Monthly Archives: March 2017

The voter who refused to vote …

When I was out leafleting for the Labour Party during the general election of 2015, I was well aware that a lot of the people whose garden paths I purposefully strode up would not bother to vote.  I’d put a leaflet through a letter box, the candidate beaming at any voter who cared to look, the key pledges prominently on display.  How many were given a quick shufti and then immediately binned?  Most of them, I suspect.  We live in an age of voter disillusionment, of disengagement with politicians.  It is becoming increasingly clear that Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed this, whatever his supporters might have said about how he was the man to reconnect with those who had chosen to opt out of voting.  When I speak to voters I still hear the same thing … that so familiar mantra … “they’re all the same”.

Choosing not to use your vote is not a new thing.  James Arthur was a voter who categorically refused to vote.  He owned a bookshop in Carlisle in the 1830s and 1840s and he was enfranchised under the terms of the 1832 Reform Act.  He voted just once … in the election that followed the passing of the Reform Act and thereafter refused to ever vote again.  Was it because he thought “they’re all the same”?  Was it apathy?  Was it because he had better things to do?   It wasn’t any of these things, as you doubtless guessed.  James Arthur had a deep interest in politics.  He was the agent for the Northern Star and for the Northern Liberator in Carlisle. He printed Chartist handbills and posters.  He chaired Chartist meetings.  He was arrested in 1842 and spent some time in the nick.  He was, in the words of his friend Joseph Broom Hanson,  a ‘pure and honest patriot.’

Joseph Arthur refused to vote because he believed in manhood suffrage.  Whilst the electoral system locked out working men he would not take part in it.  And this continued until his death in 1877.  General elections came and general elections went and James Arthur did not use his vote.  He attended hustings for sure, where he’d conduct a chorus of hooting and yelling by the unenfranchised.  The 1867 Reform Act, which gave the vote to  working men who lived in towns, did not soften him.  James Arthur was a whole hogger, a first principle Chartist: ‘A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.’  James Arthur had been forty-one years dead by the time this came about.

But this wasn’t the only principle James Arthur adhered to.  He refused to buy salt because the government derived revenue from its sale.  It was ‘a habit contracted in order to make the government bankrupt’.  Of course, James Arthur’s efforts didn’t result in emptying the coffers of the government.  He was called eccentric by some of his neighbours.  Or perhaps principled is a better description.

James Arthur will feature in a forthcoming volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography.

The Hunt for Wat Tyler

In the fevered summer of 1848 – just after the great petition for manhood suffrage had been burnt in the ovens of the House of Commons – it wasn’t just in the capitals of Europe that men’s minds turned to rebellion.   A revolutionary spirit certainly stalked the West Riding.  In a blacksmith’s shop just off the Manchester Road in the Chartist stronghold of Bradford a burly, bearded man was hard at work.  The sweat poured from his brow as he hammered.  This man was thirty-five year old Isaac Jefferson.  Isaac wasn’t making spades.  Isaac was making pikes.   His neighbours called him Wat Tyler.

And so it was that one Sunday morning about fifty wool combers assembled on the moors outside Bradford.  Wat was at their head.  David Lightfowler, wearing a green shirt and a green cap, was giving the orders.”To the left”, he barked. “March”.  “Stop, lads.”  This was a risky enterprise.  There was a good chance that one of those fifty men wasn’t what he seemed.  Wasn’t a good Chartist at all; was in fact an informer for the magistrates.

These men were, of course, betrayed.  Now these men knew that, even with their pikes, the odds were very much against them if they came up against trained soldiers with rifles.   They were angry at their poverty, at the injustice of their situation, at the intransigence of the mill owners, the magistrates, the ministers far away in London.  They marched like soldiers, a few armed with pikes, others with bludgeons; but they were caught up in the moment, they were venting their frustration … they didn’t expect to be storming the court house in Bradford anytime soon.

The magistrates were alarmed.  Over their port that talked about how what had happened in Paris might well happen in Bradford. These men they agreed in no time at all had to be dealt with.  That Wat Tyler and his dangerous comrade Lightfowler must be apprehended.  And so a few days later 100 special constables were sent into Manchester Road to bring out the two wanted men.  Wat and Dave expected this and had made themselves scarce.  They were nowhere to be found.  The specials now got into a lot of trouble.  The working people of the Manchester Road fought back.  Women hurled abuse at them. Stones were thrown. Pokers were wielded.  Hemmed in by these furious people, it must have been a very alarming experience for the shopkeepers who had enlisted as volunteer police constables.

Where Wat and Dave were, the authorities did not know.  Word reached them about a month later that Wat had returned home.  This time they decided to tiptoe in.  A couple of police constables at Wat’s front door, another at the back and he was quickly apprehended. Now came an unforeseen difficulty.  Wat’s wrists were too thick to accomodate the handcuffs.  Still they marched him down the Manchester Road to the lock-up.  This was not a sight that his neighbours would accept.  The constables were surrounded by a huge crowd.  One woman called Mary Patchett kicked out at them, knocked their hats off and encouraged others to do the same.  Stones were thrown.  In the melee Wat’s wife Ann and his daughter Hannah managed to free him.  Wat Tyler did a runner.

For the next few months the magistrates hunted for Wat.  Every night the constables were out; but this working class community closed round him.  Wat was moved from place to place.  Wherever the constables went, he had already left.  It was not until September that the finally got their hands on him.  And it was in the middle of the night.  They found Wat fast asleep in a pub in a Pennine village on the outskirts of Bradford.  He was not armed and did not resist arrest.  He’d had enough of being on the run.

Isaac Jefferson got four months in the nick for drilling on the moor.  Mind you,he had already spent three months in York Castle before his trial.  He lived until 1874 and to the end of his days he remained proud of his involvement in the great Chartist Movement back in ’48.

Isaac Jefferson will appear in a forthcoming volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography.