Lockdown Diary 18: The Levenshulme Landgrabbers of 1906

The Levenshulme landgrabbers at work on the cabbage field – the houses in the background are probably on Manor Road (Illustrated London News, July 28th, 1906)

For a few weeks in the hot summer of 1906 Levenshulme caught the attention of the national and even the international press.  On the afternoon of Friday 6th July 1906 a dozen men walked onto 6 acres of unfenced church land near Matthews Lane and began growing cabbages.  It was an act described by one paper as “the historic Levenshulme land grab” and lasted for 6 weeks, inspiring similar land occupations in other parts of the country. 

I’d like to thank Jez Hall for setting me on the trail of the landgrabbers and to Toni Hunter for her tireless search for information!   The extracts are from a mix of local, national and international newspapers – articles on the landgrab appeared in the San Francisco Call (August 13th 1906) and the Zeehan and Dundas Herald in Tasmania (August 16th 1906).

What happened in the landgrab?

On a hot summer’s afternoon in July 1906 a dozen men, led by Arthur Smith, Captain Jack Williams and Alexander Stewart Gray, crossed Matthews Lane and pitched a tent on 6 acres of unfenced glebe land belonging to the Holy Trinity Church in Hulme.  According to The Manchester Guardian (Monday July 9th) Smith announced that they would “till it and hold it against all comers”, adding that “if the unemployed were removed from this spot they would flee to another.” 

OS map from 1904/5 – the squatted land was on the unoccupied area of land enclosed by Lonsdale Road, Manor Road, Matthews Lane and Brook Avenue, top left of the map (copyright HMSO)
The Levenshulme landgrabbers with families and visitors (Illustrated London News)

The landgrabbers soon began removing turf, preparing the land for thousands of cabbage plants “for the benefit of the unemployed” (The Manchester Guardian).  On the Friday and Saturday nights some of the men slept in the tent.    Jack Williams, one of their leaders, sent a telegram to the Liberal cabinet minister and former trade unionist, John Burns, with this stirring message –  “Comrade John Burns, M. P.—Manchester’s unemployed have taken your advice of twenty years ago and gone back to the land for food, for wives and bairns. Congratulate us. Jack Williams, Outlaw”.  (San Francisco Call)  

As the protest progressed the “outlaws” built “a stone fireplace and built a grass-sod hut after the fashion of Ireland”, perhaps reflecting the level Irish immigration to the city.(San Francisco Call)  Flags were placed to mark the boundaries of the cultivated land and a red flag was placed at the centre, demonstrating the landgrabbers’ socialist principles.

Irish style turf hut under construction with young helpers on the right – the flags in the foreground mark out the cabbage field (Illustrated London News)
A turf sod hut, County Mayo, Ireland – c.1905
The original landgrabbers with the three leaders of the occupation. Note the tent in the background with a red or blue ensign flag. Posing with their spades, with Captain Jack Williams at the centre, they give the impression of a well organised and disciplined group of men.

How much support did the landgrabbers get?

 The leaders of the protest claimed the support of the Labour Party, the Socialist Labour Party, the Social Democrats, and the Independent Labour Party (San Francisco Call).    We don’t know if Burns replied to Williams’ telegram, but Keir Hardie and other leaders of the newly formed Labour Party, set up in February, apparently distanced themselves from the landgrab –perhaps reluctant to be associated with this type of direct action.

Despite the lack of mainstream political backing, the landgrabbers rapidly gained a lot of local attention and support.   The Manchester Guardian reported that on the first Sunday of the occupation “there were thousands of visitors to the camp… The place was like a fairground. The occupiers held three meetings and made collections [of money and food or seeds]”.    The same picture is repeated in the San Francisco Call – “Crowds of curious Manchester people daily visit the camp and the collections to date have been pretty good. The men are orderly and strict discipline is maintained.”   Police were present “merely to regulate the crowds”.  The paper notes wryly that “they have only made one mistake, and that was to boil and eat a sackful of prime potatoes sent for them as seed by a sympathizer”.

