John Doherty was born at Inishowel, County Donegal in 1798. He received very little formal education and at the age of ten went to work at the Buncrana cotton mill. Later he moved to Larne near Belfast where he found work as a cotton spinner. At the age of eighteen Doherty left Ireland to seek better pay and conditions in England.
In 1816 Doherty found work in a textile factory in Manchester. Doherty joined the Manchester Spinners' Union and in 1818 took part in a strike for higher wages. During the strike Doherty was arrested while picketing and charged with assault. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years' hard labour. Doherty, who was completely innocent of the charge, was radicalised by this experience. After he was released from Lancaster Castle in 1821 he became involved in a wide variety of different political campaigns. This included attempts to repeal the Combination Acts and the Corn Laws. Doherty also became friendly with Henry Hunt and the two men often spoke at several meetings demanding universal suffrage.
John Doherty, who married Laura, a milliner, in 1821, continued to work in the textile industry in Manchester. In 1828 he stood for the post as the leader of the Manchester Spinners' Union. Doherty's radical political views and his Irish Catholicism meant that he was unpopular with some of the workers but he still managed to win the election. Doherty was a passionate opponent of child labour and persuaded his union to campaign for factory reform. In 1828 Doherty was the main figure behind the formation of the Society for the Protection of Children Employed in Cotton Factories. Doherty's organisation attempted to secure enforcement of existing legislation and the enactment of new factory laws. The organisation continued until 1831 when it changed its name to the Manchester Short Time Committee.
In April 1829 textile factory owners began imposing wage reductions on their workers. In an attempt to persuade the employers to change their minds, members of the Manchester Spinners's Union went on strike. The strike lasted for six months but in October the spinners, facing starvation, were forced to accept the lower wages being offered by the factory owners.
John Doherty realised that it was very difficult for local unions to win industrial disputes so he organised a meeting of spinners from all over Britain. The result of the meeting was the formation of the Grand General Union of Operative Spinners of the United Kingdom. A few weeks later, Doherty called a meeting of Manchester trade unionists and it was decided to form a General Union of Trades. The purpose of the organisation was to give support to fellow trade unionists involved in industrial disputes. In March, 1830, the organisation started publication of the United Trades' Co-operative Journal. Doherty, who was editor, attempted to use the journal as a means of communicating information to fellow trade unionists. The government was worried about this new development and in October, 1830 forced Doherty to stop publishing the journal.
Doherty's next venture was the formation of the National Association for the Protection of Labour. Within a few months twenty different trades joined Doherty's organisation. At first it mainly involved workers from Lancashire but by the end of 1830 it spread to the Midlands and Staffordshire and had a membership of over 100,000 people.
In March 1832, Doherty opened a small print shop and bookstore in Manchester. The following year he expanded the business and including a coffee-house where ninety-six newspapers, including Doherty's own Voice of the People, could be read. Rev. Gilpin, a local clergyman objected to some of the articles included in the newspaper and as a result Doherty was sent to prison in 1832.
After Doherty was released from prison he joined Richard Oastler and Michael Sadler in their campaign for the Ten Hours Bill. Doherty helped form the Manchester Short Time Committee and began publishing a new journal, The Poor Man's Advocate. In 1832 Doherty published a book on the factory experiences of Robert Blincoe.
Disappointed by the 1833 Factory Act, Doherty joined Robert Owen, and John Fielden to form the Society for Promoting National Regeneration. The main objective of the organisation was an eight-hour day for all workers. In 1839 John Doherty met Frances Trollope and provided her with a considerable amount of information that later appeared in her novel Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy.
John Doherty continued to work for social and political reform until his death on 14th April, 1854.
Fellow Workers. The fearful change, which the workings of the last few years have produced in the condition of every class of labourer, summons you to a serious investigation of the cause. Your power as regards the operations of society is omnipotent. You are the great lever by which everything is effected. Let British operatives become firm and united and their unanimous voice of complaint will command respect.
Mr. Oastler is a Tory in politics but when we ask, will any of your boasting "liberals" or professing Whigs contribute a tithe of service which Mr. Oastler has rendered to the cause of suffering humanity.
Nearly all of them, men a little raised above the position of the factory hands, to the righting of whose wrongs they devoted their lives. They had been at some period of their lives, in almost every case, factory workers themselves, but had by various circumstances, native talent, industry and energy managed to raise themselves out of the slough of despond in which their fellows were overwhelmed. John Doherty came to dine but his excitement in talking was so great and continuous that he could eat next to nothing.