When 22 former Chartists met at Maude’s Temperance Hotel in Halifax in July 1885 to remember the old days, they had some stories to tell … & none more so than 62 year old George Webber who, in autumn 1848, had been a Chartist-on-the-run. Webber, a woolcomber, did not become actively involved in the movement until the late-1840s. But he was soon one of the most confident & defiant of local speakers. When, in the excited month of April 1848, rumours spread that the West Riding delegate to the Chartist Convention Ernest Jones had been shot, Webber declared to a huge meeting that ‘if a drop of Ernest Jones’ blood were spilt, the men of Halifax would avenge it.’ ‘We will! We will!’, the crowd replied. Such a man could not escape the attentions of local magistrates. Soon Webber was a guest of Wakefield Penitentiary. His stay here appears to have been relatively short. If the authorities thought that a spell in a cold, damp cell would cause Webber to change his ways, they were to be sorely disappointed. By summer 1848 he was involved in nightly drilling on the moors that surrounded Halifax . And so it was back to the nick for George Webber … but he was not to remain incarcerated in York Castle for long … because George ESCAPED! We don’t know how he did this, but we do know it happened. In ‘Chartist Recollections: A Bradfordian’s Reminiscences’, Charles Henberry McCarthy tells us that, in September 1848, he was arrested in Manchester with Webber, on the run from York Castle, and another West Riding stalwart George White. This was certainly a story to tell at the reunion dinner of Halifax Chartists in 1885, but perhaps not one to write down … it was chaps like William Lovett who wrote their autobiographies in the these years, not those like Webber who had been involved in the militant wing of Chartism.
George Webber became a respectable figure in his later years. His route to respectability began with his involvement in the co-operative movement in Halifax. But he also remained utterly committed to manhood suffrage. When the Reform League was founded in 1865, Webber became the first secretary of the Halifax branch. In the general election of 1868 he did not – unlike another former West Riding Chartist John Snowden – endorse the Liberal candidate, but instead lent support to an advocate of the vote for all men as their right.
Today the escaped Chartist prisoner George Webber is long forgotten … as indeed are so many of the local men who made the Chartist challenge the potent force that it was. For all the work that has been done on Chartism, there are still important stories to be told if we look hard enough.