Young Landgrabbers

The landgrab soon inspired the interest of local children.    The Teesdale Mercury of July 25th 1906 reported that, following “the example of the Levenshulme squatters… A party of youngsters annexed a piece of land near the Levenshulme Free Library”.  Borrowing tools from the main camp, “the juvenile land grabbers set to work to cut the turf, which was stacked to form a hut.   A pole was obtained and fixed, and an oil-cloth covering added.   The children then set to work to make a little garden, and fetched Mr Smith to admire their work.  Only parental pressure prevented the more daring of them from staying there during the night.”  The Illustrated London News added that “finally their mothers took the little rebels home”. The photo below shows the children at work on their turf shelter.  It is interesting how well dressed the children are, in their caps, Eton collars, frocks and hats, perhaps in their Sunday best for the photographer.

The young landgrabbers in their Sunday best – note the borrowed tools and the toy wheelbarrow (Illustrated London News)

Who were their leaders?

The three main organisers were Arthur Smith, Captain Jack Williams and Alexander Steward Gray.  Arthur Smith, described by the San Francisco Call as the protest’s “commander in chief”, was one of the leading campaigners against unemployment in Manchester at the time.  Press reports indicate that he was the most directly involved of the three leaders, and he is referred to most frequently in the papers both during landgrab and after the occupation finished.    In one of his speeches, Smith pointed out that the land occupied in Levenshulme had been “given to the Church for the benefit of the poor” as justification for the landgrab.

Jack Williams was the London born leader of the Socialist Labour Party, and a well known political activist at the time.  The picture below shows him in court in the 1880s.  He was also a powerful political speaker, the San Francisco Call noting that “Williams is allowed to give full swing to his oratory, write telegrams and proclamations, and is therefore happy”.  This flamboyance is further suggested by the photo of the “unemployed” land camp at Levenshulme, showing Williams sitting at the centre of the group of squatters.

Jack Williams in court, 1886

The third organiser, Alexander Stewart Gray, an Edinburgh trained lawyer, was the main intellectual force behind the protest.  Gray was partly inspired by Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, utopian activists during the English Civil War who occupied and cultivated land in common before they were suppressed by the more conservative Cromwell – the San Francisco Call notes that “the leaders boast of having gone back to the days of Cromwell” following the idea of “Back to the Land”.  Gray had been arguing for some time for land reform and believed that it was a solution to the problem of unemployment.  He had proposed that each city should allocate £50,000 to fund the project – approximately £6 million in current value.  This idea was taken up by leading philanthropists of the day, including the American soap millionaire, Joseph Fels, who backed Gray’s proposals and had some influence on Lloyd George’s ground breaking land tax in the 1909 budget.  After the failure of unemployed marches of 1905, Gray and his associates planned land occupations, all of them on Church or glebe land.   Gray was also knowledgeable on agricultural theory, and was named as the landgrabbers’ “Minister of Agriculture” by the San Francisco Call.

Alexander Stewart Gray

How did the landgrab end?

There is some debate about the attitude of the Holy Trinity’s rector, Rev Hudson, towards the Levenshulme squatters.  In a letter to the press after their eviction, Arthur Smith stated that Hudson “definitely agreed to lend us your land for the purpose of helping the unemployed”.   But The Manchester Guardian reported that Hudson “smiled when he heard what had been done, but said that he did not intend to let the unemployed… make use of the land without payment”. 

What is not in dispute is how the landgrabbers were evicted.  Shortly before noon on August 14th or 15th, while the squatters were cooking their lunch, they were visited by solicitors, police and “a score of burly workmen, armed with picks and shovels”.  Mr Orford, the Rev Hudson’s solicitor, asked “are you men going to leave the ground quietly?”, and after a short discussion amongst themselves they decided to leave the land, taking their “cooking utensils and their scant furniture that had served them” during the occupation.  The workmen proceeded to dismantle the turf hut and burned the land grabbers’ straw bedding.   This was not what Smith had in mind when he said they would “hold the land against all comers”, threatening the police or army with “trouble like that which British soldiers had with De Wet [Afrikaans general during the recent Boer War]”.  (The Manchester Guardian)

In his letter to the press, Arthur Smith robustly criticised what he saw as the betrayal of the squatters “by a man who preaches the Word of God” and the destruction 2,500 “good strong plants ruthlessly torn up”.  Smith also contrasted the treatment of the squatters (“those who have proved their desire to work”) with the burly workmen who were “regaled with gallons of beer” for their destruction of the camp.

