Bradford & Wakefield Observer (02/Sep/1847) - Walks Round Huddersfield

The following is a transcription of a historic newspaper article and may contain occasional errors. If the article was published prior to 1 June 1957, then the text is likely in the Public Domain.


By George S. Phillips.

No. I.

Sixty years ago, Huddersfield — now the centre of the fancy manufacture of England — was a miserable village. The houses were poor and scattered, the streets narrow, crooked and dirty — the people defaced, and wild in their manners, almost to savagery. Around them stretched the black moorland, unreclaimed by the plough or the spade ; and the sides of the noble hills were covered with shaggy moss, brambles, and wiry creepers, or coloured, in the appointed season, with the golden gorse and the purple heather. Here and there on the hills, and in the valleys, were a few lonely cottages — built of stone, with little gardens before them, and patches of land broken up for the growth of oats and potatoes; whilst a cow or a sheep might be seen cropping the rank herbage hard by. The chief occupation of the people, both of Huddersfield and the scattered district around, was the manufacture of cloth. Every house had its loom and its spinning wheel, and the entire fabrics were wrought by hand labour and cunning. There were no factories then in existence. The river, now dyed black with woad and minerals, ran clear and beautiful through the village, singing a musical song, all the way from its source sea-ward, to the woods, valleys, and heaths which it passed by, in its long joyous meanderings. John o' the Brook, and Will o' the Moor House, might be seen, in the fine summer evenings, among the bearded rocks and the woods overhanging the river, fishing for trout in the rapids and rushing eddies of the shallows, or hunting the otter with their merry dogs. The whole country round was wild and barren, the population sparse, ill-fed, and ill-clad, and no signs of the present prosperity gleamed through the darkness of that time. The enchanted palaces, by which name we may truly call the existing factories, were all asleep in the future. No whirling of water-wheels nor thunder of steam-engines, nor mid-day smoke of mighty chimneys, darkening the sunshine and the blue of heaven, were heard or seen. No Working Magii directed their wondrously intelligent machines and compelled them, as I have elsewhere said, to "do the work of men without hands or feet," and "weave garments for the naked backs of the world." The true empire of magic and romance of the actual had yet to be broken up. And how short was to be the intervening period ! Already in this wild people were deposited the seeds of a glorious manufacturing and historical unfolding. Huddersfield Proper — to use a geographical expression — was to grow out of them ! They were to acquire the skill necessary to build a town, which should, after all, be but the shell and covering for a pro-founder skill — the skill, namely, to weave broad cloths and embroidered fabrics — the fame of which should reach to the very ends of the civilized world. And they have done so. Sixty years have changed the face of this vast district. For during that time, heads and hands have been at work, conquering the wild dominion of Nature, and making all her elements serve them. Thus the river has been converted into artificial beds, and the waters arrested in their course by weirs, and compelled to turn the wheels of the hundreds of factories which are built upon the river's banks. Man could scarcely have achieved a greater triumph than that which shews itself in the work he has done in this town and neighbourhood. Go where you will, east, west, north, or south, the signs of this triumph are around you. The savage moorland has been cultivated, and parcelled into corn fields and pastures. The hills, in many cases, wave, even to their stony summits, with rich herbage; and from the wildest glens and ravines rise the chimneys of noble factories, sending their black smoke through the green foliage of the trees ; every one of them the centre of a little working community. For, wherever a factory springs up, there likewise spring up the elements of towns and civilization. No matter what freaks nature may have played with that particular locality — no matter how many acres of broom or plumed brackens, growing over immeasurably deep bogs, she may have planted there, this factory is a notification to her to shift her quarters and resign them to a more noble and cunning master. For now Man's time is come, and with it man's necessities, and what powers are in him to minister unto them.

