The chance discovery of an illustration in an old newspaper, brings to light a troubled time in the history of Halifax. The illustration – Scene at North Bridge, Halifax – appeared in the Illustrated London News of the 27th August 1842, and it shows thousand of protestors on North Bridge coming under attack by armed troops during the so-called “Plug Riots”. The accompanying article describes how 10,000 to 15,000 Chartists descended on the town on the weekend of the 15th and 16th August with the intention of shutting down local mills in support of a General Strike by removing the “plugs” from the boilers that drove the textile machines. The response of the authorities was to call in the troops who, following the reading of the Riot Act, set about clearing the streets “at the point of the bayonet”. In the days that followed, protesters were arrested and meetings broken up.
The Chartists were protesting against the rejection by Parliament of the People’s Charter, which had been signed by over three million people, and called for universal suffrage, secret ballots and other electoral reforms. For a time it appeared as if the country was on the verge of revolution, and riots were reported in a number of northern towns and cities.
The police and armed forces eventually brought an end to the protests and peace returned to North Bridge. However, universal suffrage had to wait a further eighty-six years before it came to Britain.
HALIFAX: This town has been the scene of much rioting daring the last week, which has only been quelled by the soldiers clearing the streets at the point of the bayonet. The magistrates had taken every precaution to preserve the peace, by ordering a troop of Lancers and Hussars from Leeds, in addition to which they had the assistance of part of the 61st Regiment of Infantry, and a considerable number of special constables. The concourse of people, which has been computed at not less than from 15,000 to 20,000, came from the neighbourhood of Bradford, Hebden Bridge, Todmorden, and there were some women who even walked from Oldham, and appeared quite hearty in their novel undertaking. There were at least 5,000 from Hebden Bridge; and they entered the town singing the hundredth psalm, the women forming the middle portion of the procession. On the arrival of the procession from the neighbourhood of Bradford, at about eleven o’clock, the Riot Act was read by George Pollard, Esq , and it was read again on the arrival of the Todmorden men. The mob, numbering from 12,000 to 15,000 persons, some of them most ferocious looking, directed their malice first at the mill of Messrs John Akroyd and Son, the Shed Mill, at Haley Hill. They entered the weaving place of Messrs. Akroyd. The number of men and women who marched to Mr. Akroyd’s mill could not be less than 10,000, covering, as they did, the whole line of road from the North Bridge to Haley Hill. They arrived at this mill shortly after twelve, and the work-people being at dinner, the turn-outs were saved the trouble of clearing the premises, hut two of their number demanded an interview with Mr. Ackroyd, at which they insisted that the plugs should be drawn out of the boilers, Mr. Akroyd, thinking probably that opposition would be unavailing, not only agreed this modest request, but he also permitted one of his workmen to assist the deputation in their labour of mischief.
Saturday Evening: Our accounts from the neighbouring districts go to show that the insurrection is nearly at an end. The police and military are everywhere capturing many rioters. This town has resumed its wonted appearance ; business has been still further resumed, and all promises fairly for the whole of the mills recommencing on Monday. Three more rioters have been captured by the authorities of Northowram. The following public notice has just been issued to the mill-owners of Halifax and the neighbourhood; – “The magistrates earnestly exhort those mill-owners who have not already set their mills to work to do so immediately, and to furnish their workmen with arms ; also to give them instructions to apprehend all persons that are seen skulking about their premises, and instantly to seize any man who may bring an order to turn out their people ; and should any one attempt to touch the plugs of their boilers, and the party should be too numerous to be apprehended, then to give such person or persons notice, that if he or they do not instantly desist, the consequences will be fatal, as they had received orders from their masters which they were determined to enforce, to protect their property at all hazards.”
Sunday. —We are evidently becoming much excited here, and it is doubtful how long peace may be preserved. Yesterday morning large placards of a stirring character were posted through the town, announcing great meeting to take place on Monday, on a piece of waste ground near the Asylum. The police pulled the bills down wherever they could do so, and, from amongst other places, they pulled one from the wall of the Christian Chartist Church, Newhall Street, and took one or two men into custody for carrying boards about, the streets with the same bill. The parties were conveyed to the office of Mr. Burgess, chief commissioner of police, and in short time after Mr. C. Sturge attended to give bail for the men. Mr. O’Neill also attended to complain of the police for having torn the bills from his chapel; when a consultation ensued between the commissioner and some other of the authorities, and the parties were discharged forthwith, with caution not to go about the streets with the bills. In a short time after four neatly-attired women, two very young and rather handsome, and two middle-aged women, belonging to the Christian Chartist body, came out into the streets, each carrying a board with the objectionable placard. They walked up New Street, and into Paradise Street, where they, with a man, who was in front of them, were taken up by the police, and conveyed to the station in Crooked Lane. They were soon after removed to the police station, where, after a consultation of the magistrates, they were discharged, with a promise that they would not appear again in the streets with the placards. The remainder of the day and night passed over quietly, although in the utmost uncertainty. There was a great number of persons walking about the streets until a late hour. This morning a meeting of Chartists was to have been held near the Vulcan Foundry, but the police prevented the assemblage. No violence occurred on either side. The authorities have issued caution in reference to a great meeting announced for to-morrow, it will not be allowed to take place. The intelligence from Dudley is not favourable. Precautions have been deemed necessary there, and the magistrates have issued notice of preventing all public meetings.
Monday, Ten o’Clock, p.m. : Notwithstanding the injunction of the magistrates to the contrary, and the dispersion of the morning assembly, small meetings have been held in various parts of the town; but there is an overwhelming military force, and the authorities have been sitting throughout the day. An effort was made by the physical force Chartists to hold a meeting near the railway station to-night. It was attended by about 400 persons, but was effectually dispersed by three policemen.