Lockdown Diary 12 – George and William Nelstrop : Flour and Plug Riots

Once again, thanks to Toni for additional research for this blogpost.

In the last blog I wrote about Shore’s Fold hamlet at the junction of Nelstrop Road North and Marbury Road.  A hundred years ago most people would have known the name Nelstrop – but, like many road names, Nelstrop probably means little to those living nearby.  For this blog I’ve been looking at the stories behind the name, starting with George Nelstrop and then rewinding in time to his father William (1801-1877).

One of the first places I saw George Nelstrop’s name was on a pair of handsome polished granite plaques on either side of Broadstone Bridge in Reddish – I’m always impressed by the Victorians’ and Edwardians’ attention to decoration and detail in their public works.   The plaques commemorate a new bridge over the Stockport branch of the Ashton Canal which “was declared open to public traffic on the 16th day of July 1910”, and replaced an earlier bridge built in 1793.  The canal was filled in during the 1960s but the line of the waterway is still clearly visible.  George was certainly a well established local figure.  He had been the Conservative mayor of Stockport from 1905-1906, he was a JP and remained an alderman of the borough in 1910 – as Chairman of the borough extension committee he seems to have been instrumental in the bridge’s construction and, along with the other grandees, was keen to have his contribution permanently remembered in stone.   George even managed to appear above the mayor in the list, making him appear even more important!

Plaque on Broadstone Bridge, Reddish
Plaque on Broadstone Bridge, Reddish

So who were the Nelstrops and how had they managed to become such an important local family?  The story begins nearly a century earlier with George’s father, William Nelstrop, who comes across as a more complex and interesting figure than his son.   While George was born into a wealthy manufacturing family, William appears to have been the driving force behind making their wealth.  The source of their prosperity was the Albion flour mill at the top of Lancashire Hill – the mill is still owned by the Nelstrop family, now in its sixth generation.  It was originally founded by William in 1820 when he was only 19 years old, an ambitious thing to do at such a young age, and showing immense self-confidence.  Brought up on a Yorkshire farm, William may have chosen the site because of its earlier links with milling flour – recent work unearthed a millstone, suggesting that Albion Mill was built on the site of windmill.  It certainly would have been a good spot for a windmill – its exposed and elevated position would have caught the wind from all sides.

Nelstrop’s Mill

Like other successful manufacturers, William entered local politics and was elected mayor of Stockport for 1842 – and it was then that his story took an unexpected turn.  The 1840s was a troubled time in the region and indeed throughout the country.  Chartists were gathering regularly in Manchester and locally in their Bamber’s Brow meeting room in Stockport, demanding radical political change (votes for all men, annual parliaments, no property qualifications for MPs, amongst other things), while most of the manufacturers were supporters and members of the Anti-Corn Law League. 

The Anti-Corn Law League had been set up to campaign against the laws which kept corn prices at an artificially inflated level , and while these regulations most affected the poor,  mill owners also had a variety of reasons for opposing them.   The Corn Laws favoured the traditional landowning class, who tended to look down on manufacturers as parvenus, and the laws threatened the stability of the industrial areas – hungry mill workers were clearly less reliable, and high corn and bread prices could make them demand higher wages.  The religious views of the manufacturing class probably also had an impact on their stance.  Many were non-conformists (the Nelstrops were Wesleyan), and they may have also seen the laws as unfair to the poor – as we will see there is some evidence that William had sympathies with the poor of the borough.  The Anti-Corn Law League was very strong in the town, and in 1841 both the borough’s elected MPs were members, including the founder of the League, Richard Cobden.

Richard Cobden’s statue, St Petersgate, Stockport

William’s biggest challenge as mayor came in August 1842, during what became known as the “Plug” riots – so called because the protestors removed the plugs from the mill boilers to close down manufacturing.  The 1830s and early 40s was a period of immense hardship.  Wages had fallen by about 12% in less than a decade, cost of basic foods had risen and there was a growth in unemployment.  Given that people’s living and working conditions were already difficul, these must have been bitter blows.  Then in February 1842 the manufacturers of Stockport announced a wage cut of between 10% and 20% – the result was widespread and understandable unrest.  Joseph Harrison, a local radical preacher and Chartist, highlighted their problems at a meeting in Stockport on August 20th.  “The first cause of this discontent and disorder is to be found in the wretchedness and misery of the manufacturing population, whose wages are not sufficient to supply their families with the common necessaries of life, and whose social condition has become so unbearable that many, very many, have been known to lift up their hands to the Most High, and beg that He would release them from their awful sufferings by calling them out of existence.”  As a Chartist, Harrison didn’t believe there could be a resolution to the crisis “until the labouring classes be fully and fairly represented in the House of Commons”.

Workers rapidly organised themselves and attempted to unite against the changes – a newspaper at the time noted that “if they were divided they would be like a rope of sand”.    But the aims of the protesters seem to have been mixed – some would certainly have been Chartist members with radical Chartist demands, but most were simply campaigning for the restoration of their January 1840 wages. 

