The Potteries Riot

Transcription of Article in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by A.A. Birchenough 

The Potteries is a compact district of North Staffordshire, and is so-called because it is the chief centre of the manufacture of earthenware. It includes within its radius the populous towns of Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Fenton, and Longton. They are so closely intersected that a stranger to the locality would be unable to describe where one township terminates and another begins. Some sixty years ago this entire district, fringed with mining hamlets and colliery villages, was in a state of social upheaval and ferment. The tragic story of those stormy days has been graphically related by Ward, in his “History of Stoke-on-Trent,” and by Thomas Cooper, in his charming autobiography. Some fresh light, however, has been thrown upon the subject by a former resident of the neighbourhood, in his recently published book entitled, “When I was a child.” This volume is intensely interesting to Primitive Methodists for its valuable references to the founders of our own Chuch, the Tunstall “Charity” – as the Sunday School anniversary is locally termed – and more especially for the remarkable story of Joseph Cooper, The Tunstall Primitive Methodist Chartist.

The disastrous Pottery Riots took place on Monday and Tuesday, August 15th and 16th, 1842. Some weeks previously there had been a dispute at one of the local collieries, which ended in a “Strike” against the proposed reduction of wages. This stoppage of the miners affected the potters, who were thrown out of employment by the lack of coal for the “firing” of their productions. The people who had spent a hand-to-mouth life, and who had no financial resources to fall back upon, were in a state of abject want. Hunger, poverty, and starvation confronted those helpless toilers. The general discontent was increased by their intolerant employers, who in a comparatively short time had risen from the potter’s wheel and had become wealthy manufacturers. They were residing in large houses, and were surrounding themselves with comforts and elegancies. They had also adopted the policy of the clergy and aristocracy of the times – the greatest number of hours of employment for the lowest possible wage. Under these conditions the freedom-loving artisans of the Potteries manifested “a deepening sullenness, and at deepening defiance ” against their employers, which found its outlet in rioting and wilful destruction of property.

On the Sabbath of August 14th, under the auspices of the Teetotal Chartists, Thomas Cooper addressed monster open-air meetings in the morning at Fenton, in the afternoon at Longton, and in the evening on the Crown Bank at Hanley. At the latter meeting, after offering a short prayer, he forcefully spoke from the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt do no murder.” On the following morning, Cooper spoke on the same spot to some eight to ten thousand attentive listeners. Unanimously the assembly adopted a resolution, “That all labour cease until the people’s charter becomes the law of the land.”

At the close of Cooper’s impassioned address, and as soon as he had retired from the meeting, a person cried “follow me.” A scene of indescribable confusion followed. The crowd went the round of the various manufactories, and compelled the work-people to join their motley ranks. The rioters having nearly demolished a rate-collector’s house, proceeded to the colleries and ironworks owned by Earl Granville, where they stopped the engines and immersed the workmen who refused to accompany them. The Hanley police office was attacked, and all the prisoners were released. At Shelton the official papers and books belonging to the Clerk of the Court of Requests were destroyed. At Stoke-on-Trent they overpowered the police, and tried to burn the police office. As they passed through Fenton they attacked the Old Manor House of Squire Allen’s – for many generations the home of the writer’s ancestors – and searched for a stand of arms that belonged to the Staffordshire Militia. Unceremoniously, the valuable furniture and plate were thrown into the waters of the Moat. They were prevented from pillaging and further depredations by the intervention of a detachment of military. At Longton they held an open-air demonstration, followed by wholesale destruction. Shops were broken into, and stolen food was distributed amongst the hungry crowd. The Rectory was stripped of its furniture and ruthlessly destroyed. The contents of the wine cellars were drunk by the mob, and the enfuriated rioters burnt the house to the ground. Several of the ringleaders were arrested by the military, and for a time the riot was quelled. At Hanley, the parsonage, the house of a lawyer, and the residence of the stipendiary magistrate, along with their costly furnishings were completely gutted by fire and flame. Thus ended, as Thomas Cooper says:
    “A day to be remembered to my life’s end.”

