in the air, the crowd fell back in disorder, and the Yeomanry, taking advantage of the confusion, rode rapidly upon them, flourishing their sabres over their heads and striking them with the flat sides. The special constables followed up the advantage thus gained and drove the rioters towards the beck, on reaching which they scattered in all directions, some crossing the stream and others rushing into a neighbouring corn field, where they hoped by lying flat to hide from their pursuers. In a few minutes about twenty or thirty were taken into custody, and all the fields and lanes in the neighbourhood were black with wild struggling masses of human beings trying to escape from the horsemen, who rode after them flourishing their weapons. The following is a list of those taken into custody:-Charles Leighton (18), farmer, Gomersal; Richard Thomson (26), clothier, Gomersal; Thomas Barber (22), collier Gomersal; David Walker (17), clothier, Batley Carr; Charles Brierley (32), machinist, Batley Carr; John Hey (18), collier, Hightown; Matthew Parkinson (30), dyer, Dewsbury; Josh. Holdroyd (20), raiser, Dewsbury; David Brooke (34), sawyer, Dewsbury; Joseph Farnhill (35), weaver, Dewsbury; W. Allport Bell, Dewsbury; Robert Waterson (16), no trade, Birstall; Matthew Mawson (26), collier, Birstall; J. Hodgkinson (30), weaver, Birstall; Samuel Newsome (14), clothier, Hanging Heaton; Josh. Blakeborough (39), weaver, Batley; Edward Exley (22), weaver, Earlsheaton; Wm. Wild (17), collier, Alverthorpe; and Matthew Castle, hawker, Bradford.
Frank Peel, The Risings of the Luddites, Chartists and Plug-Drawers, 4th ed, Frank Cass & Co., 1968, pages 329-43.