This summer marks the 180th Anniversary of the General Strike of 1842, when hundreds of thousands of workers across Britain staged walkouts. Raging from the Scottish coal fields to the Cornish tin mines, this was the largest industrial action to take place in Britain and probably anywhere in the nineteenth century. It was the first general strike conducted by the industrial working class arguably in history.
The strike was spread by large bodies of strikers moving from one area to the next in the form of flying pickets, turning out factories, mills and mines. It was this which gave the strike the dismissive title of the ‘Plug Plot Riots’ in today’s history books. It remains a title designed to essentially disparage, belittle and undermine the memory of this momentous working class struggle. Much more than a ‘riot’, this was a mass strike, not just for higher pay and a shorter working day, but also for revolutionary and democratic demands as relevant today as they were then.
Although the strike raised demands over pay and conditions, it was deeply influenced by and part of the campaign for workers’ democratic rights, the Chartist movement. Making up the world’s first working class party from 1838-48, they had presented petitions appealing to parliament to demand democratic reform.
The strike opens
It was the rejection of the movement’s second petition in May 1842, signed by over 3 million which sparked the strike.
The coal miners of Staffordshire were the first to take action. Then a further phase started in Stalybridge in Lancashire. The people of this town had contributed 10,000 signatures to the petition. Here workers were angered by the attitude of Parliament, infuriated by cuts in their living standards and appalling conditions under which they worked. Their method was to march from town to town town knocking out the boiler plugs in boilers, douse the fire and release the steam. Mill dams, essential in many industries, were emptied by pulling out the sluice gate and stopping waterwheels.
In August 1842 in the industrial mill town of Preston, a mass meeting of workers pledged to “seize work until they had a fair day’s wages for that work, guaranteeing its continuance with the Charter”. The Chartist newspaper The Northern Star reported that, “before night every cotton mill was turned out without resistance – all done chiefly by boys and girls.”
In a subsequent demonstration, the response of the Mayor – a wealthy cotton manufacturer – was to call in the police and the army. The strikers were attacked, four men killed and more injured. Naturally, inquests controlled by the employers ruled that all four deaths were ‘justifiable homicide’. Twelve men were put on trial for alleged disturbances and received prison sentences ranging from nine months to two years. The authorities used similar repressive measures in other parts of the country. In West Yorkshire, there was fighting between workers and the army at Bradford, Huddersfield and Hunslet (near Leeds). Six workers were killed by the military in Halifax.
The general strike rapidly spread to different corners of the country. It involved many disparate groups of industrial workers, all striking for the same objective: the Charter of democratic reforms, along with improved working conditions and pay. It was undoubtedly the greatest revolt of the British working class in the nineteenth century. Although there had been a general strike in 1820 in the West of Scotland, 1842 represented something much bigger and more widespread.
Along with support for the Charter, a second reason why the strike proved to be so explosive was down to poverty, hunger, unemployment, and the cuts in wages workers endured. Many of these factors can lead for a temporary period to a downturn in struggle, as desperation gives way to demoralisation. But in this case, the opposite effect was had. This decade being one of deep recession – the ‘Hungry 40s’ – added fuel to the fire of a developing class anger.
In these events, the working class asserted its independence as a class and showed solidarity, understanding the key necessity to call upon all workers to act together and spread action. This young proletariat, through exploitation by the capitalists had become a ‘class in itself’. With the strike, consciousness was heightened and they became ‘a class for itself‘ as Marx put it. In this struggle women and men first began to understand the power they held. For a period of time they used it.
The working class fighters at this time had many obstacles to smash – most importantly the extreme resistance of the bosses to their urge to get organised, who would use any means they could at their disposal to smash workers confidence and organisation. However, they did enjoy certain advantages. Over previous decades the labour and trade union movement has often been held back from taking action by a firmly-entrenched bureaucracy in the unions. Many of the unions still have a layer of careerist and conservative elements in their leaderships whose approach is to undermine and stifle the potential for the working class to exercise its power. This was not present in 1842. As a result, workers often acted spontaneously without being held back by leaders concerned about their privileges, careers and rewards from the state.
The strike was a fresh experience for such a new and emerging class. The movement was creative, imaginative and well-organised. They often set up their own committees to run the strike in some places called Committees of Public Safety, inspired by the Great French Revolution of 1789.
