Absalom Watkin, the son of an innkeeper, was born in London. Absalom's father died when he was young and at the age of fourteen he accepted the offer of work at his uncle's cotton business in Manchester. John Watkin's small company produced yarn and undyed calico.
A few years after Absalom arrived in Manchester John Watkin sold the business to Thomas Smith. Absalom had done so well since arriving in Manchester that he new owner employed him as the factory manager. Absalom had a strong desire to own his own business and by 1807 had raised enough money to buy the factory from Thomas Smith.
Absalom Watkin was a supporter of parliamentary reform and in 1815 became a member of a group of liberals that used to meet in the home of John Potter. Others in the group included John Edward Taylor, Archibald Prentice, John Shuttleworth, Joseph Brotherton, William Cowdray, Thomas Potter and Richard Potter. The group was strongly influenced by the ideas of Jeremy Bentham and Joseph Priestley and objected to a system that denied such important industrial cities such as Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, representation in the House of Commons.
All the men held Nonconformist religious views. Absalom Watkin was a Methodist and was a supporter ofJoseph Lancaster and the Nonconformist school that he opened in Manchester in 1813. Watkin, like other members of the group, was an advocate of religious toleration.
Absalom Watkin did not witness the Peterloo Massacre,but he played an important role in the campaign to obtain an independent inquiry into Peterloo. He drew up the famous Declaration and Protest document that was signed by over 5,000 people in Manchester.
After the Peterloo Massacre Absalom Watkin became a close friend of Joseph Johnson, one of the organisers of the meeting at St. Peter's Field. On 12th August 1827 Johnson introduced Watkin to Richard Carlile, the radical journalist who had been one of the main speakers at the Peterloo Massacre. Four days later Absalom carried out a long interview with Richard Carlile about what had happened at St. Peter's Field on 16th August, 1819.
In December 1827, Thomas Potter and John Shuttleworth asked Absalom Watkin if he was interested in taking over from Archibald Prentice as editor of the Manchester Gazette. Although he considered it for several days Watkin eventually turned down the offer.
In December 1830 Absalom Watkin joined a committee of men including Thomas Potter, Mark Philips, William Harvey and William Baxter with the intention of campaigning for parliamentary reform. The group were moderate reformers and did not fully support the demands of the radicals who wanted universal suffrage. Absalom Watkin was given the task of drawing up the petition asking the government to grant Manchester two Members of Parliament.
As a result of the 1832 Reform Act Manchester had its first two Members of Parliament, Mark Philips and Charles Poulett Thomson. Two close friends of Absalom Watkin, Joseph Brotherton (Salford) and Richard Potter (Wigan) also became Members of Parliament in 1832.
Although Absalom Watkin had been in conflict with John Fielden over parliamentary reform, he did agree with his views on factory legislation. In 1833 Absalom Watkin organised the campaign in Manchester for the Ten Hours Bill.
Absalom Watkin's other great concern was over the price of bread. In 1840 he became Vice President of Manchester's Anti-Corn Law League. However, he was strongly opposed to the Chartist campaign and in August 1842 helped the police to defend Manchester from rioters demanding universal suffrage.
Absalom Watkin's two sons also played an active role in politics. Edward Watkin became a Liberal M.P. and Alfred Watkin became Mayor of Manchester.
Absalom Watkin died on 16th December 1861.
August 16th, 1819: Today there has been a reform meeting held in the open ground near St. Peter's church. Hunt, Johnson and others were the leaders. Very great numbers of people attended from the neighbouring towns with flags, music and caps of liberty. Many women attended and took part in the meeting. Soon after the arrival of the leaders the magistrates and soldiery interfered. The flags and caps of liberty were cut down, the leaders apprehended, both male and female; and some resistance being made, some were killed and many wounded. The town is still in great ferment. The conduct of the magistrates and soldiers is much blamed. There was no appearance of riot till the Manchester Cavalry (Yeomanry) charged upon the people. In their fury they rode over the special constables, one of whom, if not more, was killed and many wounded.
I was on the hustings, which were formed of two wagons placed side by side, but at such a distance from each other as to allow a person to get up and down between them. There were four women on the hustings besides Mary Fildes. When the Yeomanry were approaching I assisted the four women to descend and having done so I followed them myself - at that moment the pressure of the crowd forced the wagons together and my hat was caught between them, my head escaped! I got under the wagons and into the adjoining street. A woman was standing at the door of her house and allowed me to come in. I took a coach to London. We got safe to London and I was the first to publish an account of the affair at Peterloo, for which I was prosecuted.
Attended the public meeting on the rejection of the Reform Bill. It began at eleven o'clock in the Riding School but was immediately adjourned to Camp Field. There were between 80,000 and 100,000 people present at the height of the demonstration. Thomas Potter was persuaded to take the chair. He climbed on to the cart with Archibald Prentice, John Shuttleworth and Mark Philips. Our leaders battled with the crowd until four in the afternoon and all that time did we stand on our wagon, squeezed, elbowed, threatened and in danger, in the midst of a furious mob. At last, after protesting against it, Thomas Potter was compelled to put a mangled version of our address praying for annual Parliaments, universal suffrage and vote by ballot and we left the ground, tired, baffled and exhausted but congratulating ourselves upon having escaped personal violence and avoided endangering the peace of the town.