Mr Smith “ejected by the heels” (Illustrated London News). The eviction did not take place for another three weeks, so this must be a photo of an earlier failed eviction.

What was the landgrab’s legacy?

The landgrabbers were not so easily deterred.  Soon afterwards Smith returned to the site, carrying a large cabbage, and announced to a sizeable crowd that “he took possession of the land for the unemployed and the people of Levenshulme”, symbolically reclaiming the land by planting the cabbage.  But it seems that little came of this second occupation.

It would be easy to write off the Levenshulme landgrab as being of little importance.  The press at the time tended to ridicule any direct action of this sort, probably to undermine threats posed to the government, local authorities and landowners.  This was, after all, a time of great unrest in Britain and Europe, and the previous year the Tsar of Russia had almost been overthrown in a year of revolution.  One paper described the landgrab as having become “a public nuisance”, while the children’s camp had “naturally aroused a good deal of amusement in the locality”.  The Illustrated London News showed a photograph a wilted crop of cabbages, in clear contrast to Smith’s claims about strong plants.  The San Francisco Call went further, reporting that the “the ‘outlaws’ are merely looked upon as buffoons and their doings as fairly amusing comedy” and “that the movement belongs to the great ‘scrap pile’ of visionary impossibilities”.

Illustrated London News

But many of the press reports show that there was a lot of support for the protestors from people in Levenshulme and the wider area.  People were donating money and food to the squatters and The Manchester Guardian’s reference to “thousands of visitors” suggests that they had captured the public’s imagination.  The fact that they trying to grow food for the wider community and were addressing the very real problem of unemployment must have helped their appeal.  The Levenshulme “outlaws” also inspired other land occupations, in particular in Bradford and Plaistow (East London) where the occupiers were “following the example of the Manchester ‘colonists’”.

Support for the landgrab also attracted the attention of those looking for solutions to the social and economic problems of the time.  Even the generally critical San Francisco Call commented that “it is realized that their intentions are good, that many thinking men of [the] moment are with them”. The year after the landgrab Parliament passed the Small Holdings and Allotments Act, making all parish, urban district and borough councils responsible for providing allotments and in 1908 a further act streamlined the previous legislation.  Earlier acts of 1845 and 1887 had unsuccessfully attempted to get local authorities to provide “field gardens” or allotments, and had met with considerable resistance from councillors.  It is very likely that the acts of the Levenshulme “outlaws” and other landgrabbers had some impact on the politicians in London and helped pave the way for the allotment movement. 

Manchester allotments

Lockdown Diary 16 – A Christmas Story: The Cinderella Clubs

With Christmas fast approaching this is seasonal blog with a fairy tale theme, but like all good fairy tales it has a twist.  It started life at a meeting of the Local History Group in December 2019.  So apologies to anyone who was there for repeating myself – but I hope I have added more to the story about the Cinderella Clubs…

At the heart of our Christmas story is a journalist called Robert Blatchford.  Blatchford was born in 1851 in Maidstone, Kent, and like so many people at the time had a difficult childhood.  When he was two his father died, leaving his actress mother to bring him up alone and he was apprenticed as a brush maker at the age of 14.   Largely self educated, Blatchford became a very successful journalist and writer, founding the socialist Clarion newspaper in 1891 and publishing a best-selling book, “Merrie England” (1893), which sold over 2 million copies.   Blatchford also set up the Cinderella Clubs in 1889, with the aim of providing meals, entertainment and clean clothes for slum-dwelling children.

What is Blatchford’s connection to Manchester?  It was while working as a journalist for the Sunday Chronicle in Manchester in 1888 that Blatchford had a chance encounter that led him to set up the Cinderella Clubs the following year.    Here we will let Blatchford himself continue the story, as he describes the meeting in an article in the “Labour Prophet” (May, 1893).  The description of a Victorian Christmas is almost Dickensian, and gives a shocking picture of the extent and impact of poverty in Manchester at the time.