Naturally the working class faced the hostility and hatred of the bosses. The workers appealed for fairness and justice, but were reported in the upper-class newspaper, The Manchester Guardian (forerunner of today’s Guardian newspaper), as a lawless mob. Strike leaders were portrayed as dirty, cowardly and treacherous. In London, Home Secretary Sir James Graham readied artillery and troops and sent them to Lancashire on August 13. On this same date, Queen Victoria issued an edict declaring the strikes illegal and offering a £50 reward for turning in fellow strikers. Although some labourers earned only £5 per month, few scabbed on their fellow workers.
A missed opportunity
On 15 August, local trade conferences sent a representative to the Great Delegate Conference of the Chartists in Manchester. Each delegate stood and voiced the concerns of their local tradespeople. The conference overwhelmingly voted to endorse both the Charter and a return to 1840 wage rates. That evening, city magistrates moved in to disperse the meeting. The delegates left, but agreed to meet the next day at a different location. However the chairman then declared the conference over and the delegates dispersed.
This is the point at which the working class demonstrated its greatest power and capitalism in Britain faced its greatest threat. When the conference of the Chartist movement was in session, strike committees ordered which factories could and could not operate, and a revolutionary situation began to develop. The momentum did not last, however. With the closure of the conference a void in leadership had been reached. An opportunity had been wasted.
At the same time the campaign was increasingly falling into disarray and fragmentation. The government of businesspeople, landowners and employers, which had been slow at first to recognise the challenge of the strike, drew together the repressive powers of the state. Marches were harassed and disbanded wherever they turned up. By August 20, there was a mass arrest of union and Chartist leaders. Others replaced them, but the national strike organisation was fragmenting and weakened under ferocious government pressure. As well as implementing violent repression, Graham also adopted familiar tactics with the use of spies and police informers.
Meanwhile, the strikers continued to picket and organise themselves. 500,000 workers remained on strike through to the end of August and into September. On 29 August, some factories attempted to reopen, but the number of workers going back was tiny. Food became harder to come by in September as the strikers moved through the country picketing outside workplaces. Some workers would return for a week, get paid, and then leave again. Some held out until the end of September before eventually settling with employers. In all cases, strikers succeeded in stopping wage cuts at their factories. Sometimes workers had to settle with this small victory, but elsewhere owners granted wage increases from pre-strike levels. So, although the strike did not succeed in passing the Charter, the demand for better pay was mostly achieved.
In the aftermath of the strike, plans for a large-scale show trial, were prepared, with Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor and others facing charges of treason that could have resulted in the death penalty. By the time of the trial in 1843, a new approach was adopted. The government and judiciary did not want to publicise the reality of the strike – that it was well-organised and carefully planned. Instead, it was to be presented as a random piece of mob violence by ragged desperate workers who vandalised the plugs of steam engines rather than being part of a political movement.
The trial of O’Connor and 58 others took place at Lancaster in 1843, charged on nine counts of inciting strikes, riots and disorder. Most were convicted but never sent to prison and given suspended sentences. The government, having defeated the strike and jailing working class local leaders, did not want to make martyrs out of O’Connor and his associates. They wanted this huge and significant working class uprising forgotten.
While the leadership of the Chartists were given mild sentences, vicious repression followed the end of action elsewhere. In North West England – a strike stronghold – 1,500 workers were brought to trial. Those arrested in Staffordshire also received harsh sentences.
Bourgeois historians like to draw an idyllic picture of Britain inevitably and sedately progressing towards parliamentary democracy, without the need for revolution. But the events of 1842 demonstrate how deeply hostile the political establishment was to democracy. Marxists understand that every political gain achieved by the working class was won through sacrifice and struggle.
Traditional history books portray the strike as purely an industrial dispute about pay and conditions. However the strike in many ways had an insurrectionary character, and was closely linked to the demands of the Chartists. Meetings of strikers consistently demanded the People’s Charter as well as economic demands. The state saw the strike as a threat to its existence and was willing to use all methods including extensive violence to suppress it.
Why did it fail?
Fundamentally, the strike was defeated by a lack of leadership. It had successfully spread across the country, but there was no understanding of the next step. It is not possible to tread water for long when the working class is carrying out something as dramatic and potentially revolutionary as a general strike. In the absence of a clear plan to fight through until the end, the ruling class will use that time to organise and hit back.
