A draft, uncorrected piece written a few years ago but hastily pasted here in time for the play on Friday March 7th about the Tolpuddle Martyrs: ‘We Will Be Free’, at the Lansdowne Hall and Gallery.
We glimpse a foreshadowing in Stroud of the events that led to the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union and the Tolpuddle Martyrs at the end of the 1820s and start of the next decade. It might be a good moment now to stress the complete novelty and uniqueness of the industrial capitalism that was evolving in our country at this time. The United Kingdom had been catapulted from an agrarian economy based upon a paternalistic, aristocratic form of control to a laissez-faire world where the middle classes no longer knew their place. The novels of Charles Dickens (I am writing this on the 200th anniversary of his birth) relentlessly show this class confusion; contemporaries battled with economic confusion. They witnessed a country of constantly increasing wealth – and yet constantly increasing poverty. This phenomenon (that so many of us see around us today, nationally and internationally) was completely astonishing to social and economic observers then, and so, different explanations were duly put forward to unravel the seeming illogicality, paradox and contradiction. Some argued that profits were a deserved and justified reward whilst others presaged Marx by viewing profits as stolen wages; while some thought trade unions would disturb a laissez-faire natural harmony, others saw their existence as necessary to combat exploitation and disharmonious injustice.
Thus, there were several attempts to form a general trade union in the late twenties: a union that, by implication, would foreshadow syndicalist ideas of attempting to paralyse capitalism with a general strike; a union that would seek not sectional wage increases and an accommodation with capitalism but rather one that would seek to confront the intrinsic logic of the accumulation of capital; a combination that would be close, a posteriori, to a revolutionary ideology. No wonder then that 1830 saw the formation of the National Association of Labour; 1834 witnessed the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union and the victimisation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It is interesting to see how these seismic events were foreshadowed in Stroud in 1825 with strike activity across more than one trade; so having sketched out some national context, let us now return to the 1825 riots.
On the 10th of June, a person was arrested for selling a journal in the street, “The True British Weavers”; the ‘paper contained a description of the recent, local events and the poor man was put in prison. This propaganda war did not deter support for the weavers’ action, however; there were mass meetings at Break Heart Hill near Dursley and 3,000 gathered on Stinchcombe Hill, whilst Selsley topped that with an estimated gathering of 6,000. This is a quite staggering proportion of the population and indicates how far ordinary people were prepared to go to assert their rights in the face of such varied assertions of the power of law and order. This truly was a Stroud Spring, or Early Summer.
The strike lasted about three months; some strike-breakers were dealt with in a manner suggestive of “rough music”, whereby individuals who broke the code of a community were publically humiliated. This traditional form of community solidarity might involve transgressors being placed backwards on a horse and then led on a parade through a village whilst locals beat pots and pans to create the “rough music”. It was, as E.P. Thompson has shown, a pre-industrial form of action; it is interesting to see how it has been adapted to an industrial-capitalist context in Stroud, however. The practice of taking a beam from a strikebreaking weaver’s loom and then placing him astride it as if on a horse, and then ducking him in the nearest pond or canal is a fascinating example of change and continuity in action. This ritual was especially popular in Chalford. It is interesting to see how change and continuity still interplays in Chalford today; a feature on our area on Country File on BBC 1 two days ago (March 4th 2012) featured a resident whose lifestyle combines a Dickensian keeping of donkeys with a modernist devotion to croissants. Only in Chalford, I hear you say, but, once more, be that as it may, a troop of Horse was sent in in 1825 to read the Riot Act.
Trouble was also found up at t’mill in Wotton-under-Edge (the leader of the rioting weavers there was an ex-soldier nicknamed “General Wolfe”), Dursley and Minchinhampton, but almost our final word on these events comes from the quill of J.C. Wallington, Captain, Royal Hussars, Stroud, 8th June, 1825:
“I have the honour to inform you…that the squadron under my command was called out yesterday to disperse a mob collected in the town, which had proceeded to acts of violence. We accomplished this object with some trouble including the slash of sword only.” There was talk of sending another twenty men to Chalford and how “The Masons, Carpenters and Millwrights have also struck for more wages.”
Enough of the military, however, let us hear from the pulpit – and so we now conclude our record of these turbulent days with John Williams, D.D., Minister of Stroud, Gloucestershire, 31st. August, 1825: “On the Saturday preceding the arrival of the Cavalry, there were about 2,000 weavers assembled in the Town and a very large concourse of them before the door of the Clerk of the Magistrates, demanding the release of prisoners.” We might then mark these events by reflecting on the symbolism of the dipping in the waters of Stroud and Chalford – the Biblical cleansing of sins – with a coffee in Star Anise and a walk past the brook towards the “’bus station”, followed by a walk along the canal to Chalford and a dipping of the toes at Chalford Park. We will then be almost ready to follow in William Cobbett’s horse hooves.
But first we must make a detour to Wotton-Under-Edge and see how events transpired there, with “General Wolfe” directing affairs. A number of open air meetings were held and were also held at the Swann, before cloth and loom beams were set ablaze. Then property was attacked in North Nibley before an orderly march of some 300 weavers through Wotton led to further attacks on cloth and beams before Thomas Neale protected his mill with muskets against the stone-throwing rioting weavers. Thirteen were injured; the magistrates bailed the gunmen; the weavers smashed windows until special constables arrived; military force was then requested.
Five years later came the agricultural riots nicknamed the “Captain Swing Riots”. There was a break down in law and order across the farming counties of the South, with machine breaking, the burning of hay ricks, other forms of arson, the sending of threatening letters to farmers etc. The riots were caused by low wages, high bread prices, poor relief and threshing machines that took away crucial winter work. The neighbouring county of Wiltshire with its arable farming was a key area. We have to imagine village labourers passing information and ideas across fields, through dark lanes and between parishes, knowing that Justices of the Peace were keen to transport to Van Diemen’s Land (in effect, a life sentence; Magwitch’s case in Great Expectations is unusual) or sentence workers to hang. Eastern Gloucestershire was affected by the riots, especially around Fairford. Our nearest site is at Horsley, where machine breaking took place on the 26th November, 1831. You could visit the community shop in Horsley on November 26th each year or lean on a five bar gate and reflect on the beneficence of Lord Sherborne and his fellow Cirencester J.P.s. A return to work would result in a “just” response to labourers’ complaints, they said. The eventual response? A wave of arrests, with nearly 100 peasants incarcerated in the Gloucester Prison.