Well it was just before Christmas in 1888, and just outside the Exchange Station a little girl came and asked me to buy a box of matches. And I had bought two boxes of matches already, and you know, even a big boy with a lot of money, cannot buy matches from every child. There are so many poor children in the streets, you see. … I said, “No thank you” to the little match girl. But she would not go. She ran along-side of men and said something like this “0h sir, please, sir, buy a box, sir.  Only got three left, sir.  Just one, sir. ” I said, “No thank you, my dear. ” and walked on. And the little girl ran on beside me and kept talking. “I’m going to a party tonight, sir. You might buy a box, sir. ”  When she said that, I looked at her very carefully. She was about eight years old, had reddish hair and blue eyes, and was clean, but not very tidy. But she had such an honest little face, and she looked so glad and so good-humoured, that I stopped and asked here where she was going to the party. It was at a Catholic school. It was threepence to go in. She had got nearly “all” the money, and then she said “Please, sir, buy a box. I’ve never been to a party before. ”  I said, “Oh! ” and give her a shilling or a sixpence, I forget which, and she said, “0h thank you.” and ran away as hard as she could run. I hope she enjoyed her party. I never saw her again.

Victorian match seller

Although Blatchford was clearly shocked by meeting the little girl, he did not immediately set up the Cinderella Clubs, and it took another three prompts for him to take action to help the poor children of the city.   He takes up the story again with a brilliant evocation of the children playing in the streets of Hulme and Ancoats.  He also pointedly mentions the responsibility of those with wealth and power to build better housing.

It was months after that, in the spring, when I was going all through the poor streets of Manchester, so that I might write about them, and get the rich people to build the poor people good houses to live in that I began to notice the little children, in Hulme and in Ancoats, dancing round the piano organs, or playing in the gutters. And one day I saw a little baby girl nursing a doll. The little girl sat on a doorstep in a very narrow and very dirty street and her doll was made of a clothes-peg tied up in a duster. I am fond of children; and I have some children of my own. I knew how fond my little girl was of a doll. … I thought I should like to take a cart-load of dolls around Ancoats and give them to the little children of the poor. But – I still never thought of the Cinderella Clubs.

Children playing on the streets of Hulme, early 1900s

Eventually, in October 1889, after receiving letters from two members of the public, Blatchford founded the first of the Cinderella Clubs.   The second letter, from a woman in Liverpool, was the final prompt Blatchford needed – “You say it would be a good thing to have a child’s club, where children could dance and play and have dolls and fairy-tales; but why don’t you start one?”. 

Children attending a Cinderella Club meal in Manchester, early 1900s – note the girl at the front with the headscarf

The first Cinderella Club was an immediate success and soon clubs were set up in Hull, Ashton-under-Lyne, Stalybridge, Salford and Birmingham.  One set up by the Salford and Manchester Labour Churches in 1892, served 3,164 meals during its first winter, and fed and clothed over 800 children from the impoverished Deansgate area of the city – it’s hard to believe now that the wealthy modern district renamed Spinningfields was a warren of narrow streets and courtyards 130 years ago!

Blatchford wrote that we started this club to amuse and please the children. We did not want to teach them anything; but we knew we could not amuse them whilst they were hungry, and so we made it a rule to feed them first and amuse them afterwards.  At Christmas special entertainment was provided.  The photo, from the Manchester archive, shows a Cinderella Club Christmas display in Manchester Town Hall in 1910, complete with Christmas tree, dolls house and toys. 

Cinderella Club event in the Great Hall at Manchester Town Hall, early 1900s

His description of such events reads at times almost like a fairy tale.  We had a Christmas tree, too, and dolls and toys and sweets, and oranges, and one day I thought we would give dolls and other things as prizes to the cleanest children; not to the best dressed but to the cleanest. Up to that time poor little Cinderella had not been very careful about being clean. But the week after the prizes were offered there was such a change that we almost believed there had been fairy godmothers about, with soap instead of pumpkins, and combs and towels instead of lizards and mice.

