Letters from Joseph Shawcross, mill worker and political prisoner, Chester Castle 1849

Uprising in Hyde.

Chartist, Joseph Shawcross, was 50 when he was sentenced to one year in Chester Castle gaol for his part in the riots in Hyde, Cheshire, during August 1848. From there he wrote to his nineteen year-old daughter, Alice, who was living in Turner Brow, Godley. Two of his letters survive. There is also a letter written by Alice to her father contemplating his release.

Two years later Joseph is back living on Turner Brow in Godley with Alice and working as a twister in a mill, as is Alice. She later marries Irish-born William Nolan and settles in nearby Duckinfield.

The community Joseph lived in, Godley, in the parish of Mottram in Longendale near Hyde, was typical of the hillside towns east of Manchester. It had been a farming community which had rapidly been industrialised. In 1794 the Peak Forest canal was dug nearby and in 1841 the Manchester to Sheffield railway opened. As cotton spinning and weaving became increasingly mechanised, work was transferred from the home to the factories. The new factories attracted new migrants to the area, economic migrants desperate for work, including some born in Ireland.

Guilt by Lynn Steinsonshawcross-march-792x1024 Letters from Joseph Shawcross, mill worker and  political prisoner, Chester Castle 1849

Letter from Joseph Shawcross to his daughter, Alice, March 1849
Reproduced by kind permission of Cheshire and Chester Archives and Local Studies Service

Transcriptions of the letters

Chester Castle, March 23

Dear Daughter

I Take the erilest operatunuty of writing there few lines to you hoping that the will find you in good health as it leaves me at present. I should very much like to know how my Small Famley is getting on, as I am very Deserous to know. and I should wish you to take my Birds to John [shume?] for him to take Care of. until my liberation.

Dear Daughter you will oblige me if you go to Mr James Wild Esquire and ask him if he will be so kind as to go accompany John Dawson to Manchester and to see Mr Robert[s] and Make Enquiries into My case. wether I. as a Political prisoner haught to have eny privileges alowed me. Diffrent to the Other Misdemeaners. or wether I am to be locked up in Cell 10 feet by 7. as I am at preasant. wich Makes me very Dissatisfied I will asure you. and you know that Master Wild. as been a kind friend to me in Standing as my Bondsman. and a meny other good acts. I have no Doubt But he will adhere to my request at the preasent. and by Doing this as Soon as posable you will do me a great kindness for which I will be very thankful.

and be so kind as to send me 2 belts and a pair Drawers and make the belts of strong red flan[nell?]ing.

Give my kind love to my Brother James and is Famley and My Brother John and is Famley and my Sister Mary and her husband and my Uncels to James Broadbent and Thomas Collier and all the over lookers and John Heyes and all enquirering friends

and please to tell Frances Kavey and Thomas Davies to Send me all the latest news He Can. So with these few lines I Remain your Father Dady Shawcross.

please to send me word wether you are carrying on the same as you was Before.

Chester Castle June 12 1849

Dear Daughter I take the eireliest operatunaty of writing these few lines to you. hoping that the will find you in good health as it leaves me at preasant. I should wish you to send me every perticular. as to the state of the Country. ”and how your are geting on with your Buisness at Home. and how my litle Famley is getting on at home and abroad.” Dear Daughter I Should wish you to see Francis Cavey and tell him to see all my Chartist Friends and tell them to send me what money that posabley can: against the Assizeses and to write to Mr Roberts. “To inform him that I and some of the other Chartist Prisoners. wishes to see him when he comes over to the Assizeses.” as we are informed he will do For we consider we are not treated as we haught for to be. Not even as comon misdemaenors ought to be. and we wish to See Mr. Roberts at the Erliest opperatunaty,” give my love to all those that I sent to before and don’t forget Mosses Loughton and James Gee Ester Grunday. and please to send me word wether Thomas Wright is alive or not and likewise Thomas Thornley and don’t forget john Wild and make every, thing. there if you can against I come home and give my respects to James Wild

