During the 19th century, Blackburn was often the scene of violent clashes between the authorities and discontented millworkers. The reasons for the factory workers' discontent varied, but were usually associated with difficult working conditions, poor pay, or the periodic 'crest and slump' economy of the cotton industry. In most cases, these outbursts achieved very little - progress was made by the formation of workers' unions later in the 19th century, when negotiation replaced violence as a bargaining tool.
The Plug-Drawing Riots
The infamous 'Plug-Drawing' riots of 1842 had their seeds in the political unrest of the previous year. The general election of 1841 was contested in Blackburn by two Tories (Feilden and Hornby) and a Whig (Turner), for two seats in parliament. The Tories represented the interests of the rich landowners and millowners who wanted to maintain the status quo and protect their interests. The Whig candidate, William Turner, was very much the people's choice. He supported various social reforms designed to improve the lot of the working man. In particular, he favoured the abolition of the hated 'Corn Laws', which kept the price of British corn high by limiting cheap foreign imports. This unjust law was forcing many poor people below the bread line.
Although Turner was a 'man of the people', most working people in Blackburn did not yet have the right to vote for him. At this time the Chartists were agitating for various political and social reforms, including the right of all men to vote, regardless of class or wealth. But parliament had consistently rejected their proposals. The poor factory workers of Blackburn could only rely on the votes of their more enlightened masters, but these were few and far between. Their frustration at having 'no voice' was a powder keg waiting for a spark. The spark finally came when the result of the election was announced - Turner had been beaten into third place by a single vote. Rioting broke out in the town almost immediately, but was quickly put down by the authorities - but the scene had been set for the following summer...
The summer of 1842 was particularly hot. It reflected the angry mood of Blackburn's disenfranchised millworkers. Since early in the year, various Chartist speakers had whipped up their discontent in the town's market square. Rumours began to circulate of a general uprising, a strike, a revolution even. By early August, news filtered through of large bands of Chartists surging through other towns in the industrial belt of the Midlands and the North. Their intention was to 'turn out the hands' in all the factories, stop the mill engines and halt Britain's industrial production. The government and the local authorities were terrified of what could happen if a general strike turned into an armed rebellion. They decided to stamp on any sign of unrest and stationed garrisons of troops in every town.
On August 17th news came through of a large mob approaching Blackburn from Accrington, turning out the workers and closing down mills as they went. Many of Blackburn's millworkers planned to join them when they arrived in the town. The local magistrate, John Fowden-Hindle, made hasty preparations to repel the 'invaders'. He mustered the town's police force under Superintendent Sheppard, and a detachment of the 72nd Highlander, under Colonel Arbuthnot. The first 'stand off' came on Furthergate; Fowden-Hindle warned the mob that their actions would lead to dire consequences if they did not disperse, and he read out the Riot Act. The rebels simply melted into the surrounding fields and side-streets, leaving Fowden-Hindle wondering what their next move would be.
The mob were successful in their attempts to stop the local cotton mills from working. Their technique involved pulling the fusible plug from the boilers of the mill engines, letting out all the steam and bringing the looms to a standstill. From Furthergate to Whalley Banks and Nova Scotia, the mills were closed down, mostly without argument. The authorities were keen to prevent mass gathering of striking workers taking place in the town centre. They decided to seize the ringleaders as the mob gathered in Darwen Street. This is where the disturbances took a turn for the worse.
The Police, supported by the 72nd Highlanders, succeeded in arresting some of the ringleaders, imprisoning them temporarily in a pub cellar. Fowden-Hindle called for a coach to be brought up to remove the prisoners to Preston. As the coach was being loaded, all hell broke loose on Darwen Street. The rioters began ripping up cobble stones and throwing them at the Police and soldiers. As the coach pulled away, a hail of stones and other missiles were thrown and the crowd surged forward to sieze back their friends. At this point, Fowden-Hindle gave Colonel Arbuthnot the order to fire. The Highlanders fired a devastating volley into the crowd, which quickly dispersed. Rumours spread of terrible injuries, several deaths, blood on the cobbles. Conflicting newspaper reports only served to cloud the story of what really happened. Perhaps the most accurate account was written by the diarist Charles Tiplady, a couple of weeks after the event:
"...the soldiers were obliged to fire on the mob and several persons were severely wounded, but happily not mortally. The most serious case was that of a young woman living in Penny Street who happened to be returning home from the mill at the time the discharge of arms took place, and unfortunately two balls struck her, and it was thought that there was little chance of her recovery. It is highly to the credit of the Regimental Surgeon and officers of the Regiment, as well as surgeons resident in the town that this poor innocent victim was promptly attended...up to this time (Aug 28th) the woman survives and is doing extremely well."
Within days of the riot, the mills were back to work, the ringleaders imprisoned and the strike had failed. The corn laws were eventually repealed, but many years later. Similarly, most of the Chartist demands only became law after decades of political wrangling. Blackburn was never a hotbed of extreme political agitation, the main desire of the factory operatives was 'a fair day's wage for a fair day's work'. It was to be a dispute over wages that caused the next serious disturbance in the town over 35 years later.