Over time the Cinderella Clubs gradually disappeared, although one has survived in Bradford.  Most were absorbed by the Socialist Sunday Schools, run by the Labour Churches, and the slow introduction of free school meals for the poor lessened the need for the clubs.  In 1904 Bradford became the first town to introduce free school meals, under the influence Councillor Fred Jowett, who was elected as a Labour MP for the city in 1906.  Many other cities followed suit, although it did not become a national policy until 1914.   

Blatchford himself was reluctant to take the credit for the Cinderella Clubs and in what should be the season of Christmas pantomimes we will leave him with the last words.

I should say that the Cinderella Clubs were started by — Who do you think? — By Cinderella! Yes, my dears, by Cinderella herself. Mind; I don’t mean the Cinderella of the story book, who got to be a princess because she had small feet. No I mean a real Cinderella, a Manchester Cinderella; a poor little girl, who had neither small feet, nor a fairy godmother, and so had to sell matches in the street. And the worst of it is I don’t know that little girl’s name.

A Manchester boy with presents from the Cinderella Club

Images courtesy of Manchester Libraries and TUC Library Collections

Lockdown Diary 13 – The Life and Times of Socialists, Pacifists and Anti-War Agitators: J. Allen Skinner (1890-1970) and Phillis Skinner (1874-1950)

For the latest blog we are very excited to have a guest contributor – Dr Ali Ronan!  Ali is very generously sharing her latest research in a fascinating study of two neglected radical activists, both of whom had many links to the area, in particular to Burnage Garden Village and its inhabitants.

I first got to know about socialists Phillis and Allen Skinner when I was researching anti-war women in Manchester during WW1. Both had come to Manchester from London. They lived at 193 Mauldeth Rd in Ladybarn and they will have known many of the other socialists in Burnage Garden Village. Phillis Skinner joined the Central branch of the Independent Labour Party in March 1914. Allen Skinner was the first ILP (Independent Labour Party)man to be arrested under the Military Service Act in late 1916. The Skinners were part of the local No Conscription Fellowship, a group committed to challenging conscription and supporting objectors.  

Phillis had been married before when she lived in London and had been divorced by her first husband optical lens maker, Ernest Watson in 1912, citing her co-habitation with Allen Skinner in Manchester as grounds for divorce. Allen Skinner was a young postman and moved from Camberwell, to work for the GPO in Manchester in 1912. The Skinners married in November 1912 once Phillis’ divorce absolute come through. Allen was 22 and Phillis was 37, although she put 33 on the marriage certificate.  In 1915, Phillis and Allen had a baby Jack, who was born in London. Phillis was 41.

Allen was imprisoned in December 1916 after a court martial at the Prees Heath training camp in Whitchurch and sentenced to 2 years hard labour at Wormwood Scrubs.  In the summer 1917, Phillis and her friend Maud Hayes went to Prees Heath to hand out leaflets as part of the Women’s Peace Crusade campaign. The women were planning to walk to London to see Allen Skinner and Maud Hayes’ sweetheart, Edwin Rodway who had been sentenced to 1-year hard labour at the Scrubs in early 1917.  Both women were arrested in Market Drayton later and charged for contravening the Reg 27 of Defence of the Realm Act. Both women were sentenced to 3 months imprisonment in Strangeways.  I am not sure what happened to baby Jack although he was back with Phillis in Manchester by 1918.

It is from this point that Phillis became known to the surveillance service. Allen, Phillis and Maud were released from prison in late 1917 and Allen was admitted to a sanatorium in Manchester with arthritis and TB in his leg and arms. His life hung in the balance for at least a year. The Skinners moved back to London in 1920. There is little trace of them in the archives during the 20s, but they were still politically active, Skinner worked with the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW). He soon became assistant editor of the union’s journal, The Post, and wrote numerous articles for it, some of which came to the attention of Special Branch.  He stood unsuccessfully as the Labour Party candidate for Hendon at the 1924 United Kingdom general election, and for Clapham in 1929.

Allen Skinner

Recently I decided to look up a reference to Phillis in the National Archives KV2/685. I imagined it would only hold material about Phillis’ arrest in 1917, so I was astonished to find over 50 pages of surveillance notes about both Phillis and Allen taken during the 30s and WW2. I was also able to track Allen’s anti- nuclear activism after Phillis’ death in 1950.

