BHAS logoThe Bradford Antiquary

Book Review

(First published in 1989 in volume 4, p. 86, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

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The Chartist Risings in Bradford

D.G. Wright. Bradford Libraries and Information Service, 1987. £3.00

Since the publication of AJ Peacock's Bradford Chartism 1838-40, in 1969, there has been a great need of a continuation of the story, particularly to include the events in the tumultuous year of 1848, when Bradford played a crucial part in 'the greatest mass movement of working class political and social protest in British history'. This opinion was emphasised but never elaborated upon some twenty years ago by FC Mather in his Historical Association pamphlet on Chartism, in which he stated that 'the Bradford District of the West Riding was perhaps the most outstanding centre of physical force Chartism in England in the spring of1848'. Until now it has only been possible to follow the story in newspapers of the period or in doctoral theses and so the appearance of David Wright's booklet is to be greatly welcomed.

Few historians are better qualified to write upon this subject than Dr Wright, who for over twenty years has made a special study of the social and political history of nineteenth century Bradford, and the booklet does not disappoint. In particular he treads a judicious path between the importance of local details and the wider implications of regional and national events. Most important of all he gives full consideration to the effect Anglo-Irish relationships had upon Bradford's volatile population during a period of great industrial unrest.

Almost thirty years ago Asa Briggs in Chartist Studies urged historians to recognise that the all-embracing concept of the six points of the Charter motivated different social groups in different times and places with differing degrees of intensity. Dr Wright has produced a model essay on the Briggs pattern in which he analyses Chartism in Bradford, from its roots in the Great Strike of 1825 to the Anti-Poor Law agitation in the late 1830s and on to the first rising in January 1840. But it is in the later events that the author breaks new ground, looking in detail at the Plug-drawing riots of 1842 and the more menacing threats to law and order in 1848. Of particular interest is the changing composition of both the Chartist leadership and its supporters during the whole period. At first the movement was dominated by men with English names, often hand-weavers from the outer townships, especially Horton, but after 1840 it took on an Irish tinge, being increasingly dominated by the bete-noir of the Bradford middle classes, the hard drinking, wife-beating George White, and his fellow-Irishman, John Smyth.

In retrospect Chartism seems to have been a dismal failure, but that point of view fails to do justice to important and enduring aspects of the movement that were without violent intent, notably the Temperance Chartists and those bodies concerned with Adult Education, Co-operation and Social Christianity. It also forgets the powerful radical political heritage which Chartism bestowed on the West Riding, for the radical tradition was nourished by memories of the stirring events of the 1840s. It is no coincidence that towards the end of the century the West Riding became the most important centre of Independent Labour Party activity, with Bradford always to the fore.

J.A.J.