Thus, Huddersfield has grown into an important town ; and what is more, she has fostered other towns and villages in her immediate neighbourhood, and made them also important; so that, within six miles of her, there are, as I learn, some hundred and thirty thousand souls engaged in manufactures, and in the commerce to which those manufactures give birth. Odessa has scarcely risen more rapidly than Huddersfield ; and there are some men now alive who can remember this latter place when there was but one church, and no chapel nor factory in it. There is one old man whom I have called many times to see at his pleasant cottage in Ashenhurst, whose recollections of the olden Huddersfield have interested me much. He is eighty-five years of age, and although crooked and gnarled in his appearance, and bent double with the weight of honourable years, he is still vigorous in mind, and, what is more remarkable, in body also. For, with that ancient stick of his, he has walked, for sixty years, now walks when he is in health, every Sabbath day, in storm and sunshine, from his own cottage to Highfield Chapel. Good old man ! Thou art very venerable in my eyes, not only as the living connecting link of a period long past, but for such true worth and holy resignation as I have found in thee. This ancient man, with his grey hairs and massy forehead, his clear, keen eyes, and face stained with the fire of the morning, now fading, alas ! into the pallid hues of evening, has a distinct recollection of all the events which have transpired in this neighbourhood for sixty years. He has waded up to his knees in mud to that Highfield Chapel : so dirty were the roads leading up to it. M'Adam was not born then, and Huddersfield had no Commissioners of Highways and Byeways. He saw the first Sunday school opened in the town, taught by godly manufacturers and others, somewhere in Mole Green ; and in the pride of his historic life he named the first factory built to celebrate the modern glad tidings of work. He gave me some picturesque glimpses of that old past time, likewise, and I saw through his spoken apocalypse, the manufacturer descending from his cottage amongst the hills, with his pack-horse laden with bales of cloth, and he mounted on the top of it, going towards Huddersfield cloth market. Now, this cloth market had no splendid hail at that time for its transactions; but each bale of cloth was placed upon the low wall of the parish church; every manufacturer had his place assigned to him, and all, bargains were made in the open air. And thus, from such small beginnings have come these large results which we now see around us. Manufacturers have their enchanted working palaces and regal houses, their Cloth Hall ; carriages, and horses, their agents in all parts of the world, their fabrics on all living backs — each one of them a truly royal king and conqueror.

Nor shall I ever forget the description which the good old man gave me of some scenes in the Luddite insurrection ; nor the faltering, sorrowful manner in which he spoke of the hard dealings of the government with many of those misguided and unhappy men who joined that insurrection in this neighbourhood. He saw it all, and lived through it all. Many "fine young men," as he called them, in whom there was no "real wickedness," but only darkness and ignorance, — men whom he had known and played with as children on the green hill side — were induced to join the Luddites, thinking that the new machinery which had been introduced into the cloth manufacture was intended to supersede their labour, and throw them aside, with all their running endowments, to starve! And "dearly did they rue the day," added the old man, with tears in his eyes, "for they hung many of them, and some, alas! that were not guilty." Then he described the old "Bradley Mill" to me, where the rioting first broke out. It stood where its successor now stands — on the Leeds Road, by the river side, under the shadow of the rugged hills which rise above it, and which were then crowned with trees and flanked with brackens, dog-standards, brambles, and bilberry shrubs — a wild romantic place even to this day. The operatives belonging to this mill were the first who struck against the Iron Devil, as they thought it, which had been brought there to do the labour and supersede the skill of living men, thus taking the bread out of the mouths of their wives and little ones. No doubt it was a wild and maddening thought to these poor men. Hitherto, they had done-all the manufacturing work, and could earn an abundance of wages thereby ; and to see a dead iron-machine introduced to eat up their work and wages together, was clearly enough, in their eyes, to renew the old war of the gods and Titans. Have we not seen similar outbreaks against machinery in our own times ? And these times, alas! so much more "enlightened" than those! A more foolish, embrangled, and at the same time, a more sorrowful, mental condition could not exist than that which leads working men to cry out against machinery. "If," as I have said elsewhere, "the savage Luddite armies, masked and grimed, in their moonlight meetings upon the black moors, assembled there in council, or in mad determination of outrage — of battle — if I say, they could have been suddenly illuminated with the knowledge of what help to man and splendour to the world lay hidden in machinery, how insane would they all have seemed, standing there with such stern thoughts, ready to destroy their greatest benefactor! From first to last, the Luddite insurrection was one of the most painful and deeply affecting movements I have ever heard of. The people were blind and ignorant, and their rulers were so likewise. The murder of one man by the Luddites resulted in ruthless retaliation by the Government, reminding one rather of the actions of Carribees and Polynesian cannibals than those of a humane Christian Government. Witness the frightful executions which took place, and the public exposure of the unhappy victims ... And the end of all this was, that machinery, the first cause of it all, was triumphant. Machinery was true. There was a wonderful unfolding to come out of it, as we of this day can testify, with all honour and gratitude. And no true thing, of whatever kind, can be destroyed. Men may ignorantly, or even knowingly, fight against it; they may indeed prevail against it for a time, but they cannot kill it. Eternal things are the masters of the temporal. If the temporal have power, as we have sometimes known it, to pile mountains upon the eternal — good! It can lay there. It is in no hurry ; but when the hour arrives for its appearance again, it will break from its tomb like an earthquake, and dash the temporal into dust. It was ignorance, then, ignorance of the mighty truth of mechanism which caused the Luddite rebellion. The false idea that machinery would destroy the worth and wisdom of the working man's right hand, ran through the whole of it, and burnt itself out at last, after so much wild-fire, in smote and darkness. I will now add, let us hope in light also."

