Remembering the Halifax Chartists

I was recently sent photographs of the graves of three of the men who led the Chartist campaign in Halifax and the West Riding.  These men are buried in Lister Lane cemetery in Halifax:  you can see the images in the photo gallery of this website.  The headstones of Ben Rushton and John Culpan are still standing – that of Christopher Shackleton, who was buried alongside Rushton, has disappeared and has been replaced by a modern plaque. Rushton’s headstone is inscribed with lines written by Burns.

If you were to try to  create the ideal Chartist leader, you would very probably come up with Ben Rushton.  He was an almost faultless working class leader.  A big claim, you might think, possibly even a ridiculous claim.  But it’s difficult to come up with evidence to argue against the description from his own times that Ben was ‘as steady, fearless and honest a politician as ever stood on an English platform.’  To the end of his days Ben remained a handloom weaver.  No paid lecture tours for him, no flogging Chartist boot polish or bottles of Chartist jollop, no comfy editorial chair.  Ben ended his life as he had begun it:  in poverty.  What made him so revered in the West Riding?  Well, Ben was a stalwart, he stuck at it.  He wasn’t a here-today-gone-tomorrow working class politician.  He was calling for the political and economic rights of the handloom weavers before the People’s Charter was published in 1838 – and he only stopped advocated those rights  when he breathed his last.   Think of the problems that Ben could have caused himself – the police constables arriving at his door at 6 a.m., perjured evidence at a trial, the cold, damp prison cell, separation from his wife and children …  But, even though he was fully aware of these risks, Ben wasn’t a man to shut up.  He had things to say and he said them powerfully:

‘As he depicted in glowing language, the miseries of the poor man’s lot and the sin of those who lorded it so unjustly over him, the feelings of his audience were manifested by fervid ejaculations…until at last one, carried away by Mr Rushton’s strong denunciations of his oppressors, cried out “Ay damn them, damn them.”

Little wonder that Ben Rushton’s funeral in June 1853 was turned into a huge Chartist demonstration.  His friend Christopher Shackleton also died in that year.  It was fitting that the two men were buried side by side.  Kit Shackleton was also a handloom weaver, and throughout the 1840s was a key Chartist organizer and speaker in the West Riding.  There he is now addressing a meeting on Skircoat Moor, on the edge of Halifax, in April 1848.  The people listen intently, hang on to every word, of this inspiring, passionate self-educated man.  John Culpan long outlived Rushton and Shackleton, in fact living long enough to attend a Chartist reunion in Halifax in 1885.  Culpan did the heavy lifting for the Halifax Chartists.  For years he was the local secretary, writing reports for the Northern Star, getting the posters printed, distributing the petition forms, inviting lecturers to the West Riding.  He survived to see a partial implementation of the famous People’s Charter.  At that dinner he remembered Ben and Kit and all the rest of them and what they had achieved.

To read the full story of Halifax Chartism see The Dignity of Chartism:  Essays by Dorothy Thompson (Verso, 2015).

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