I bought a copy of a book written by dancer Joy Carter who was married to Phillis and Allen’s son, the dancer Jack Emerson Skinner (1915-1995) and the book gave some more, albeit brief, biographical and personal details about both Phillis and Allen. There is one blurred photo of Allen in his old age in Joy Carter’s book, but Phillis was almost impossible to trace, and she remains a shadowy figure. Joy Carter described Phillis as ‘diminutive’ and as ‘charitable and kind, [was] very small and ran everywhere, turning up at the most unexpected moments. I was terrified of her!

Some of the comments made by the M15 surveillance in the 1940s enabled me to see Phillis in a more three-dimensional way. In 1940 Special Branch described her as ‘an ardent pacifist, helping her husband in clerical work connected with the Peace Pledge Union and similar pacifist organisations. She is a strong-willed woman who, to a great extent, directs a policy which her husband expounds in his public speeches. Mrs. Skinner is not a public speaker.’ Special Branch also describes the Skinners’ flat in Putney, London, in 1940 as ‘lined with books of reference on war, anti-war and pacifism.

Phillis was interested in the theatre too, and once the Skinners moved back to London in the early 20s, she enrolled 5 year old Jack into the experimental school started by dancer Margaret Morris (1891-1980). Phillis volunteered in the school and this will have brought her and Allen into a wider artistic and bohemian milieu. Jack Skinner went on to dance with the radical and experimental anti-Nazi Ballet Joos based in Dartington Hall in the 30s, touring with them in South America during the late 30s and the early years of WW2.  Jack came back to England in 1942 to attend a Military Tribunal and worked as a conscientious objector at Addenbrooks Hospital under the watchful eye of the pacifist, socialist Dr Alice Roughton (1900-1995).

Alice Roughton

Allen Skinner was a founder member of the No War Movement, founded in 1921, the successor to the No Conscription Fellowship. For the first two years of its existence, it was known as the No More War International Movement then renaming itself as War Resisters International. Chaired by the ILP member and conscientious objector, Fenner Brockway, it asked members to strive for revolutionary socialism but not to take part in any war.  From 1934 Special Branch kept a close eye on Skinner and tracked all his speaking engagements for the No More War Movement. At its peak, the NMWM numbered around 3000 members, many from the Independent Labour Party. The group published two journals: The New World and No More War.

Fenner Brockway – former resident of Burnage Garden Village

Skinner was also involved in the establishment of the Peace Pledge Union in 1932 and in 1933 he became involved in the Meerut Prisoners’ release committee which was also of interest to M15. The Meerut Conspiracy Case was a controversial court case initiated in British India in March 1929. Several trade unionists including three Englishmen, were arrested for organising an Indian railway strike. The committee for their release included the Mancunians Ellen Wilkinson and Harry Pollitt.

Ellen Wilkinson – “Red Ellen”

Skinner was also an active member of the ILP in Poplar and became increasingly prominent in the ILP and also served as secretary of the ILP’s London and Southern Counties division. He supported the ILP’s disaffiliation from the Labour Party in 1931 and remained active in the smaller party. Skinner was also a member of the pacifist Research Bureau whose members also included former COs Harold Bing and Wilfred Wellock. One of the minutes of the Research Bureau, mentions that Skinner will contact an old Manchester contact the Quaker pacifist, Alexander Wilson from Whalley Range, who had established the underground Maintenance Committee during WW1 to support the families of COs.  Phillis had been an active member of this committee in Manchester.

From 1939, Roger Fulford of M15 kept a close eye on the Skinners, instructing the GPO to intercept and open letters.  In September 1940 the Metropolitan Police, in a letter to a Col Allen of the GPO, describe Skinner as ‘ an active pacifist and has come under the notice of Special Branch on a number of occasions. He is a speaker and chairman at Peace Pledge Union (PPU) meetings, he is member of the Central Board of Conscientious Objectors, he is in close touch with several the leading members of the ILP, FoR and the No Conscription League. There is no doubt that he is opposed to the policy of the present Government and neither he nor his wife, hesitate to express their views on pacifism and the British Government.’