As early as July, William had announced that “he would not be responsible for the peace of that borough”, indicating a reluctance to intervene and his role in the unrest was ambiguous.  But seeing unrest breaking out in nearby Ashton, Hyde and Stalybridge, three troops of the Cheshire Yeomanry marched into Stockport, a detachment of the 72nd Highlanders was barracked in the town, and 2000 special constables were sworn in – these preparations must have brought back unpleasant memories of Peterloo, 23 years earlier. 

Unrest broke out in Stockport on 11th August, as between 10,000 and 20,000 protestors entered the town and went from factory to factory to bring the workers out on strike.  An account from the Quarterly Review (1842/1843) tells us that “they paraded the market place in procession under the eyes of the magistrates, and proceeded from thence to turn out the mills and to stop labour of all kinds in the town”.  The smoke stopped rising from the mill chimneys.

Storming of the Stockport “Bastille” – Union Workhouse, Shaw Heath

The best known episode during the rioting was the assault on the Union Workhouse at Shaw Heath, sometimes referred to as Stockport’s “storming of the Bastille”.   Workhouses were much feared by the poor, and since the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), many people were forced into hard labour in prison-like conditions.  Although defended by cavalry, infantry and special constables, wielding cutlasses, the protesters broke into the workhouse and took £7 in cash and 700 loaves of bread.  40 people were arrested and a rescue party was organised, armed with sticks and pistols.  Perhaps not surprisingly when confronted by cavalry with swords drawn ready to charge, plus infantry and special constables in the workhouse yard, they retreated.    Some of the older protesters had probably been at Peterloo in 1819 and would have remembered the violence that day.

Union Workhouse, Shaw Heath

The account from 1842/43 quotes one of the ring leaders, Booth, providing another interesting insight into William Nelstrop.  Booth addressed the crowd at the workhouse and told them “that they might, if they choose, do as the Mayor of Stockport said ‘Go to the stores and help themselves’… I don’t advise so, but when a great man like the Mayor of Stockport advises so, I think all would be right.”  For William to have said this would have been an extraordinary and genuinely radical act – but even if it was just a rumour, people considered it possible, perhaps showing his concern for the poor.  The Quarterly Review reinforces the point by noting that “Booth is one of those with whom the Mayor fraternized when he presided over the meeting in February, in which the [Anti-Corn Law] League adopted the Chartist resolutions”.

The Quarterly Review also insinuates that the manufacturers and local authorities (including William) colluded with the protestors up to the attack on the workhouse.  It notes that “the mayor, and nearly all the magistrates thus assembled, were members of the League”, and that in July Stockport’s MP and founder of the League Richard Cobden had said in Parliament that “the people would be JUSTIFIED [sic] in taking food for themselves and their families” in the event of unrest.   However, historians now think it unlikely that the protestors were manipulated by the League – it would certainly have been a risky strategy which could have ended very badly for the employers. 

By August 19th William’s sympathies with the protestors seem to have waned.  As mayor he publicly announced that  “the magistrates of the borough of Stockport having observed with regret that the people assembled this morning on Waterloo-ground, and proceeded from the meeting in a riotous and tumultuous manner to turn out the hatters employed in Messrs. Christy’s works, do hereby give public notice, that all future assemblages of the people in or near to the borough of Stockport during the present disturbed state of this district are illegal; and that the magistrates are determined to suppress and put down the same, hereby cautioning all parties at their peril from attending any such meetings”.

Although there were some attempts at negotiation and compromise, the plug riots achieved very little.  The workers were all back in the mills by the end of September, and their demand for a return to 1840 wages was not met.   Ultimately they probably were a “a rope of sand”, with the division between the Chartists and those who simply wanted fair wages splitting their cause.  After weeks without pay, many would have had little choice but to return to work.  Some of those arrested at the workhouse were sentenced to either hard labour or transportation to Australia for life.   What was in effect a victory for the manufacturers is vividly reflected in the Manchester Times and Gazette on 24th September.  “Those seditious demagogues who are continually poisoning the ears of the better disposed must be weeded out; that pestilential lazar house in Bamber’s Brow [the Chartist meeting room] must be vigorously cleansed, and the working classes protected from such fatal infections. How can we expect a resumption of labour while those idlers – the refuse of socialism, Chartism, and anti-corn-lawism – are allowed hourly to hold their infernal orgies, and with impunity to preach the deadliest and most dangerous treason?”

And what of William?  He continued to serve as Mayor until the end of his year of office and was offered a knighthood for his relatively peaceful resolution to the rioting.  William turned the knighthood down, a very unusual move at the time.  Does this perhaps show his sympathies lay with the rioters?  Or did he refuse in order to keep the peace with the workers in the town?  Whatever his motives he continued to build up his business, dying a wealthy man in 1877.

William Nelstrop