​​​Early History of Trade Unions and Public Houses in Blackburn​

​​The following article was written by former Community History Librarian, Mr James Stanley Miller, as a letter in response to an enquiry received in 1982 regarding the links between public houses and the early trade union movement in Blackburn.  

In answer to your letter, the links between public houses and the trade union movement go back to the end of the eighteenth century, when trade union activity was carried on under the cover of friendly societies, and there were about two dozen friendly societies based on local inns in 1794. In addition, the Pig and Whistle at Blakey Moor was used as a meeting place for handloom weavers. A large gathering was held there on November 5th, 1800, with the blinds drawn and the meeting room locked. Those assembled discussed various ways “to redress their grievances “, a large open air meeting being called for later the same month. This was not reported in the local paper, so may have been cancelled. This was at a time when wages were static, and the price of provisions and flour had never been so high. Attacks had been made on farmers bringing produce to the market, but the authorities promised protection.

The Pig and Whistle seems to have become the Golden Ball at a later period and was used for meetings by the local stone masons who had a dispute when the Technical College was being erected in 1888. When the building was being demolished in the early 1900's to provide the site for the new Public Halls, a secret room was found in the rear of the public house, which was taken to be a relic of its trade union and radical days.

Locally there was concern after the Napoleonic Wars by the authorities that funds of the friendly societies were being used to pay for stoppages in the handloom weaving industry, and although the weavers went back to work in September 1818, the Yeomanry still made a visit to the area. It was becoming harder to arrange union activities with public houses being searched and an active network of informers. Possibly because of the need for greater secrecy, there arose about this time a number of scientific and botanical societies, which were run by the operatives and met at various local inns.

While engaged mainly in serious collecting of specimens and educational talks, they would have ample opportunities to discuss trade union matters during their rambles in search of botanical specimens. The Moulden Operatives Botanical Society met at the Hare and Hounds at Feniscowles to the west of Blackburn. There was a field day of all the local societies on September 12th 1819, when they adjourned to the White Horse at Chorley, kept by Mrs Grey. Between them, the local botanical societies put on display 700 specimens.

The next development was the formation of the local Short Time Committee in 1825, in support of the work of Mr. Hobhouse. Details of its activities are sketchy, but the aim was to secure an 11 hour working day for factory operatives. Trade Union activities had been legalised to some extent the previous year, and Handloom Weavers Federation was formed. Later the same year, there was a sharp fall in the wages of handloom weavers. At the same time, factory owners were installing new power looms into their factories, and the handloom weaves blamed the new looms for their own wretched condition.  After enduring a winter which brought them near to starvation, a mass meeting of weavers was called for April 24th, 1826 on the outskirts of Blackburn to discuss their grievances. Having decided to smash all the power looms in the area, they began their destructive work in Accrington, and from there marched towards Blackburn.

Their first stop in the town was at the Bay Horse Inn near the crossing of the Blakewater. They emptied the larder and cellars of the inn, then proceeded to the first factory with power looms, which was the Jubilee Mill in the town centre. Here they forced the doors and smashed all the power looms. At this point, the Dragoons arrived and captured three of the men on the outside of the factory, but those inside the building jumped through the windows at the back and escaped by wading across the River Blakewater. The next stop of the rioters was Grimshaw Park, where a small cotton factory contained 25 power looms. Although the soldiers were already in place, the mill was attacked, and the looms broken. At this factory, shots were fired and one man inside the factory shot dead, with others seriously injured.

At the subsequent trial, one man was transported for seven years and lesser sentences passed on several other prisoners for their part in the proceedings. It is likely that the handloom weavers union was very much weakened, as the officials would be among those arrested and weavers would be reluctant to come forward as replacements.

After this violent episode, the power loom became gradually an accepted fact of life, and the energy of the people was turned towards Parliamentary Reform, with the local heroes Henry Hunt, who was elected M.P. for Preston in 1830, and Dr. John Bowring who stood as candidate for Blackburn. Blackburn Reform Committee convened a meeting to urge upon the Government the need for reform, at the Hotel in King Street on 18th March, 1831. Henry Hunt made a visit to the town on 11th July, 1832, and gave a rousing speech. After the Reform Act was passed, Blackburn became a two seat Parliamentary Borough and the candidate chosen by the Radicals was Dr. Bowring.