On the following morning crowds of excited people, armed with huge sticks and carrying stones, preceded from the outlying pottery towns to Burslem. As they marched in separate contingents of thousands strong, they sang the popular hymn of the Chartists :
    “The lion of freedom is come from his den,
     And we’ll rally around him again and again;
     We’ll crown him with laurel, our champion to be,
     O’Connor, the patriot, for sweet liberty.”

This popular melody, sung to a rousing tune, gave birth to the revivalistic hymn:-
    “For the Lion of Judah shall break every chain
     And give us the victory again and again.”

When the rabble arrived at Burslem – the mother town of the Staffordshire potteries – they massed in the Swan Square, where they joined a pillaging party in drinking the contents of the ale cellars of the George Inn. The town was defended by a troop of Dragoons, and two hundred special constables had been sworn in to assist in protecting life and property. The Riot Act was read in front of the Town Hall by Major Powys, who was a local magistrate as well as a military officer. Having failed to disperse the crowd and clear the streets, he gave the soldiers the order to “Charge.” To the honour of the military let it be said, that they rode amongst the misguided rioters in a most humane manner, and only used the flat side, and not the sharp edge of their sabres. About mid-day the unwieldly crowd was increased by the arrival of large contingents of ribbon weavers and silk workers from the manufacturing towns of Macclesfield, Congleton and Leek. Major Powys met them at the end of the Moorland Road, and by the “Big House,” – the mansion of William Clowes’ distinguished relatives. He demanded to know what they wanted, and why they had come in their thousands, armed with sticks and bludgeons. They shouted in reply, “Our rights and liberties, the charter, and more to eat.” He entreated them to return quietly to their homes, and reminded them that “assembling in a disorderly mob is not the way to get your rights and liberties.” This friendly advice was received with defiant yells; and they cried, “We’ll make the soldiers run, and duck the special constables behind.” Showers of stones were hurled at the mounted military, and a desperate affray began. Major Powys who hitherto had shown considerable restraint, became exasperated by this last provocation, and the arrival of a combined mob of rioters from distant towns. He gave the command to “Fire,” and the contents of the carbines were discharged amongst the crowd. A general stampede followed, some were trampled beneath the horses’ feet, others were seriously injured, and one unfortunate fellow who stood by the gates of the “Big House” was shot through the head, and fell a corpse upon the pavement. It is affirmed that many of the wounded were carried away by their friends; others went away to die of their wounds, “but their injuries were prudently concealed in this time of suspicion and terror.” The horrors of the scene were increased by the shrill screams of the terror-stricken women and children, who were mere spectators, and had been attracted thither by mere feelings of curiosity. In attempting to escape, these helpless ones were thrown in heaps, and their clothing was torn. It was one of those sights of human lawlessness that could never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.

A few days later, no fewer than eight hundred persons were arrested as participators in the Potteries’ Riot, and were lodged in the county gaol at Stafford. Thomas Cooper was apprehended, and to prevent an attempt at rescue he was driven in an open carriage drawn by four horses, and escorted with a troop of cavalry. At the Assizes these so-called conspirators against “peace, law, and order,” received sentences varying to two years imprisonment, while some of the ring-leaders were banished to lands beyond the seas. Joseph Capper is deserving of more than a mere passing reference. He was a native of Cheshire and was born near Nantwich in the year 1788. He attended the ever memorable pioneer Camp meeting on Mow Hill in May, 1807, and was soundly converted thereat. In early manhood he settled as a blacksmith at Tunstall, his shop being prominently situated in the High Street, and overlooking the spacious market place. He was a good craftsman, and was employed by the leading firms of the district. Amongst his larger undertakings was the fitting of the iron-work for the spire of the new church at Tunstall. The author of “When i was a child,” describes him as “a stout man, with a round placid face, a sort of saintly-looking John Bull. On Sundays he wore a white cravat, such as was worn by the early Methodist preachers.” He became one of the best known and most useful of a large band of local preachers that staffed the extensive Tunstall Circuit. Although he was subject to much petty persecution from the Anglicans and tories, yet he won the general esteem of his fellow-townsmen. He was one of the first to advocate the principles of total abstinence, He also took a leading part in the formation of the Tunstall Building Society, and became the owner of two substantial dwelling houses.

