Thursday, July 08, 2010

Memory in Manchester, to Monument in Durham, the Big Meeting, and back.

I met Murder on the way -

He had a face like Castlereagh.

(The Masque of Anarchy, by Percy Bysse Shelley)

From a contemporary cartoonist's view of the action at St.Peter's Fields, Manchester, on August 16, 1819, to "the man on the hoss" in the centre of Durham.

Along the way meeting Viscount Castlereagh, as characterised by Shelley.

We're taking another ramble through history. Starting in the centre of Manchester. Here on August 16, 1819, a big crowd assembled at St.Peter's Fields, to demand reforms. They came from Leigh, and West Houghton, from Bolton and Bury, Wigan and Whitefield, Oldham and Rochdale, Salford, Stockport and Stalybridge. And of course, Manchester.
The crowd was put at 60,000, men, women, and children, who had marched all the way. The weather was good, and many came in their Sunday best.

As these working folk gathered for a peaceful rally, to call for political representation and economic improvement in their lot, there were assembled against them 600 Hussars, and the Royal Horse artillery, and making up in enthusiasm for what they might lack in military experience, the Cheshire Yeomanry, and Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, variously described as "younger members of the Tory party in arms",[25] and as "hot-headed young men, who had volunteered into that service from their intense hatred of Radicalism".[26].

Shortly after the meeting began, local magistrates called on the military authorities to arrest the main speaker, Henry Hunt and several others on the hustings with him. Then, claiming that the people were attacking the Yeomanry, they ordered the Hussars to disperse the crowd. Cavalry charged into the crowd with drawn sabres, and although it was claimed that they only used the flat of their swords, they succeeded in killing eighteen people and injuring some 600, including 100 women.

Reporters were arrested, but one escaped, and got the news to London. The authorities raided Richard Carlile's premises and confiscated papers, but as word spread, pamphlets and cartoons appeared of the military "heroes" in action, and a name was coined for the bloody events on St.Peter's Field, referring ironically to the battle of Waterloo four years before - Peterloo.

Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, congratulated the authorities in Manchester for the way they had dealt with the Radicals - several of whom were jailed. Parliament passed Six Acts - banning "seditious" meetings, treating agitation for radical reform as "treasonable", taxing newspapers and pamphlets, and banning anyone from taking unauthorised military training. The Peterloo crowd had been peaceful and unarmed, but the government plainly felt it could not rely on people remaining that way.

Among the loyal members of this government, approving of this use of force, was Lord Castlereagh, son and heir to Lord Londonderry, and leader of parliament. He had earned his spurs suppressing the United Irishmen in 1798, and after 1815 as Foreign Secretary he helped the great powers of Europe set up the Congress system to secure their grip on the continent. This association with reaction at home and abroad may explain Shelley's characterisation. Castlereagh succeeded to his father's title Lord Londonderry in 1821, but took ill and became convinced people were plotting against him. He cut his throat with a sharpened letter opener on August 12, 1822.

Charles William Vane Stewart, the third Marquis of Londonderry, aka "Fighting Charlie", was born in Dublin in 1778, educated at Eton, and a major by the age of 17. He served under the Duke of Wellington, in Belgium, Holland, Portugal and Spain, earning the nicknames “the Bold Sabreur”. After the war with Napoleon he was made ambassador in Vienna, helping his half-brother Castlereagh at the Congress which redrew the map of Europe, though according to Adam Zamoyski in his book "Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna", he distinguished himself in the recreational rather than diplomatic side of Congress, being often drunk, frequenting prostitutes, and touching up young women in public. On one occasion the Viennese constabulary had to rescue him after he started a fight with a coachman in the middle of the street.

This behaviour might not have hampered his military career so much as poor eyesight and hearing, but he showed smart tactics in 1819 when he left the army to marry Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, a 19-year-old heiress who made £60,000 a year exporting coal from her County Durham estates – roughly £50m a year in today’s money.

This was not the first time a Stewart had married into money, mind. Alexander Stewart, father of the 1st Marquess of Londonderry, Robert Stewart, had married Mary Cowan, sister of Robert Cowan, a good Presbyterian and Alderrman of Derry city. He had been nearly 20 years in the East India Company, serving as Governor of Bombay (modern Mumbai) from 1729-35, when it exported raw cotton and imported cloth, and though he failed in an attempt to crush Kanhoji Angre's Marathi rebel "pirates", he did succeed in amassing a personal fortune as governor. Cowan died two years after he retired, and his fortune passed via his sister, and a little help from the lawyers, into the hands of the Stewart family. With his wealth from India, the Marquess expanded his landed estates in Ulster, and developed the flax trade.

Lord Charles Stewart had never been to Durham before, but he soon got involved with the coal industry. Coal was hauled by horses along a wooden wagonway to staithes, dropped into keels and rowed down the Wear to Sunderland, where it was transferred into bigger ships. Stewart reckoned that if he could cut out the keelmen and avoid the harbour fees, his wife would earn an extra £10,000 a year. So, for £63,000 in 1821, he bought the Seaham Hall estate from the Milbanke family and started building his own harbour.