There is one Bewick picture of the times, anterior to this Luddite insurrection, which I must sketch here, at the hazard of failing. It concerns that Bradley Mill especially, and all other mills then existing in general. The men employed in the cloth manufacture could earn, as I have said before, very abundant wages — enough wages, indeed, by working three or four days in the week, to keep them in idleness the remaining days. And so it happened that much injury resulted thereby, both to the manufacturer and the workmen. Bradley Mill was often deserted when urgent work was to be done; when large orders, from importunate merchants, called aloud for execution and completion, and the men, with their blue aprons and hands and faces stained with indigo, were playing at pitch-halfpenny, or lounging with their pots and pipes on the benches outside an alehouse that stood hard by. An empty silent mill, and a noisy, drunken body of workmen, who would not work, and who owned no true allegiance to their master — who recognised no other rights between employer and employed than those of receiving their due wages from the said employer and drinking them at their pleasure — were circumstances sure to explode one day, and bring about quite a new settlement of affairs, and establish quite a different kind of relationship between them. Hence we see that machinery did at last come to adjust that matter, and hence the riots that followed; both natural enough consequences of the previously stated premises. Well, as I said, the good old man of Ashenhurst saw all these things with much sorrow in his heart; and when they were settled, and scores of factories had sprung up, and machinery was proved to be of vital importance to the manufactures of the town and neighbourhood, by employing a greater number, of hands and cheapening and expediting the manufactured material, .then came the Poor Law riots during the Oastler Era, and the armies that fought under the far-famed "Paddock flag." Many tales are told of these riots, and of Oastler and his agitation for a "Ten Hours' Bill," which are of very singular significance. And first of all, how strange it is that no Poor Law Union could ever get a footing in Huddersfield! These wild Huddersfield men, with such notions of right and wrong as they had in them, positively forbade the banns of marriage between the poor of Huddersfield and the poor's union, which they called, in Chartist phraseology, "The Bastile." It was useless to talk to them of the advantages; it offered to the destitute, the widow, the orphan, the pauper ; they only cried out the more — "Away with it! we will have none of it. No whiting and water for soup! No separation of man and wife. No Poor Law slavery. We are white men, and by ——— we will die first." Such was their language — the language of the men who fought under the "Paddock Flag." And once, when it was bruited abroad that a real, live, Poor Law Commissioner had actually come to Huddersfield — how they beset the place where the overseers were sitting — a huge, dark crowd of men wielding clubs) and laden with stones, demanding that the said Commissioner should be given up unto them. The Lord have mercy upon any poor man "given up" in like circumstances! The Overseers answered, that he was not there; but the crowd were not to be put off thus. They sent one or two of their number to see whether the stated fact were so, or not; and after a long search they were satisfied that the Overseers had spoken truth. Happily for them, and for the subject of this inquisition! Then the rumour came that he was at the "George." And thither the crowd hurried. In the meanwhile the live Commissioner, his face buried in a quaker's hat, had gone by all manner of bye-lanes and alleys to the Star in Mold green — where a carriage and horses were in readiness for him. Off they drive with their Poor Law Cargo; and the Paddock men getting intimation of it, follow him, by short'courses,and have the "satisfaction" as they thought it, of greeting his carriage with a shower of pebbles — thick as a hail storm on the Andes.