The Committee Room of Dr. Bowring was at the New Inn, where he gave a dinner to his supporters on August 1st, 1832. The toasts included “Civil and Religious Liberty"; “To the Independent Electors of Blackburn" and “To Dr. Bowring's Committee". However, the Doctor gave most of his campaign speeches from the upper windows of the Old Bull. This had the advantage of overlooking the Market Place, so that large numbers could assemble to hear him, whereas the New Inn was in a narrow winding street. After a number of attempts to become the local Member, Dr. Bowring finally abandoned Lancashire.

The Short Time Committee was revived in 1836 and met at the Volunteer Inn. An invitation was sent to Mr. Richard Oastler to address a meeting at the Theatre Royal in Blackburn on September 15th, where he gave his notorious talk which included advice on how to ruin textile machinery with stocking needles. This course of action Mr. Oastler felt was justified if the Magistrates, who were also factory owners, refused to enforce the Factory Acts.

The Chartist Movement had its followers in Blackburn, but most the meetings were outdoor gatherings. One of the largest was held on Blakey Moor, an open space near the town centre, in October 1838. Following an election on July 1st, 1841, and the defeat of the candidate most sympathetic to their point of view, there were ugly scenes and a riot in which the Old Bull Inn, the Conservative Headquarters, was attacked by the infuriated mob. On April 28th, 1842, the same inn was again attacked by a crowd shouting “Turner forever" after William Turner's petition against the election result had been rejected. Again, the crowd had to be dispersed by Constables and the military. This was followed by a stoppage of the mills in an attempt to force the acceptance of the demands of the Chartists. The immediate cause was a proposed was reduction of 25 per cent by some Stalybridge manufacturers at a time when the operatives considered trade to be reviving, and they promptly stopped work. The strike began on August 6th, 1842, quickly spread northwards and reached Blackburn on the 15th. By now the authorities had brought in detachment of Highlanders, who blocked the road at the eastern outskirts of the town. The troops captured about 30 marchers and lodged them in the local barracks. The mills on the canal were visited and at most of them, the work force were persuaded to stop work. In the afternoon, the ringleaders turned their attention to Jubilee Mill in the town centre, and here there was violence. More prisoners were taken, being held temporarily in the mill yard. When a coach was backed up into the yard with the intention of removing the prisoners, this was the signal for an attack with the aim of freeing the men. The troops opened fire, and the crowd retreated in confusion, leaving several wounded behind. The prisoners were moved to the barracks, and after the arrival of a detachment of Yeomanry Cavalry, escorted under military and police guard to the assembly room at the Hotel in King Street. Late the same evening, handcuffed in pairs, all the prisoners were led away for trial, sentences of transportation being imposed.

This attempt to impose the Charter by force was unsuccessful, but meetings, marches and pamphlets were used to persuade the people and the authorities that the workers had a grievance. Locally, the mills were running short-time, or stopped for part of the week. Their money exhausted and their furniture sold, many operatives were kept alive by doles from the soup kitchen.

Tickets to use the facilities of the soup kitchen were given out by members of the organising committee and in order to benefit, the potential recipients would think it wise to renounce chartist or strong union activities. Nevertheless, in March, 1847 at a time when the soup kitchen was necessary, the weavers at one of the largest mills in Blackburn, Nova Scotia Mill of Robert Hopwood, came out on strike in a dispute over  the payment which would be made for working a new improved loom. Here was a chance for the Chartist leaders from the surrounding area to show their sympathy and organise strike payments and appeal for support. A joint strike committee which included John Norris, local Weavers' Secretary, Daniel Duckworth, and the Preston Chartists, William Beesley and Richard Marsden. The early committee meetings were probably held at the Crown Inn, Nova Scotia, but as this was close to the mill, and open to pressure from the employers, the Masons Arms in Penny Street was made the base. The Committee thought that the best method of publicising their cause was to hold “camp meetings" in various parts of the town, which would attract large crowds of people. Meanwhile, with the help of money from union, chartist and benefit club funds, some weavers brought an action against the manager at Hopwood's for excessive fines and unfair deductions. The case came on for hearing on April 17th, 1847, and the weavers were represented by William P. Roberts, the “Chartists' Q.C." Peter Haworth, a weaver, said “I belong to a club. I could not have brought the case but for the Club". The Chairman of the Magistrates thought the fines “evidently too high" and following on this observation, Hopwood's announced that the reduction of wages without notice would be withdrawn, and the scale of fines reduced. Those who had been fined on January 2nd would have their money refunded.

