After the passing of the Corn Laws in 1815, and the poor harvest in 1816, the price of bread increased dramatically. At the same time many industrial workers experienced a drop in wages. Spinners in Manchester argued that their average wage had gone from 24s in 1815 to 18s in 1818. The employers claimed that the average wage was nearly 30s a week. When the employers refused to increase their wages, the spinners threaten to withdraw their labour.
The cotton manufacturers were unwilling to change their mind and so in July 1818 the spinners went on strike. For the next few weeks spinners survived on their savings and from donations from sympathisers. The strikers received considerable support from the Manchester Observer the newspaper established that year by John Knight, James Wroe and John Saxton.
The spinners picketed factories and paraded through the streets of Manchester with placards that described their problems. The magistrates became concerned when groups of spinners began to threaten men they described as blacklegs. As well as being stopped from entering the cotton factories, these spinners were sometimes confronted by angry strikers who would not let them leave their homes.
Groups of spinners began to attack some of the cotton factories in Manchester. One target was the factory in Oxford Road owned by Hugh Birley, the much hated captain of the Manchester & Salford Yeomanry. After throwing some stones at the factory the spinners went home.
The British government became concerned when they heard about these disturbances. Their spies also reported that the cotton spinners were in the process of trying to form a General Union of Trades. Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, urged the local magistrates to take action. The magistrates responded by arresting John Johnson, John Bagguley and Samuel Drummond, the three leaders of the Blanketeers March that had taken place in 1817.
The magistrates also arrested John Doherty, the man they believed was behind the plans to form a General Union of Trades. Doherty was charged with assaulting a woman while picketing. Doherty denied the charge but was sentenced to two years' hard labour. Without their leaders and without the means to feed their families, the spinners called off their strike in September. After two and a half months on strike, the spinners went back to work on the same wages as they had been receiving in July.
Soon after the spinners went back to work the weavers in Manchester called a strike. The weavers claimed that their wages had sunk from 11s to 6s a week. Their demand was for a 13s minimum wage. The strike quickly spread to Bolton, Bury and Burnley. Some employers agreed to pay this minimum wage, but most refused, and after a few weeks the weavers gradually drifted back to work.
The spinners take the names and addresses of the individuals who work, and prevent them leaving their own houses. The mother of a child carrying breakfast to it at Mr. Houldsworth's mill was molested.
The peaceable demeanour of so many thousand unemployed men is not natural; their regular meeting and again dispersing shows a system of organization of their actions which has some appearance of previous tuition.
The master spinners are a class of men unlike all other master tradesmen in the kingdom. They are ignorant, proud and tyrannical. A spinner can leave his master if he does not like the wages. True; so he can: but where must he go? Why to another, to be sure. Well: he goes; he is asked where did you work last: "did he discharge you?" "No; we could not agree about wages." "Well I shall not employ you nor anyone who leaves his master in this manner." Why is this? Because there is an abominable combination existing amongst the masters, first established at Stockport in 1802, and it has since become so general, as to embrace all the great masters for a circuit of many miles round Manchester.
The workmen in general are inoffensive, unassuming, set of well-informed men, though how they acquire their information is almost a mystery to me. They are docile and tractable, if not goaded too much; but this is not to be wondered at, when we consider that they are trained to work from six years old, from five in a morning to eight and nine at night. Let one of the advocates for obedience to his master take his stand in an avenue leading to a factory a little before five o'clock in the morning, and observe the squalid appearance of the little infants and their parents taken from their beds at so early an hour in all kinds of weather; let him examine the miserable pittance of food, chiefly composed of water gruel and oatcake broken into it, a little salt, and sometimes coloured with a little milk, together with a few potatoes, and a bit of bacon or fat for dinner. There they are (and if late a few minutes, a quarter of a day is stopped in wages) locked up until night in rooms heated above the hottest days we have had this summer, and allowed no time, except three-quarters of an hour for dinner in the whole day.
Various disputes originated between the workmen and masters as to the fineness of the work, the workmen being paid according to the number of hanks or yards of thread he produced from a given quantity of cotton, which was always to be proved by the overlooker, whose interest made it imperative on him to favour the master, and call the material coarser than it was. If the workman would not submit he must summon his employer before a magistrate; the whole of the acting magistrates in the district, with the exception of two worthy clergymen, being gentlemen who have sprung from the same source with the master cotton spinners. The magistrate's decision was generally in favour of the master.
These evils to the men have arisen from the dreadful monopoly which exists in those districts where wealth and power are got into the hands of the few, who, in the pride of their hearts, think themselves the lords of the universe.