Then again I was deeply interested in another account I had, from different quarters, of still further riots. The soldiers are all out — men whom the Huddersfield folk, with their broad humour, call the "Noodles," that is, the "Yeomanry." They are drawn up in a square before the George Inn, in New Street, facing Lockwood and the backbone mountains of Old England, beyond Lockwood. They are there to awe the people into peace and order, or otherwise to charge and clear the streets. But the poor people are by no means abashed in their presence. They do not so much as fear them, but stroke the necks of their proud chargers, and talk lovingly to the riders after this fashion : "Well, yow be come to cut uz down. Has't 't got no childer of t' own ?" Or thus: "I zay! Does your mother know yuu'r out?" "Get whoam t' your wark, now, and leave honest folk alone. We on'y wont our rights." "Ah !" says another, taking up the sense of the last speaker, "And we'll hev 'um un all." And then, when the Riot Act is read, and the people still refuse to go home, — the order is given to charge! And in a moment an opening is made for the soldiers to pass through. All the bye-streets, lanes, and passages are filled with people, who run thither to get out of the way ; and shouts of the loudest laughter follow the soldiers as they gallop up the street.

These are slight glimpses of the Poor Law Riots in this town.

The whole Oastler era, indeed, is remarkable. Oastler was much beloved by the people, and they called him, and still call him, "King Dick." No one man ever had more power over a multitude than this man. I do not speak here of his politics, and I will not sit in judgment upon his actions. These last will speak for themselves, and in a voice loud enough, to all persons who are acquainted with his history. No doubt he had many errors and short comings, and did many questionable deeds ; but one thing I will say for him, which to me has many redemptions in it, — that he was a sincere friend to the poor ; and in all his agitations and torchlight meetings, he faithfully — so far as I have heard — kept his followers from outrage. Yet he was not a wise man, but one, I should say, who had more heart than brains; although, in a certain kind of brains, he was by no means deficient. Yet he evidently gave the people all the wisdom he had, and led them in the best way he could — which is more than can be said for the generality of persons who call themselves the "leaders of the people," and who do lead them — into bogs and all manner of darkness. Still, as I said, Oastler was a sincere friend to the poor! And the position he occupied, as steward of the Fixby estate, afforded many opportunities of proving his real calibre. In all my inquiries in this direction I can find but one opinion of him, and that is, that he did justly both to the landlord whom he represented, and to the tenants under that landlord. The factory children loved him like a father; and the men and women literally worshipped him. Of course he had his enemies, and, doubtless, in many instances he deserved to have them; but he did much good in ameliorating the condition of the factory children, and in changing the general discipline of factories in this neighbourhood. I have heard his eloquence spoken of as an altogether unprecedented thing, moving whole masses of men to tears, rage, or wild bursting laughter. Pity that there was not more shot of the right sort in it. and less fulminating powder. Take the following as an instance of the effect he could produce upon the multitude. He is speaking from the "George" windows, and the sun is going down over the western hills. Men, women, and children, to the number of three or four thousand, are listening to him below with intense eagerness. He is discoursing upon the "Horrors of the Factory System." All Lancashire and Yorkshire are brought up for judgment before that tribunal of the people. He details the oppression of the factory masters and overseers; and gives cases of young children, boys and girls, who have been subjected to the lash ! And whilst the people are groaning over these assertions, he startles them into rage and horror by exhibiting a handful of hair and flesh, accompanying the exhibition with these words : "Behold! another bloody trophy of tyranny ! This hair and broken flesh were torn from the head of a young girl in one of your Huddersfield factories, by an overseer who being exceedingly mad against her, attempted to dash her head against the wall!" I hope for the honour of Huddersfield that this story is not true. Of one thing I am quite sure, that now, at all events, there are no factories in England better regulated than those of Huddersfield, and none in which the health and comfort of the working classes are more benevolently studied."