As the weavers showed no disposition to return to work, the employers summoned a batch of operatives on April 21st for leaving work notice. In other cases, summonses were brought for assault on blackleg weavers. On Sunday May 30th, the largest “camp meeting" so far was held on open ground near the mill. William Beesley spoke to the assembly at length from a waggon drawn into services as a temporary platform. The friendly societies had been contributing money for the strike fund, some willingly, others like the Druids under duress, while the Oddfellows had refused to pay, as their constitution forbade payments other than for genuine sickness and death of a member. In order to augment their funds, the Committee arranged for a large gathering to be held at Enfield near Accrington in early June, 1847. Richard Marsden and Daniel Duckworth appealed for their support and help. William Beesley claimed that 6,000 weavers belonged to the union and “labour was really capital, for all the gold in the world was valueless without labour".

On June 7th, Daniel Duckworth was charged with intimidation and bound over to keep the peace for 12 months. Three days later the arbitrators issued their report that the wages at Hopwood's “were fair and reasonable" and the strikers began drifting back to work.

In July, 1847 there was a General Election and William P. Roberts was chosen at Chartist Candidate for Blackburn, as he was still remembered in the town from his presentation of the case of the weavers. Polling for the Boroughs was fixed for July 28th, which left little time for Mr. Roberts to counter the wealth and popularity of the sitting Member.

He said that he would strive to bring them the blessings of extra leisure, and believed in the brotherhood of man. “That all men are equal I hold as a most solemn truth under all circumstances of life". His total of 68 votes was perhaps all that could be expected given the open voting, and trade depression which made the weavers apprehensive for their jobs.

The Chartists, Beesley and Marsden, were once more in the town in January, 1848, speaking out against a ten per cent reduction in wages proposed by the Blackburn Employers. Resistance to the cuts was organised by a General Committee of the United Trades of Blackburn, who met daily at the Masons Arms' in Penny Street, organising house to house collections, arranging open air meetings and producing a pamphlet to explain their case. The message was “Workmen be true to yourselves and you are invincible". Due to the harshness of the weather, the outdoor meetings were cancelled, and replaced by a general meeting at the Masons Arms on Monday January 31st, 1848. They thought the clergymen ought to support the cotton workers, while one speaker said that overlookers were being forced to act like Negro slavedrivers. The final speaker declared that if the manufacturers would not pay them a living wage, they should restore to them their natural inheritance of a share in the land. The operatives quickly accepted the wage cuts, and shortly afterwards, John Norris, the Secretary, emigrated to America.

On March 21th, 1848, the local Chartists attended a meeting of the Philanthropic Burial Society at the Feilden's Arms in Leyland Street. Remembering the call for a share in the land, they moved two resolutions: “That all available funds be placed in the Land and Labour Bank of Fergus O'Connor, Esq." and “That £500 be withdrawn from the Manchester and Liverpool District Bank and placed in the Land and Labour Bank". The second resolution was carried, whereupon the Vice President of the Society, Charles Tiplady resigned his office, and send details of the events to the Home Secretary. There was a large outdoor gathering of Chartists from Chorley, Preston, Blackburn and Darwen on April 2lst, 1848 at Denham Hill, some four miles to the west of Blackburn, at which George Cowell of Blackburn took the chair, but the movement was losing its impetus, and gradually ceased to have force as a separate movement.

Meanwhile, the Short Term Committee had been revived, and was working for a ten hour day. The local Committee met at the Britannia Inn, Penny Street, composed of a mixture of clergymen, Tory employers and a few operatives. They invited Lord Ashley to address the Blackburn people at the Theatre Royal on January 24th, 1847. After the talk by Lord Ashley, the Rev. J. Watson proposed a motion in favour of a ten hour day because of the “baneful effects of the present system of long hours of factory labour on the younger portion of the labouring poor". Mr. Matthew Rigby seconded this, saying he spoke as an operative. They had to arrange their meetings to fit in with the hours of work, which meant holding them at four o'clock in the morning, or after midnight. “Incessant toil wears out both the mind and body of man".  A delegation from Blackburn arrived in London on February 3rd, and met Lord Ashley and Mr. Fielden, the chief Campaigners at Westminster. A Bill was introduced into Parliament, but was making slow progress. At the time of the election in July, 1847, a group of weavers met at the Britannia Inn to move a vote of thanks to John Hornby, Esq., the late M.P. for the town “for the strenuous support he has tendered for the Ten Hour Bill".

