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Image Number: 311
The Plug Riots

On 4th May 1842 a Charter, known as the People's Charter, was put before Parliament demanding decent rates of pay, better working conditions, and fairer political representation for the working classes. The House of Commons rejected the Charter by a large majority which resulted in a series of strikes in the industrial areas of England.

The first strikes took place in the coalfields of the Midlands but spread rapidly to the textile industries of Lancashire and Yorkshire. In a number of cases workers ensured that production would cease completely by removing boiler plugs from the steam engines that powered the mills. These strikes then became known as the 'Plug Plot' and were a prelude to the first General Strike in history.

By July in 1842 many cotton manufacturers had reduced their wages in the face of the increasing trade depression. This increased demands for a fair day's pay for a fair day's work and for the other conditions of the People's Charter to be met. There was a determination not to return to work until the rates of wages had risen to at the least same level as those that were paid in 1840.

Many of the strikers said that they would refuse to return to work until the demands of the Charter were met. Some strikers became more militant and in early August a series of bitter riots ensued, particularly in Preston and the Tameside areas of Ashton, Hyde, Stalybridge, Denton and Dukinfield. Manchester was also badly affected. Force was used to stop mills, manufactories and collieries from working. Mills which tried to resist were broken into and the plugs forcibly removed from the boilers, as a result of which the riots became known as the 'Plug Riots'.

Joseph Lawson, writing in 1887, describes the summer of strikes in 1842. 'The summer of 1842 was one long remembered by hundreds of thousands. Trades of every kind were deeply depressed, and it appeared as if most of the labouring class would starve to death.' He quotes the Annals of Leeds which state that 'a fourth part of the population of Carlisle were dying of famine. In Stockport, half of all master cotton spinners had failed, and five thousand working men were walking the streets in distress. In Lancashire the distress was enormous, and was aggravated by a general turn-out in several branches of trade. In the principal towns of the West Riding the working classes endured many privations. At Leeds...the poor rate had increased 50 per cent, and the misery of the working class made them turbulent.'

Sir Robert Peel, the prime minister, had, at first, favoured the solution of letting the strikes run their course until workers were forced back to their labours by the desperate need for cash to buy food. The Duke of Wellington disagreed and said that troops should be used to end the strikes. Finally Peel agreed. Troops were sent to the main trouble spots and several strike leaders were arrested.

By late August, the Manchester mills were back at work followed by those in Preston where five cotton workers had been shot dead by the troops. Stalybridge mills returned to work in early September. Mill workers in Ashton and Dukinfield, together with the Staffordshire miners, held out until late September. Most of those who returned to work did so without any improvement in wages or working conditions.


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Image: an operative tending a beaming machine at Lily Mills, Shaw in the 1950s Image: Row of Terraced Houses in Ancoats, Manchester
Image: Manchester marchers during the General Strike,1926 Image: Lap-frame engraving by J.R. Barfoot, published 1835-40
Image: illustration of a worker at a Bleach Mill, c.1780 Image: Female Millworker, 1930s
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