Having a sunny face, a ready wit, a pleasant humour, and his tongue being near his brain, he became a popular out-door speaker at political as well as religious meetings. Capper took a leading part in the Reform Agitation of 1831-32. On one particular day he spoke along with the radical candidate for parliamentary honours at largely-attended gatherings in the towns of Burslem, Hanley, and Tunstall. It is said that “His tongue was like the sledge-hammer he used in his shop, and the blacksmith struck with all his might to shape it to the form of freedom and justice. Because he so struck he was a power at every meeting. His influence was felt far and wide, and he was the acknowledged leader of the hopes and aspirations of the masses.”

Ten years later Joseph Capper identified himself with the Chartist movement, in which O’Connor figured so prominently. On June 24th, 1842, he addressed a huge multitude in Tunstall Market Place. Standing on a stool, which he brought from his own shop, he preached a political sermon from the striking Scriptural words, “To your tents, O Israel.” In the course of his address he used figures of speech which were wrongly construed, and were used by the false witnesses to condemn him.

His arrest took place on Sunday evening, August 21st. As usual he had worshipped at the Primitive Methodist Chapel. Whilst conducting family Worship on his own hearthstone, four men unceremoniously rushed into his house, led by a tailor and draper named Frith. The old man, rising from his knees, calmly said: “Well, gentlemen, what is your will?” He was savagely seized by two of the men, who replied: “You are the man we want, Joseph Capper.” His stalwart son became an active resister. With one powerful blow he felled the swaggering tailor to the floor. And but for the father’s timely interference he would have proceeded further with his evidences of muscular Christianity. Followed by his aged wife, and son and daughter, and a sympathetic crowd, Capper was marched for safety to the neighbouring town of Newcastle-under-Lyme. The next morning he was brought before the Magistrates, and committed to the Staffordshire Assizes on the charges of sedition, conspiracy, and rioting.

At the Assizes held at Stafford, it was clearly proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Capper had taken no part whatever in the terrible scenes of disorder. It was perfectly true that he had been present and had taken part at Cooper’s meeting at Hanley on the Monday morning. Yet while the rioting was proceeding he was working at his forge at Tunstall. He was also charged with having said seditious things in his address of June 24th. In his defence he admitted having preached from the text, “To your tents, O Israel,” but he strongly maintained that he had dealt “with the “matter scripturally, and not as stated by the witnesses against him.” He also referred to his advancing years, and to the fact that he wanted to leave the world better than he found it. He feelingly spoke of the aged wife whom he had left at home. Although his natural eloquence and pathetic appeals affected the spectators, and moved some to shed tears of pity, yet he was cruelly sentenced to two years imprisonment. At the end of his term he came out of Stafford Gaol broken in health and without a stain upon his character. At the prison gates he was met by some of his faithful friends. As he wended his way homewards he was “triumphantly applauded by thousands who believed in his perfect innocence of the charge for which he had so cruelly suffered.”

Although Thomas Cooper speaks most highly of Joseph Capper and quotes his words at the Stafford Assizes, “that he wanted to go home, for he had done nothing amiss,” yet the author of “When l was a Child ” has brought clearer evidence to prove his purity of motive and unsullied character. He writes: “I have never met a man who did more to enrich England with simple ideas of progress, freedom, and goodness’’ He further testifies that Capper’s “arrest and imprisonment were amongst the cruellest things ever done in the name of law. A purer and more loyal patriot did not live in the Queen’s realm than ‘Old Capper.’ A more God-fearing and man-loving man could not be found in the whole area of the British domain, yet the venerable man was taken from his peaceful home and quiet industry as if he were a murderous villain!” Joseph Capper died in January, 1860, and amid much respect his remains were laid to rest in the Cemetery of the Tunstall Church he had helped to build.


Primitive Methodist Magazine 1904/123

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