After these troubled times, a quieter period ensued, with unions gradually becoming an accepted part of society. In 1852 a Standard List of prices to be paid for spinning and weaving in Blackburn was drawn up, and a joint committee of masters and men set up to discuss any disputes arising from the working of the List. The largest local union was the Blackburn Weavers Society, which was formed in 1854. Meetings were held in the Oddfellows Hall, which was in the same building as the Assembly Room and linked to the Hotel in King Street, which as described above, played its part in the events of 1842. This complex of buildings is now the local office of the Department of Employment.

It is not clear where the Spinners held their early meetings, but by 1858 they had their own meeting room and offices at 14, Back Lane in 1859. There was a beer house next door, the Standard of Unity, and this was also owned by the Weavers.

As well as the meetings at the Oddfellows Hall, the Weavers attended joint meetings with representatives of weavers societies from other towns, when matters of more than local interest were being discussed, such as joint applications for wage increases, or meetings in support of a strike another town. There were held at the Star and Garter Inn. As well as having many looms, and so a dominant voice, Blackburn was easily reached by rail from all parts of Lancashire, and the Star and Garter was the next building to the railway station.

When other trades became unionised, the meetings were usually at an inn close to the town centre, but in the press reports of their activities tended to be more frequent when the workers were on strike. The building workers met at the Castle Inn. The joiners had a long drawn out strike in 1869 and 1870, meetings in connection with this being held at the Queen's Hotel, Town Hall Street. In November 1869, a Board of Conciliation was proposed for Blackburn, which would have members composed of both masters and unions, a secretary unconnected with trade, and hearings paid for by a levy of 2d. per head. The joiners proposed a settlement on the lines of the Board of Conciliation, but the employers declined to hold any meetings, and the men began drifting back to work.

The Social Democratic Federation supported the local textile workers during a strike in late 1881, and following a visit to the town by James MacDonald of the S.D.F. in January, 1884, a local branch was formed in February, with Walter Hulme as Secretary. The adoption of James N. Boothman as a Labour Candidate for Blackburn in 1885 was supported by the S.D.F. whose local meetings were held in the New Public Hall at the corner of New Water Street and Merchant Street, which was opened in May 1885 by M. Crashaw. On the 8th May, a meeting of representatives of all cotton trade unions in the Market Coffee Tavern resolved to support Mr. Boothman in the next election, as “This meeting is of opinion that the labouring classes are justly entitled to at least one of the Parliamentary seats for this Borough". Most speakers were satisfied that Mr. Boothman was fully in sympathy with the Trades Congress. A Labour Representation League was formed to co-ordinate action in support of Mr. Boothman, and after an initial meeting at the Market Coffee Tavern, the subsequent venue was the New Public Hall, which was first booked provisionally, then made the permanent location.

The building was re-decorated in the early 1900's to become the New Socialist Hall, which opened in March, 1901 as the headquarters of the S.D.F. and was provided with a billiard and reading room and a large public lecture hall. The building was demolished in the 1950's to make way for the redevelopment of the following decade.

Of two other movements in the town in the early 1880's, one drew workers away from the public house, while the other made use of the meeting rooms in the hotels. Working Men's Temperance Clubs were formed with the encouragement of the Liberal employers, but the management was left to the members.  No.2 Working Men's Temperance Club opened in Park Road in April, 1885, and No. 6 at Bottomgate in August.  The Central in St. Peter Street was used for meetings of the Gasworkers and General Labourers Union. In opposition to these was the Working Men's Club in the Crown Hotel, Victoria Street.

The second movement which encouraged attendance at public houses was the Debating Society Movement. The Plough Inn, Penny Street, Spread Eagle, Darwen Street and the Britannia, Penny Street all held lively discussions on motions critical of Government trade or fiscal policy, or its treatment of Ireland. One public house which had poetry readings as well as the debates was the Poets Corner, near Blakey Moor, whose landlord was William Billington, well-known as a poet, secularist and former campaigner for the Public Library.

By the 1880's meeting of the Blackburn Weavers were held in several different halls and meeting rooms, according to the expected attendance. In 1884 there was a combined union, the Northern Counties Amalgamated Weavers Association to formulate policy on general or topics of county-wide concern. Amalgamation meetings were held at the Commercial Hotel, Accrington, as this was the town where the officials were based. At the Amalgamation meeting in August, 1885, the motion was put “That our deputies be instructed to oppose the discussion in Congress of any subject in any way connected with politics." The Blackburn officials moved that this be “left to the deputies' own discretion", and the amendment was carried.

