Monthly Archives: February 2017

‘Poor, harmless’ Frank Mirfield takes a cheap trip to Van Diemen’s Land

On 3 October 1831 the ‘Elizabeth’ set sail for Australia.  On board were 220 men, all going to live in a new country but not through choice.   Amongst these men was a 29 year old weaver from Barnsley.  He was called Frank Mirfield.  Everyone called him Frank … that is apart from the Leeds Patriot and the authorities. To the former he was ‘poor, harmless Frank Mirfield’ and to the latter he was Francis.  Frank had spent eighteen months in a hulk at Sheerness before setting off on his enforced adventure.  He was later to recall how he had defended the weavers against wage cuts ‘and received a cheap trip to Van Diemen’s Land as my reward’.

What exactly had Frank done to deserve his reward?  In Barnsley in 1829 the masters were seeking to cut wage rates. Not good news at the best of times, very bad news when what you got already wasn’t enough.  Frank told the weavers to resist the wage cuts, or, as he put it, ‘to turn up their noses for there was no law against turning up noses.’  He urged them to stick together because that way they could prevail.  So Frank sought to instill hope and defiance into these men.  But these were hard times and these men were frustrated and angry.   That August the weavers turned to violent protest.   The windows of a house belonging to a mill owner were smashed and yarn belonging to men trying to undercut prices was shredded so that it could no longer be used.  Had Frank thrown the stones himself?  Of course not.  Had Frank urged the weavers to do this? Of course he hadn’t.  But inevitably there was an informer ready to help the ruling elite bang Frank up.   And so it was that Frank found himself on the high seas, with fourteen years in Van Diemen’s Land to look forward to.

Frank in fact came home earlier – after eight years.  The Barnsley weavers  did not forget the man who had been their champion.  They organised a petition to secure his return and stumped up the cash to pay for it.  At a celebration dinner at Union Inn in Barnsley  to mark his return in 1840 Frank typically had nothing to say about his experiences in Van Diemen’s Land. He talked instead about the continued injustices facing working people.  No egotist was Frank. What is remarkable about Frank Mirfield is that, in spite of his unpleasant punishment, he did not give up on the working class struggle.

To the end of his days – he was found dead in his bed in 1869 – Frank Mirfield championed the causes of fair wages for the weavers and the People’s Charter.  His loyalty to Feargus O’Connor was never broken. He led a number of strikes against wage cuts. He urged working men to join together in trade unions.  He also became a spokesman for his own people on local affairs, resisting rises in the price of meat and campaigning for a cleaner water supply. When he appeared at meetings at the end of his life, Frank was loudly cheered.  The people loved him.  Of course, they didn’t have the money to put up a statue to him.  But if they had had it, they would have.

Frank Mirfield will be appearing in a future volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography.

The Woes of the Revd. Hill

Ever heard of the Reverend William Hill?  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you haven’t. There is no biography of this man.  No entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  No entry in the Dictionary of Labour Biography.  Even Wikipedia has forgotten about the Revd. Hill.  You could be forgiven for thinking that he was a Victorian Nonconformist minister who did his duty on the preaching front and perhaps penned the odd theological pamphlet … and, er,  that was it.  Well, he was a minister for sure … but in the late 1830s and early 1840s he was also one of the most influential men in the country. Many thousands read or heard his words.  For the Revd. Hill, you see, was the editor of the famous Northern Star, which, in summer 1839, was selling an astonishing 50,000 copies a week.

The Northern Star was one of Chartism’s great achievements.  It is the greatest working class newspaper in English history.  A bit over the top that, you might think …yes, you might have a point …  I’ll have a think about what I’ve just written …no, I’m sticking with that … the Northern Star is the greatest working class newspaper in English history.  The paper had everything … a confident, defiant letter from Feargus O’Connor on the front page, a column from hard-thinking Bronterre O’Brien, stirring reports of Chartist meetings ‘packed to suffocation’ from across the country, letters from itinerant lecturers about the excellent progress of the cause, poems … even jokes.  And each issue came with a lengthy editorial from William Hill.  These were cogently-argued, but they also revealed a deep depth of feeling for the cause and for the paper’s readers.  Working people, you see, when they read the good reverend’s editorials realised that here was a man on their side.