There is one other glimpse which we get of "King Dick" in these times, of a far more beautiful and poetic character than that I have just instanced. In the former case, we saw him pleading, in his way, the rights of humanity against the wrongs of what he called the "Factory Lords." In this we shall see him in a kind of patriarchal state, delivering such law and gospel as he possessed, to thousands of factory children. The history is as follows : Oastler and Michael Sadler had summoned the factory cliildren, youths and maidens, to a meeting in the beautiful pastures of Fixby, where they proposed to address them. None but children were to attend ; and as the withdrawal of those children from the factories would necessarily cause a suspension of work therein, during the time of their absence, the masters opposed their going; and, in some instances, threatened those who should go with dismissal. But "King Dick" called to them from those pastures on the hill tops; and what were the threats of masters, to the commands of their sovereign ? A sovereign, too, whom they truly loved ; who had done a right kingly work for them "likewise, by exposing the tyranny and oppression of their overseers, and rendering their once intolerable situations not only tolerable, but comparatively happy. Accordingly, at the time appointed, hundreds of these poor grateful children were toiling, with joyous hearts, up the steep hills leading to Fixby — some in their gay holiday attire, and others in their usual working dress. Nay, in some cases, children who had been sent by their parents to the factories, ran off to the meeting, regardless of all consequences. And there did King Dick and honest Michael Sadler address these children upon a subject which originated with the said King and his colleague, viz. :— the necessity of limiting the hours of work in all factories to ten hours, Of these originators one is now gone back again into eternity, and the other has lived to see the words spoken at the meeting in question embodied as law in the Ten Hours Factory Bill. The idea of the hours of labour being limited through the instrumentality of the labourers themselves, was of course very obnoxious to all employers of the same, and produced much ill feeling and many hard words between Oastler and the manufacturers. Upon one occasion, at a public meeting, Oastler was charged with a design of producing insubordination in the factories, and of instigating the people to an open destruction of the machinery. "Ye are a foolish folk," said Oastler, in answer; " Do you not know that if I were disposed to act so wickedly, that I could destroy your machinery far more effectually than by open violence? Does not sand lie on the king's road within the reach of all — even the tiniest child ?" This imprudent speech only increased the existing animosity, and Oastler was then charged with teaching the people to destroy the machinery by the silent method of scattering sand over it. Very clearly, there could be no understanding between Oastler and his co-temporaries !

One is puzzled to know what to make of some of the scenes which occurred during the Oastler era. Those torchlight meetings, for instance : what mad things they look to us just now, in our cool historic moments. It is impossible to sympathise with them, and equally impossible wholly to condemn them. Ignorance and a sense of wrong seem to have made both the people and their leaders literally insane, in the instance of these exhibitions. For assuredly, it was not a wise way of trying to adjust the people's differences, by summoning them to torchlight parliaments, with ail their accompanying excitements and fanaticisms. What the people wanted at that time was not excitement, but sound healthy speeches, containing a true wisdom for their guidance. All parties being insane, however, there was nothing left for them but explosion in furious speech and time; which last, in all such cases, is a never-failing remedy.

The usual scene of these torchlight exhibitions was in the "Back Green ;" and a friend of mine, who attended many of them, describes them as fearful enactments, reminding you of some demon-meeting in Pandemonium. At one of them the now temperate Henry Vincent was the chief speaker. He was then an evangelist of the gospel of fire and daggers; and preached always to the edification of his poor congregation. Figure him there in the "Back Green," mounted upon a platform of stones, surrounded by thousands of looped and ragged men and women, thundering with his mighty eloquence under the black moonless midnight. Scores of torches flame around him; staining his face and many others with the red light, and flinging the black dense shadow of the people behind them in true Salvator Rosa relief. Hark ! how the words come roaring out of him; and see how he flings his shadowy arms about, like a tormented ghost in Dante's hell. Cheers and loud huzzas greet him from every tongue and heart too, I believe. Listen! He is now talking about "White Slavery !" Ah! there then are slaves, are they ? Well he will free them. How ? With torch and dagger, if necessary! More power to thee Henry ! More power, I say! See the dark mass is now ready to do thy bidding. Lead them on then to freedom ! Freedom! Alas! alas!