On January 23rd, 1885, a meeting of the Blackburn Weavers Association was held at the Church Institute, but this ended in acrimony and a walk out by many of the members, who adjourned across the way to the Mason's Arms at the corner of Northgate and Town Hall Street. They were determined to form a new Society as they had lost all confidence in the old. The first meeting of the New Weaver's Society, which later became the Weavers' Protection Society, was held in the Good Templars' Hall on April 7th, Mr. R.B. Dodgson being elected President. Committee meetings continued to be held in the Mason's Arms, the site of which is now occupied by the Central Library.

After the formation of the Trades Council in 1889, more information is available on the links between public houses and unions, as the meeting place of all affiliated societies is recorded. There were inns near the town centre, except for the paper workers, who held their meetings at the Feilden's Arms, Feniscowles;  a paper-making village to the west of Blackburn. A few made use of the meeting rooms of the Weavers or Spinners.

A local branch of the Fabian Society was formed in March, 1892 after Miss Katherine Conway (later Mrs. Bruce Glasier) had given a talk. The Secretary was James Frankland, and meetings were held at the Bohemian Club.

There was a strong educational element. As well as courses of lectures on the economics of socialism, speakers such as W.H. Uttley were brought up from London. Perhaps the fare was too arid, for the Society was dissolved early in 1893, but a more broadly based branch of the Independent Labour Party (I.L.P) formed in its place.  This soon had candidates elected to the School Board, the Guardians and Town Council, with their own Parliamentary candidate, Philip Snowden in 1900. In spite of his opposition to the South African War, Philip Snowden polled over 7,000. The first meetings of the I.L.P. were in an upper room in Northgate, which may have been part of the Mason's Arms. From 1894, their headquarters was the Venetian Hall in Darwen Street, and their final move in 1903 was to rooms at the corner of Victoria Street and Cort Street. The advantage was that they could house a library and reading room, with storage space for the pamphlets that were becoming more important that street meetings as a means of getting their message across. Most I.L.P. candidates for elections described themselves in their election literature as “life teetotallers" and the club bar was non-alcoholic.

The Clarion Fellowship was active in the early years of the 20th Century, and had their country club-house at Clayton-Le-Dale. At their annual dinner at the Castle Inn, Robert Blatchford, the founder of the movement, was the principal guest, and Philip Snowden also spoke to the members. This dinner was held on February 9th, 1901.

After an injunction against pickets for intimidation during a strike at Cumpstey Street Mill in 1901 and 1902, the Blackburn Weavers decided to become affiliated to the Labour Representation Committee. With a joint trades union and I.L.P. Parliamentary Committee aimed at the election of Philip Snowden, this meant that the full weight of the trades unions was now behind him, and he was elected as M.P. for Blackburn in the General Election of 1906.

Meetings of trade unions were still held at public houses, but the aim of most members was to have their own offices and clubrooms. The Weavers moved to a larger block of offices, reading room and committee room at the corner of Clayton Street.

After the First World War, there is very little connection between the public house and the Labour or Communist movements. When mill dispute arose, the secretaries usually hired a neighbouring school room and brought in appropriate speakers to inform the workers about the cause of the dispute, and the course of action planned. The two most serious strikes were the Hope Mill strike at Darwen and the Grange Mill strike at Blackburn, both in the early 1930's, at a time of wage-cutting by some employers. As unemployment grew, the National Unemployed Workers Movement was formed, and in this the Communist Party was active. The headquarters locally was in part of the old fire station in Clayton Street. One of their largest events was the organisation of a march from all areas of Lancashire to County Hall in Preston, in July 1933 to protest at the way scales of relief were worked out by the County Council, but as Blackburn had its own Assistance Committee, the Blackburn branch was not directly involved in the marching, although they gave financial support.

In Blackburn, the N.U.W.M. tried to get free bus fares for the unemployed when journeying to allotments, and help from the Council in starting men up on allotments. They also helped to arrange accommodation for hunger marchers passing through the town on their way to London, and marched with them part of the way.

With grateful thanks to June Riding, Community History Volunteer, for transcribing the contents of the letter for Cotton Town. December 2017.

​​back to top​​