William Hill edited the Star from his office in Leeds for almost six years – from 1837 until 1843.  Of course, he made enemies.  The Leeds Mercury wasn’t a fan.  It was Whig, the Star was Chartist.  It sold diddly squat.  The Star sold shed loads.  But it got a scoop in 1841.  Hill had separated from his wife … or, as the Mercury had it, deserted her.   So William Hill had to endure a ‘ruthless invasion of the sanctities of my domestic misery’.  Being a Chartist leader meant there was always a price to pay.  With your colleagues it occasionally meant shutting up or getting embroiled in nasty rows.

William Hill wasn’t a man to shut up.  And so he got involved in a few nasty rows.  When the Chartists fell out with each other, it was only rarely about policy … often it was about money or personal position.  Now the Chartists tried to be scrupulous when it came to money.  The executive of the National Charter Association published its accounts in the Star.  Casting his eye over these on one occasion, Hill found himself concerned by payments to men like John Campbell, Jonathan Bairstow and Peter Murray McDouall. Looked like they were helping themselves to more than they should, he thought … and this is what he said in a blistering editorial in the Star.  A nasty row ensured.

Feargus and his editor never shared a drink.  This is because William Hill championed teetotalism – Feargus, enjoying a bottle of brandy a day, unsurprisingly didn’t.  For quite a few years they managed to rub along.   But eventually the rupture came.  It had been brewing for sometime.  This time it was actually over policy – too arcane to go into here but it concerned the NCA executive – but clearly there were personal antagonisms.  Feargus sacked his editor and called him ‘a knobstick parson’.  He was never to contribute to the newspaper he had edited so successfully ever again. A sad ending to a great partnership.

I am glad to say that the Revd. William Hill’s story will be told.  I have agreed to write it up for the DLB.

 

The Bleeding of Feargus O’Connor

Spring 1840 wasn’t really a great time for Feargus O’Connor.  The Lion of Freedom found himself in court in York, charged with seditious conspiracy.  Stuff had been published in his newspaper the Northern Star and now the ruling elite wanted to teach Feargus a lesson. Feargus,of course, was a barrister and he knew a thing or two about legal literature.  His speech in his own defence was all his supporters – who turned up in their droves – would have expected.  Utterly defiant, Feagrus kept going for almost five hours.  Needless to say it was to no avail.  In ten minutes the jury declared him guilty.  Feargus was to go to prison.  He now had to wait to find out for how long.

A few weeks later Feargus found himself in East Sussex.  He’d got a lot on his mind. So one evening he decided to go for a row on the river Rother.  As a young man Feargus had enjoyed strenuous physical exercise.  He’d hunted, he’d run, he’d walked … he’d even tried a bit of wrestling.  A couple of hours on the water seemed just the thing.  It didn’t turn out as well as Feargus hoped.  Feargus was no longer a young chap – he was in his mid-forties.  Soon after he succumbed to ‘an attack of rheumatism in the chest, brought on by imprudently taking too violent exercise.’   Despite this Feargus managed to get back to London, where he lived in Hammersmith, in a house with a garden.  Now, as we gardeners know all too well, gardens need a lot of watering.  Feargus didn’t want his plants to die and so out he went to water them. He was soon feeling very hot and so removed his coat.  The job done, he sat down in the garden for an hour.  Feargus was wearing just his shirt.  It turned out to be an unwise decision.

Feargus O’Connor regularly suffered breakdowns in health.  He certainly put an enormous strain on himself.  The long railway and coach journeys, the huge public meetings, writing a weekly letter for the Star, keeping his eye on what William Lovett was up to must all have taken it out of him.  Now, as he lay ill in his bed, Joshua Hobson, the publisher of the Northern Star, visited him; ‘he is worse than he was yesterday’, he reported to the paper’s editor William Hill.  Feargus’ doctor was summoned.  He did the things that early Victorian doctors did.  He drew blood into a cup from Feargus’ side.  He bled him in the arm. He applied a blister plaster to his chest.  These were remedies that it was thought would revitalize him.  Trouble was this is what Feargus’ doctor would have done in 1740 … even in 1640.  ‘He is worse than he was before’, Hobson informed Hill, ‘complaining of great pain arising from the original complaint itself and of the remedies that have been applied.’  Feargus then received the news that his doctor planned to causterise the inflammation caused by the blister plaster.

Despite the best efforts of his doctor, Feargus did recover.   He told the Chartists that he’d been ‘very ill.’  Later on he was to suffer from angina. Was the ‘rheumatism in the chest’ an early indication of this?  We’ll never know.  A few weeks later Feargus was sentenced to eighteen months in the nick.  Did it teach him a lesson?  Of course, it didn’t …