a weaver's web, annual parliaments, Bolton, Bury, Corn Laws, England, Establishment, Hampden Club, Henry Wakefield, historical fiction, historical novel, Luddites, Manchester, Methodist, Middleton, Nonconformists, Oldham, parliamentary reform, Peterloo Massacre, reform, reform meeting, Rochdale, Samuel Bamford, spinners, weavers
Here’s another excerpt from my historical novel A Weaver’s Web set in early 19th century Manchester area, UK …
Going to the Methodist service on the other side of town became a regular event for the Wakefields. Henry wasn’t convinced with what he saw as their revolutionary stance, but he was happy with most of what they said and did, and felt he couldn’t return to Edmond’s church anyway. Sarah disapproved of all Nonconformists but was obliged to obey her husband. In her heart, she remained loyal to the Establishment and everything it stood for and often told Henry so. The children weren’t interested in any of it, tagging along because they had to.
Then, one Sunday a week and a half before Christmas a great meeting of Hampden Club spinners and weavers was to take place at the chapel after late morning service. Sarah and the children headed home without Henry who stayed for the meeting. He sat next to [friend] Johnno in the middle of the chapel, both wrapped in coats and scarfs to keep out the cold. People came from far and wide, nearly all on foot. Each man was to give twopence to club funds.
A tall, strongly built man stepped onto the pulpit and cleared his throat. He swept a shock of ginger hair from his forehead. ‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, could I have your attention please,’ he said, holding up both hands to try and quieten the crowd, which had swelled to several hundred men and a handful of women and children. ‘No alcohol will be consumed or snuff taken until after the meeting.’
Every pew was crammed full. Latecomers sat in the aisle or stood at the back of the chapel.
‘For those who don’t know me, I’m Samuel Bamford, secretary of the Hampden Club here in Middleton. I welcome members of the local club as well as those from Hampden clubs in other towns.’
A cheer went up.
‘A show of hands of men from Middleton,’ he said.
About half the audience raised their hands and cheered and yelled.
‘Those from Bury.’
A much smaller but just as noisy group put their hands up.
Bamford named each town within a few hours’ walk known to have a Hampden Club, and an instant roar came from club members of that town. Participants had come from as far as Rochdale in the north and Manchester in the south, from Bolton in the west and Oldham in the east. News of the meeting had been spread by word of mouth, cheaper than posters or putting a notice in a newspaper. The show of hands told organisers informal channels had been a success.
‘As you know, this meeting has been called to appoint reform delegates to visit all parts of England to muster support for our distressed condition, and thereby bring pressure for parliamentary reform through sheer numbers.’
‘I volunteer,’ cried a drunk near the front.
‘Let me first explain delegates’ responsibilities,’ Bamford said, frowning at the man. ‘Then I’ll call for sensible nominations.’
‘Where’s the beer and muffins?’ said another drunk, his mug hanging ready around his neck by a piece of cloth.
A mixture of laughter and scorn greeted the comment.
‘Gentlemen, please,’ Bamford said, trying to bring the crowd to order.
Henry sat quietly, unsure if he should be there.
‘Thank you.’ Bamford continued. ‘Gentlemen, we live in difficult and rapidly changing times. Gone are the days when a son simply assumed the occupation of his father and took over the father’s business when he retired. We now have the factory system to contend with.’
Several men hooted their disapproval, Henry among them.
‘Many of us are employed by it. All of us are affected by it. It will not go away. What we have to do is gain the support of citizens throughout the country for our impoverished state, so we’ll be strong enough to petition the parliament in London to act.’ He was loud and clear and passionate.
Someone just in front of Henry called out: ‘But most of the seats are held in the south of the country. Manchester’s not even represented.’
‘And the second biggest city in all of England,’ added another voice near the back of the chapel. ‘It’s a disgrace.’
Again the crowd erupted.
‘We need annual parliaments,’ Bamford shouted, not waiting for the noise to stop. ‘And every man should have the right to vote for the person he wants to represent him. We must seek reform. Why should we pay our taxes without representation?’
A huge cheer went up. Nearly everyone stamped their feet wildly.
‘Men, please. Father Pickering will expel us,’ he warned them.
‘What about the Corn Laws?’ said a man who sat cross-legged in the aisle.
‘The Corn Laws must be repealed. They’ve meant higher prices and lower wages, and put men out of work.’
There was more cheering.
As the meeting went on, the men yelled and cheered more and stamped their feet louder. Henry feared revolution would break out there and then, starting in the Methodist chapel in Middleton, with greater repercussions than the revolution in France. He wondered if the meeting would lead to a return to the Luddite days when he was fortunate not to be hanged or transported for allowing machine breakers to use his ladder to get into a factory one night.
(cover of A Weaver’s Web showing the Peterloo Massacre, Manchester, UK, 1819)
The crowd was so angry they seemed ready to overthrow the government. Should he have listened to Sarah in the first place? She hadn’t been keen for them to go to a Nonconformist church or happy for him to attend this meeting of radicals. But he thought of his encounter with Father Edmond and his ever declining wage and the abject poverty endured by him and his family. Reform might mean they have some meat with their potatoes, and he could send the children to school more often. Sarah could make them each another set of clothing and warmer winter jackets. He could afford a beer and he wouldn’t have to work every day. But he thought of his landlord, a strict loyalist. If the landlord knew Henry was at this meeting, he would surely be evicted from his house.
Soon Bamford had the crowd responding to his every utterance. ‘Are we going to let our masters milk every ounce of labour from us and give us next to nothing in return?’
‘No,’ yelled the men as one.
‘Are we going to let them charge exorbitant prices for food essential to our survival?’
‘No,’ was the frenzied response.
‘Are we going to seek parliamentary reform no matter what?’
‘Yes,’ they bellowed, and clapped madly.
While the crowd welcomed the calls for more and more change, Henry thought of how Sarah and others often said people should be happy with what they have. He supported the Nonconformists and reform, but he was becoming a little unsure of this unruly bunch. Suddenly he blurted out: ‘Shouldn’t we be thankful for what we’ve got and be patient?’ He thought it a fair question, but it was met with catcalls from all over the chapel.
Bamford tried in vain to bring the mob to order. Shouts of ‘High Tory traitor’ rang out above much jeering and swearing. Men pushed their way towards Henry from various parts of the chapel, waving their fists. The shouting got louder. Someone behind him grabbed his jacket and pulled it hard. He tried to free himself but couldn’t. They pinned him against the back of his seat. He felt a whack on the head and everything went fuzzy, distant, quieter. He disappeared under a surge of angry members. They then lifted him high into the air and he struggled in vain to free himself as they passed him from one group to another above their heads, many of the men now laughing. He got a glimpse of the ceiling, then the floor, and the ceiling again. They hurled him out the door and he bounced and rolled down the steps. His world went black.
– end of excerpt –
A Weaver’s Web is available from these sites:
Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H52SEEK
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H52SEEK
Amazon Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B00H52SEEK