Allen Skinner was involved with the Peace Pledge Union from its inception in 1934. In 1938 the PPU opposed legislation for air-raid precautions and in 1939 campaigned against military conscription. By 1941 PPU members Reginald Reynolds and Skinner had ‘started a kind of chain letter arrangement’ to get information to a group in West London who were ‘setting ourselves to seek a way through the problem of fundamental social change without violence.’ A large part of the PPU’s work involved providing for the victims of war. Its members sponsored a house where 64 Basque children, refugees from the Spanish Civil War, were cared for. The PPU also encouraged members and groups to sponsor individual Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to enable them to be received into the United Kingdom.

During World War II, Skinner served as an adviser to the Central Board for Conscientious Objectors, and in the early years of the war from 1941, Allen and Phillis often went to stay at a cottage that they had bought to hide conscientious objectors, in Saltash in Cornwall. The police there were watching them, noticing that a quantity of PPU literature was delivered there. The police were also watching their London home in Putney which was used for PPU meetings and mock tribunals for prospective COs.

In 1950, Phillis died in Exeter, perhaps on her way to Saltash? She was 76. And Allen now 60, retired from the UPW. From then he devoted more time to Peace News, including a period as editor from 1952 to 1955. Allen was also increasingly involved in anti-nuclear campaigning, becoming a member in 1957 of Direct Action Committee (DAC) against Nuclear War. The Peace News offices were used as a base for the committee, which originally comprised Hugh Brock (editor of Peace News from 1955), J Allen Skinner and Arlo Tatum (War Resisters’ International). Tatum had moved to London in 1955 to be general secretary of War Resisters’ International. He wrote peace and protest songs, some for the Aldermaston marches.

Aldermaston March

In late 1958, the DAC began a prolonged campaign against the construction of Thor rocket bases in Britain. The most significant of these protests were at North Pickenham, near Swaffham, on 6 and 20 December 1958, and at Harrington, near Rothwell, on 2 January 1960. In 1960 Skinner was sentenced to two months in prison for protesting at Harrington, spending his seventieth birthday there. The DAC continued as an active campaign group until well into 1961, with its last project a major march from London to Holy Loch, culminating in direct action at the Polaris submarine base. However, the cost of organising the march contributed to the DAC’s financial difficulties and led to the decision to disband the Committee in June 1961. The formation in October 1960 of the Committee of 100 was seen by many as taking over the role of the DAC, with its aim of creating a mass civil disobedience movement against nuclear weapons. By this time Skinner seems to disappear largely from activism. Perhaps another spell in prison had been just too much. He died in 1970.

I am working through various archives to build up a much more nuanced picture of the Skinners after they left Manchester in 1920. But I hope I have given you enough material for us all to remember Phillis and Allen Skinner – the forgotten agitators of the twentieth century. I have become very fond of the strong-willed woman and the quiet but determined man.

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

Lockdown Diary 4 – Christchurch Chapel and William Henry Chadwick, “The Old Chartist”

This week’s diary takes us to a ruined chapel in Ancoats and a cemetery in Reddish and casts light on the radical history of Manchester and some of the unusual individuals involved… 

A few weeks ago, in what seems like a different time and place, Katrina Navickas visited the local history group and gave a fascinating talk about Manchester’s most radical street (which turned out to be Cropper Street in Collyhurst!).  One of the places Katrina also mentioned was Christ Church Chapel on Every Street in Ancoats – the chapel was at the heart of activism in Manchester in the mid nineteenth century.

Earlier this week I cycled into town to take a look at the remains of the chapel, now nothing more than a low circular wall, marking the shape of the building, enclosing a stand of silver birch trees.  Surrounding the wall a few gravestones lie on the ground. 

Circular wall showing the footprint of Christ Church Chapel

Christ Church Chapel, also known as the Roundhouse, was built in 1824 by “Dr” James Scholefield, a charismatic and eccentric preacher with the Bible Christian Movement, a non-conformist sect established in Salford.   Scholefield ministered to the working class community living in the neighbourhood, most of whom would have been working in the enormous nearby mills, such as Murray’s Mill which was built in 1797 and is still standing.   The founding of the chapel was commented on in a newspaper in far-away Ohio – “a new society of Christians has been formed at Manchester, England, who profess as one of their leading tenets to wear sky-blue stockings and orange coloured shoes”!