So with few lines. I remain your affectionate Father

Joseph Shawcross

October 1 1849

Dear Father I write these few lines to you hopeing they will find you in good health I am very sorry to hear you have had such bad health since you left home I am in very good health at present thank god for it and I sincirely hope you will be in as good health as I am when you receive this I hope you will keep up your spirits and remember in ten weeks more you will be sat in your old corner at home oh how happy we shall be then I will soon nurse you well again then Dear Father you must be sure to come home before you go anywhere else for I asure you I shall be very uneasy untill I see you once more that couple left at whitsuntide but sarah harrison is living with me: you know that young girl that lived at Jospeh harrisons it is her we only wish for you to come home and then we shall be comfortable Dear Father you wanted to know how I conducted myself at hyde wakes. I asure you I was a very good girl and sarah too thomas collier is not in the house now you might be well aware that a man of his habits would not like to be confined in the house all the day over but my customers come in at night so I do as well without him but I will tell you all about it when you come home your brother John says he will be one of your bondsmen and he will ask James Wild and if he will not he will find one [?] between and you write again you must send me word in your next letter how I must send articles you want I sent you a neck handkerchief and they will give it to you when you come out. I will have your herb beer ready when you come home your uncle anthony wife died on 21 September your brother in law solomons wife is dead since you went from home you wanted to know how your small family is getting on now I will tell you your little dog is as cross as ever and you scarcly will know him when you see him again and your poultry is all very well. Your canaries are at your brother Johns and I asure you they are very pretty birds now so you see all your family are well at present I hear you have never had your hair cut since you went to prison but never mind that for william healey says hedcut his old friend.s hair in the first fashion when he comes home.

nancy Grundy has never come near me while you have been away therefore I never thought it worth while to mention her in my letter but I shall soon have my dear father at home with me again and then I shall never think of her your brother john and your brother james and their familys sends their kind love to you and your uncles and their familys and all the overlookers and john heys and indeed all the neighbers send their love to you.

so no more at present from your ever affectionate daughter Alice Shawcross

The Prison Regulations
Joseph was not allowed to write any letters until he had completed the first three months of his sentence, and then not again for another three months. The letter written to Alice in March would have been his first and the June letter the second. Alice’s letter seems to be her first since May at least, but there appears to have been some other form of communication between them, as she refers to her father’s concerns about Wakes week.

Friends and family of the prisoner were reminded of the regulations on the header of the official prison notepaper which read:`

The Friends of Prisoners are particularly requested to notice the following Regulations:–

Persons attempting to conceal Letters, Tobacco, or any other article not allowed by the Rules of the Gaol, in any Parcel, will subject themselves to a Penalty of £5, or One Month’s Imprisonment.
Prisoners committed for non-payment of a Fine, or want of Sureties, may write or receive a Letter at any time, but the contents must be confined to the subject of their Imprisonment only.
No convicted Prisoner is allowed either to write or receive a Letter, or to be Visited, until he or she has been imprisoned three months after such conviction, and only once each succeeding three months.
The Visiting Day is the second Friday in the month.
At the request of any Prisoner, a letter will be forwarded to his or her Friends, stating that he or she is in custody, and upon what day discharged.
No Prisoner can, upon any account, be visited on a Sunday.
Parties intending to become bail for any Prisoner in custody, should either enter into recognizances before the Committing Magistrate, or prepare themselves with a certificate from a Magistrate, of their responsibility, or sufficiency for the bail proposed.

Guilt by Lynn Steinsonshawcross-march-792x1024 Letters from Joseph Shawcross, mill worker and  political prisoner, Chester Castle 1849

Letter fromJoseph to Alice Shawcross, March 1849
Reproduced by kind permission of Cheshire and Chester Archives and Local Studies Service

Uprising in Hyde, August 1848

There had been turmoil throughout the manufacturing districts as rumours of rebellion took hold on August 12. A policeman was murdered in nearby Ashton-under-Lyne and men were arrested in Dukinfield where there had been an attempt to steal a canon. The unrest was part of an orchestrated attempt by the physical force Chartists to initiate a national uprising. However, the ‘uprising’ was sporadic and failed to take-off. During subsequent days there were many arrests, including those of many Chartist leaders.

The trial

Baron Alderson and Mr Justice Erle tried around 40 prisoners charged with political offences at Chester Winter Assizes. Proceedings began on Wednesday 6 December. First to be tried was George Mantle, who was alleged to have delivered a speech on August 8 1848 in Hyde, during which he was alleged to have advised people to arm themselves to obtain the charter and put down the tyrannical government. P.C Thomas Burn, giving evidence, stated that twenty-two year-old Mantle had said that,’He was tired of moral force, and nothing but physical force will do now. He wanted no queen nor Archbishop of Canterbury, with his £75,000 a year; and that Prince Albert and all the little princes must be sent to Germany to make sausages of.’ Mantel conducted his own defence, for two hours, and was found guilty by the jury.