The strike lacked clear objectives, looking to the leadership of the Chartist movement. However, many in this same leadership, such as Feargus O’Connor, as much as they were genuine democrats who courageously championed the cause of the rights of working people, lacked the ability to see events from the viewpoint of the working class. And as such he failed to properly provide support to the striking workers.
As Engels wrote in hindsight in his Conditions of the Working Class in England: “If it had been from the beginning an intentional, determined working-men’s insurrection, it would surely have carried its point; but these crowds who had been driven into the streets by their masters, against their own will, and with no definite purpose, could do nothing.”
The working class base of the Chartist movement overwhelmingly supported or took part in the strike. But in the Chartist Convention, representing the movement’s leadership, there were divisions between a militant working class wing and an element not wanting to go beyond constitutional reform. This middle-class section were happy to use the working class in their campaign but did not feel comfortable with the idea of a mass strike. They wanted to use what they called ‘reasonable argument’ and ‘moral force’ (as opposed to ‘physical force’) for parliamentary reform. Industrial action was a very radical step to take in the 1840s and would never be in their arsenal of campaigning weapons. Some even enrolled as special constables to suppress the strikers.
However, there were also Chartist leaderships who, despite being in a minority, did provide a show of clear solidarity and determination to lead workers actions. William Cuffay, a black militant Chartist leader at the time led a strike of tailors in 1834, demanding a ten-hour work day from April to July, and an eight-hour day during the rest of the year. He was ultimately arrested for advocating ‘physical force’ and transported to Tasmania for 21 years. Though pardoned, he showed genuine revolutionary courage in continuing to organise and agitate for the rest of his life.
A crucial ingredient in the strike’s failure was in the inexperience of the working class movement at this time. There was no long-established history of revolutionary struggles of the working class for the movement to draw from. For instance, little preparation had been made for the question of self defence for the workers. While the government was calling in the troops, the workers could have taken action to seize arms from the armouries.
But most importantly, subsequent decades of revolutions revealed that a central tool in the armoury of the workers movement is in the weapon of the class appeal. By sending out a clear appeal to rank-and-file troops to break with their commanders and the government and join the strike, the threat of state violence could have been neutralised. In Manchester, a retired troop refused to confront a crowd of strikers. Shopkeepers and others were called up to act as special constables refused to attack workers, but there were reports of soldiers being taken away in chains for refusing to fight.
Typically the ruling class made some concessions. The Mines Act of 1842 banned women and children under the age of 10 from working down in the pits. But with weak inspections, women were often told to wear trousers underground rather than long skirts to ‘look like men’. Well into the twentieth century women hauled coal on the surface.
Two years after the strike, the revolutionary Frederick Engels paid tribute saying, “The English working men are second to none in courage.” He praised “this obstinate, unconquerable courage of men who surrender to force only when all resistance would be aimless and unmeaning.” Women and girls who made up a huge part of the workforce in the Industrial Revolution, played not just an important role in the strike but a leading one, particularly in motivating reluctant workers to join the action. It had been women workers who acted as the spark in the rebellion in Stalybridge. The working class of 1842 were not just brave, relentless and determined. They showed they had entered the stage of history.
Today the state attempts to refine its response to the working class. We see this in the Spycops scandal; spying on workers did not end in 1842. We see the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill as well renewed attempts to attack trade unions and further tighten already restrictive trade union laws. In such a repressive atmosphere, we again see an economic downturn inflicting real-terms pay cuts and poverty on workers while profits and the bloated incomes of the millionaires and billionaires. The press and media relentlessly vilify socialists and trade unionists. But the reality of this system for working class people will mean that mass action will again be inevitable.
The 1842 General Strike had all the elements to be found in strikes today – the use of picketing, the call for solidarity and the raising of class consciousness. In 1842, a new and inexperienced working class did not have the traditions of the past to fall back on. But it nevertheless became clear to them that riots and street barricades were no longer enough to challenge the emerging capitalist system.
The fundamental power to resist the bosses lay in the workplaces and the withdrawal of labour, as well as building new fighting organisations and parties to represent the interests of working class people. Marx and Engels learned from these struggles by setting up such an organisation – the Communist League in 1847. Six years after the strike, and in the year of the European revolutions, they wrote the mighty lessons of this into the manifesto of the League, today known as the Communist Manifesto.
Between them they forged the mighty weapon of Marxism, an understanding of the class struggle and the way it is played out in industrial and political conflict between the bosses and the workers. Socialist Alternative keeps these traditions alive today.