Scholefield was a non-conformist in many ways.  Like many contemporary preachers he was teetotal, probably after seeing the effects of alcohol on the poor, but he was also vegetarian and in 1851 published a pamphlet celebrating the virtues of vegetarianism.  Although lacking formal qualifications, Scholefield worked as a doctor with the poor, and patented the popular “Scholefield’s Cholera Mixture”.  Cholera was much feared at the time and in 1831/32 nearly 700 people in Manchester had died from the disease. Scholefield received no income for his ministry, but made money as an undertaker – there was a large graveyard at the chapel and he invented a safety tomb, which protected the burials from grave robbers!

Scholefield’s political radicalism saw Christ Church Chapel host the 1842 Chartist conference.  The Chartists were the largest national movement calling for democratic reforms at the time, inspired by the protesters at Peterloo in 1819 and disappointed by the very limited Great Reform Act of 1832.  Their main demands were votes for all men at 21, annual elections, a secret ballot, payment for MPs, no property qualification for MPs and equal sized constituencies. 

Henry Hunt’s monument – Christ Church Chapel in the background on the right

Scholefield was also involved in building a monument outside Christ Church Chapel to Henry Hunt, the main speaker at Peterloo and one of the most famous radical campaigners in early C19 England.   The monument was 30 feet high and was demolished in 1888.

Scholefield died in 1855, and it is unlikely that the chapel continued in religious use after his death.  Ever the eccentric, before he died he allegedly told his daughters “make what use you can of the chapel, girls.  Use it for a circus if you can – after all it’s round.  It has served its turn as a chapel.”  The chapel was used by University Settlement for many years and was demolished in 1986.

William Henry Chadwick – Willow Grove Cemetery, Reddish

Earlier in lockdown I was walking through the historic Willow Grove cemetery in Reddish, another local discovery for me.  One of the graves is a monument to William Henry Chadwick, “The Old Chartist”.   His epitaph is very inspiring and worth transcribing in full:


In 1848, at the early age of 19, he was

imprisoned for sedition and conspiracy

as a leader of the Chartist movement.

His whole life after was spent in

striving to extend the liberties of the

people and to promote temperance

justice and righteousness.

“I have fought at good fight, I have finished my

course, I have kept the faith.”  II Timothy, IV, 7

This stone was erected to his memory by

some of those who shared in his labours

rejoiced in his triumphs

and loved him for himself

Chadwick’s story, like Scholefield’s, is an interesting one, with many twists and turns.  Born in Compstall in 1829 to working class parents, William and his family had moved to Manchester by 1842.  At the age of 14 he was already a Wesleyan preacher and by his late teens he was immersed in the radical politics of the time.  In 1848 William was arrested at a lathe shop in Fairfield Street where he was working as a mechanic, with the manuscript of a poem he had written in his pocket.  The poem presumably had a radical message, and he was tried in Liverpool and sentenced to 6 months in prison for sedition and conspiracy as a Chartist leader.

On his release William became a lecturer in science and developed an interest in magnetism and hypnotism.   He was linked to one of the great hypnotists of Victorian England, Annie de Montford, who performed as a mesmerist throughout the country.

Later in life he returned to his radical political roots, and in the 1890s he was involved in the campaign to get public access to Kinder Scout, stating that he was prepared to trespass and go to prison if necessary.   William also helped to found the agricultural workers’ union and in 1891 became a van lecturer for the National Liberal Federation.

Although we can’t be sure, it’s very likely that William would have known Scholefield.  He lived and worked relatively near to the Christ Church Chapel, and their shared politics would almost certainly have brought them together on many occasions.   One can even imagine William admiring the monument to Henry Hunt.

As we leave our Manchester Chartists, we’ll end with a description of William’s funeral in 1908 from the Stockport Advertiser:

After a strenuous life in which the old Chartist had taken part in many political battles, it was a singular coincidence that his remains should have been laid to rest in a severe thunderstorm. But so it was; rain fell in torrents accompanied by vivid flashes of lightning and loud peals of thunder as the mourners stood around the grave.