The next day eighteen men, including Joseph, who had been indicted for illegal conspiracy and riot at Hyde on 14 August 1848, were tried. On 12 August, four days after Mantel’s address, it was alleged that Charles Sellers, 35, had drilled a large party to prepare for a general rising on 14 August. 130 came onto the town in military order expecting the factory hands to join them and sieze the Hyde barracks. Daniel Lee testified that on 12 August several hundred men had drilled on Godley Hill with pikes, guns and pistols They were ranged in four companies each of 20-30 armed men. After letting boilers off at Woodley mill, where a dog was allegedly shot, the party went on to let off the boilers and let out plugs at Houghton Dale factory, Hapethorn mill, Gibraltar mill, Mr Wharby’s, Mr Hibbert’s and Mr Howard’s factories. It was said they intended to take possession of the Hyde lock-ups and set fire to the mills the next night. P.C. Thomas Brown corroborated Lee’s testimony. The constable protested that he had given Daniel Lee one shilling on account of his extreme poverty and it was several weeks before he received any information about the Chartists. On 14 August 50-60 men, were standing in the market place armed with guns and pikes. Their leader said, ‘They are out over England, Ireland and Scotland; before this time tomorrow will either make it better or worse, for we may as well turn out and be killed, as stop at home and starve to death.’

Source: Manchester Examiner and Times Saturday 9 December 1848.

A tradition of resistance

1848 was a tumultuous year throughout Europe, invoking fear in the propertied classes that the civilized world was in peril. In Britain, as yet another Chartist petition signed by millions of disenfranchised workers was arrogantly dismissed by the government, factory hands, working in appalling conditions and facing still more wage cuts, turned out in protest. The Pennines to the east of Manchester had witnessed decades of organised opposition to industrialisation and the attacks of the propertied classes on their traditional ways of life. The region had been practicing for a rising for years, to reverse the unrelenting tide of industrialisation which, whilst enriching the few, dehumanised and impoverished those who worked in the new mills. For decades men armed with pikes, swords and guns had drilled at night in the hills above the cotton towns as bayoneted soldiers were barracked nearby. In June 1812 five hundred men, on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire, caused alarm as they drilled openly during the daytime whilst church services were taking place. These were the Luddites.

The Luddites had resisted the mechanisation of the factories and the repeal of centuries-old regulations which had protected the trades. They were primarily artisans who attacked machines which were ‘hurtful to commonality’ i.e. undercut wages, reduced output quality and deskilled the trades. As power-looms replaced hand-looms the discipline of the factory owners replaced that of the family. The huge mills presided over the disintegration of family life as children and their parents were economically forced to submit to the long hours and oppressive rules of the factory system. The Luddites operated with great secrecy. Punishment was severe, not only for machine breaking but for taking secret oaths. Many lost their lives, many were transported.

As the power-looms superseded the hand-looms discontent continued. The 1832 Reform Act gave no voice to the working classes. Increasingly they associated their lack of economic power – indeed any personal power, for they and their children were no more than slaves to the factories – with a lack of political power. In 1839 and 1842 there was unrest throughout the manufacturing districts. Manchester was the centre of the national Chartist movement. It was also here where Frederick Engels had made his home. His observations of class relations in Manchester informed his and Marx’s writings including the Communist Manifesto. He was close to several Chartists. (Mr William Roberts, whom Joseph refers to, is the Chartist lawyer who was attorney general for the Miners Union and acted for Karl Marx in his legal affairs. Roberts had himself been imprisoned for seditious libel in 1839). I

The Chartist movement was a cultural not merely political one. They ran Sunday schools and cultural events. It’s travelling orators were skilled and emotive, linking their cause to centuries of resistance to the Norman yoke and the natural rights of true born Englishmen. They carried caps and bonnets which had much symbolism: the rouge bonnet, the soft conical Phrygian cap of revolutionary France; the white cap of liberty symbolising the martyrdom of Peterloo on August 16 1819, and the green cap which had a lineage back to the Levellers. The Chartist movement was diverse but became torn apart over tactical disputes between the moral force Chartists and physical force Chartists.
With many of their members and leaders in prison, they argued that their supporters were political prisoners and should be treated as such, having conditions preferable to those classified as felons or misdemeanors. However, where this privilege was upheld, the Chartists were obliged to fund the subsistence of the prisoner for the duration of their sentence. The movement was financially crippled by the need to fund its prisoners’ living expenses and keep their families from destitution, as well as ensuring that sureties and bonds could be raised. Already riven with factionalism over tactics, the arguments escalated overdisputes about the use of fighting funds wand which prisoners were truly deserving. 1848 was the last year when the mass movement posed a real threat to the establishment.

While parliament deliberated on the definition of a political prisoner, and the conditions in which they were held, the Chartists argued over who should be afforded that status. Certainly Joseph had no doubts about his identity.

Guilt by Lynn Steinsonshawcross-march-792x1024 Letters from Joseph Shawcross, mill worker and  political prisoner, Chester Castle 1849Copyright secured by Digiprove © 2013 Lynn Steinson
Guilt by Lynn Steinsonshawcross-march-792x1024 Letters from Joseph Shawcross, mill worker and  political prisoner, Chester Castle 1849
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Author of psychological thrillers "Deluded" and "Guilt" about members of The Sun pub quiz team.
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