The Huddersfield Poor Law Union (usually shortened to Huddersfield Union) was formed on 21 January 1837 under the terms of the controversial Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and comprised the 34 townships within the four parishes of Huddersfield, Almondbury, Kirkburton and Kirkheaton. The townships of Skelmanthorpe and Scholes were added to the Union in 1876 and 1894 respectively.
The 1834 Act had a number of objectives, including:
As a government enforced Act which targeted the poor, it fanned the flames of the working-class Chartist movement in the North of England. Locally, anti-Poor Law demonstrations were often led by Richard Oastler, William Stocks and Lawrence Pitkethly.
The Board of Guardians for the Huddersfield Union initially included a representative from each township, along with four extra for Huddersfield and one extra from the townships of Almondbury, Honley and Wooldale. By 1881, the number of Guardians had increased to 46 and had risen to 70 by 1885.
Strong local resistance to the 1834 amendments led to local Radicals, Chartists and anti-Poor Law representatives being voted onto the Board during its formative years. Over the following decades, divisions with the Board meant that consensus was rarely reached on important decisions. The rapid rise in the populations of the Huddersfield and Golcar townships also led to the less-populated rural townships having a disproportionately stronger voice during votes.
Prior to the Board of Guardians being formed, a large demonstration was held on Tuesday 7 February 1837 outside the Cloth Hall. A large black banner with red text was unfurled which read, "Whom God hath joined together, no devil of a commissioner shall put asunder : if the poor-rates and the poor are to be commissioned, so shall the rents and the landlords, the funds and fund lords." The coverage by the Leeds Times ended with:
The strongest manifestations of disapprobation of the [Poor Law] Act was manifested by the meeting, as well as a most determined spirit to oppose its introduction into Huddersfield and the neighbourhood. After the business has been disposed of, a meeting of rate-payers from each of the townships forming the proposed union, was held at the White Hart Inn, when measures were concerted for opposing with the greatest effect, the application of the measure in that district.
Elections were held on 10 February, although only around 500 out of about 3000 votes were counted. Of the rest, some were returned blank but most had been spoiled with protest comments about the Poor Law Act — "many not in the most measured or courteous terms"(!) The following were duly elected to the Board of Guardians:
The Leeds Times noted that those elected were split into almost equal numbers of Tories, Liberals and Radicals.
At their first meeting, held at the George Hotel on 15 February, the Board resolved to adjourn until April without appointing a Poor Law Clerk. By not appointing to the role within a month of being elected, the Board had effectively decided to stand down and triggered a new set of elections.
The second set of Guardians met on Monday 3 April at the George Hotel and appointed W. Swaine the chairman. After an adjournment for lunch, a majority decision was reached to not appoint a clerk and to adjourn until June when they would meet at the local workhouse. The Leeds Intelligencer noted that the "majority of them appear very much against having anything to do with the new system, and it appears certain that it will be exceedingly difficult to carry it into operation in this district".
Monday 5 June 1837 saw around 3,000 protesters gather at the Druids Arms Hotel in Huddersfield to hear a speech by Richard Oastler. Anticipating a riot, the High Constable (George Mallinson) had applied to the local magistrates to have the military on hand to preserve the peace, but his request was denied. The crowd then marched to the Birkby Workhouse, where the Board of Guardians were meeting, and on "finding the large iron gates on the yard fastened, they instantly broke them open and marched into the workhouse".
The Board then adjourned to the Albion Hotel on Buxton Road, although the Bradford Observer claimed that the protesters tried to set upon chairman of the Guardians en route and "but for the assistance of Mr. Oastler, he would have been very roughly used". Once safely inside, they again voted not to appoint a clerk. In the heated discussions which followed, some of the Guardians were in favour of adjourning for 6 months The day ended with the protesters burning an effigy of Alfred Power — the Poor Law Commissioner for the entire West Riding — in the Market Place.
A week later, the Guardians met again at the Albion Hotel. Vice-Chairman, Mr. Morehouse of New Mill, began by reading a letter from the absent Chairman, Mr. Swaine, which stated he "declined having anything further to do with the Board". A number of local Chartists, including shopkeeper Lawrence Pitkethly, had gained entrance to the meeting room and, after some discussion, were allowed to stay. Despite a letter from Poor Law Commissioner Alfred Power stating that "any three of the Guardians could, in the absence of the rest, appoint a clerk", the mood of those present appears to have been summed up by Mr. Whitaker, who "thought they had better stick to their posts, and support the interests of their [own] townships and the public good". Once again, the Board of Guardians voted to adjourn rather than conduct any business, with the date of the next meeting set for 11 September. The Leeds Intelligencer reported that a "troop of Cavalry" were stationed at Edgerton in case of a disturbances, but were not needed.
When news of the adjournment reached London, the Poor Law Commissioners issued an edict which demanded the Guardians meet on 17 July:
And we do hereby further order and direct, that the Guardians shall at the Meeting so to be holden as aforesaid, proceed forthwith to the election of a Clerk, and shall not conclude or adjourn the meeting on any ground or pretext whatsoever...