It is but just to say that say that my good friend Henry Vincent is quite another man now ; a wiser and a sadder man ; and no one would more revolt from such a scene in the present day, than he. Nay, he has long since been engaged in undoing his former errors, and has travelled tens of thousands of miles to preach peace and rood will to all men.

The last popular excitement belonging to the history of Huddersfield was that known by the name of the "Plug Riots ?" It did not originate here, nor were the operatives here at all friendly to the movement. They were all busy at work in their Factories, when word came that a body of two or three thousand men was marching towards the town from Rochdale. Let them march then, said the Huddersfield Boys, and went quietly on with their business. The Rochdale men were met at the entrance of the town by a Manufacturer from Meltham, who was driving that way in his four wheel. "Well my lads," quoth he, "and what have you turned out for ?" "More wages that we and our families may die not," was the answer. "Have you had anything to eat to day ?" asked the Manufacturer ; "you look tired and hungry." "Not a bit" cried a hundred voices. "Well then," said the Manufacturer, "You must not starve," and calling to a Baker, whose shop was hard by, he ordered him to distribute all the bread he had to the poor people. This done, they marched in a body to the different factories, and called upon the men to turn out. In most instances they were obeyed, and the Rochdale men very coolly went into the factories and pulled out the Plugs of the Engines, thereby effectually stopping ail work. They then paraded the streets, offering no further violent to person or property. This state of things lasted for a week, during which time the 11th Hussars were called in. The Colonel of this regiment deserves honourable mention here, for his great humanity and forbearance to the people. Upon one occasion he was attempting to disperse a mob, after the riot act had been read, and a foolish Magistrate called upon him to fire with blank cartridge. The Colonel answered him ; "Mind your own business Sir. I neither want to kill the people, nor to suffer them to kill my men. I shall not fire." On another occasion, when the riot was over, this colonel was returning home to his hotel in plain clothes, rather late at night, and being mistaken by some loose fellows for another person, was insulted, and would have been roughly handled, but one of the men recognized him; whereupon they all asked his pardon, and earned him home upon their shoulders with loud vociferations : they did not forget his conduct during the riots. The police, however, were hated by the people. And in the course of the riots one of them had his cutlass broken over his head, and was pitched over the gates of the "George Hotel," into the yard, where his companions had retreated before him.

The "Plug Riots," however, were not caused by any disagreement between masters and men, in the matter of wages ; they had a political origin. O'Connor, the People's High Priest ! had preached a national holiday, as a means of getting the Charter; and it was to enforce this holiday the plug scheme was designed.

I will here draw my lengthened sketch of Huddersfield's history to a close. The town is now quiet and settled : free from political and all other excitement. Trade and commerce are on the increase ; and a true day seems breaking for us all. What is now wanted more than anything else in Huddersfield, is an Education for the People. An education, properly so called, which shall not only furnish knowledge but practical life wisdom. The only way to terminate for ever all torchlight meetings and insane outbreaks against machinery ; all riotings, — in short, all disturbances, of what kind soever, — I repeat it — is to educate the people. Give them light, that they may no more injure themselves and you, in the dark. I do not know a more noble people, at the bottom, than the Huddersfield people. Strong, stern men, with searching intellects, full of bravery and independence ; bat rude and uncultured; calling aloud for instruction, and worthy of it. As Secretary to the Mechanics' Institution — the largest institution for popular education in England — I can bear testimony to the worth of the Huddersfield men, their willingness to learn, their thankfulness for the privileges afforded them, and the progress which they make under these privileges, both as scholars and as men. All that is wanted now, is "more power" to the funds. Let us meditate this matter, therefore.