The miners knew Stewart's reputation and that he was half-brother to Castlereagh. On August 12, 1822, he inherited the title 3rd Marquis of Londonderry, and he showed himself if anything worse than his half-brother. He refused to allow pit inspections, he objected to the school leaving age being raised from 12 because he employed cheap boys, and he opened his harbour at Seaham in 1831 and said he’d be happy “to see grass grow in the streets of Sunderland”.

In those days, and until 1872, miners worked under a Bond, setting their pay and conditions for a year, and forbidding anyone to go looking for other work. A man called Thomas Hepburn had managed to organise the miners of Northumberland and Durham into a union, though their terms were drastically reduced by hard times. In March 1830 the union called a huge meeting at Black Fell and another on the Town Moor where 20,000 pitmen turned out. Later there were conflicts with the soldiers and the owners but Londonderry had severe financial problems and he was the first owner to cave in. On 13th August 1831, fired up by their victory, the pitmen’s union held a big meeting on Boldon Fell. Pitmen marched to this meeting in their thousands behind bands and banners. Perhaps this was the start of the Durham Big meeting. The first business of the meeting was to elect Thomas Hepburn as a full-time official of the union and by this time the union included Blacksmiths, Joiners, Deputies and Overmen.

The miners strike of 1832 also began in April, to coincide with the Bond, and within a few days all of the collieries in Northumberland and Durham were again at a standstill. This time however the coalowners had an effective strategy - they brought in blacklegs from all over the country, and evicted strikers and their families from their homes. Thousands of people were thus driven into the fields, while their villages were filled with police and soldiers.

The coalowners' terror broke the strike, and for a time the bosses could pick and choose whom they took back on, till as demand for coal picked up miners could regain employment. Not so their leaders. Thomas Hepburn was reduced to selling tea around the villages, and mining folk were intimidated by the owners, led by Lord Londonderry, from daring to buy from him. Driven by starvation to beg at Felling Colliery for work, he was forced to renounce the union before he was taken back on. It would be more than a decade before trade unionism raised its head again.

In 1844, the miners struck again, and it lasted for four months. Besides evictions of "ringleaders", and importation of workers from Ireland and Wales, many of whom were not told they were strikebreaking till they they found themselves stuck in the area with seemingly no option to but to work, Lord Londonderry also issued his famous 'Seaham Letter' , warning traders there not to give credit to striking miners, saying they would be 'marked men' if they did, and threatening to ruin the town if he could not get his way.

The onset of the Great Famine in Ireland showed the Marquess, one of the ten richest men in Britain, an opportunity to show his generosity as an absentee landlord. People were starving on his estates. The Londonderrys donated £30 to famine relief. But they did find £150,000 for refurbishment at Mount Stewart, their magnificent stately home.

The 3rd Marquess died in 1854 at his home in Park Lane, London. Today there is an ongoing controversy in Durham over whether to move his statue, though not I think that far. Some say it is an obstruction to developing the market place, others that it is an important asset like the Cathedral and castle. There is even some controversy whether he was hero or villain, though not many miners would say the former.

In modern times, the seventh Marquess of Londonderry eclipsed his colourful ancestors by gaining a reputation as Appeaser of Nazi Germany. He was a leading figure in the pro-Nazi Anglo-German Fellowship. Hitler's ambassador Joachim Von Ribbentrop was entertained at Mount Stewart, in 1936, thereby acquiring the soubriquet "the Londonderry Herr".

Britain's mining industry has been destroyed by Thatcherism, but tomorrow the mining communities of Durham and Northumberland and their proud spirit will come alive again in the Durham miners' gala, the 'Big Meeting'. I think it is probably right that "Fighting Charlie", the third Marquess of Londonderry should continue to look down from his pedestal on the bands, the banners, the pubs and pie shops, the young people who I've seen link arms to dance in the street. the working folk that he could not beat. I hope that for generations to come parents will continue to point up at the statue, and teach history to their children, just as mine told me in St.Peter's Square, Manchester, about the massacre called Peterloo.

I remember also the mural depicting the massacre, in Manchester's Free Trade Hall, where I'd gone to meetings and concerts as a teenager with my pals, and which was perhaps nearer the spot. Today it is a hotel, but still remembers its past. Which is more than can be said, it seems, for the organisers of this year's Trade Union Congress (TUC) in Manchester. At a time when we are facing huge attacks on our jobs and public services from this government, and further attacks on our rights, they have invited Tory Prime Minister David Cameron to the conference.

They should know that Manchester still has ghosts, and the workers' movement still has spirit.
RMT leader Bob Crow was applauded last week in Shrewsbury when he promised to lead a walk out if Cameron came. South West Region of the TUC has called for the invitation to be cancelled, and I am sure others will do the same. We are proud of our past, aware of our present, determined to fight for our future. Whoever in the movement would prefer to lick Cameron's ass deserves no place with us.

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At 11:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the history Charlie, I came across your site while looking for information on Thomas Hepburn for Hetton Local History Group. Dave Temple's Miners Millenium book also covers much of the miners struggle.

Cheers Alan Jackson


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